Melbourne: Barely a century after the advent of automobile racing, technology has developed so much that the sport is no longer simply about achieving raw speed.
Although today’s Formula One cars continue to break speed records, the challenge facing its engineers and designers is in how to achieve the most speed within a vast set of regulations outlining the acceptable materials, weight and dimensions of the cars.
Because of this never-ending game between the sport’s governing body, known as FIA, and the engineers, and thanks to the sport’s worldwide popularity, teams spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year producing technology that has no use outside Formula One.
As the 2008 season started with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on Sunday, FIA is seeking a way not only to reduce costs and improve the show for spectators—in the last eight seasons, Ferrari SpA and Renault SA have won all the titles—but to offer car manufacturers something for their money apart from a shot at victory.
“Formula One historically has been profligate; it’s been a sport which has developed ludicrously powerful engines to really no fixed agenda, maybe running fuels that would never see the light of day,” said Nick Fry, the CEO of the Honda team. “The amounts of money that the car companies are paying to compete in F1 are rewarded hopefully by victories, but that’s not sufficient. It’s got to incorporate technology or intellectual property development or people development that can be fed back into the parent company.”
In a moment of foresight a year and a half ago, Max Mosley, the president of FIA, announced two new societal and business goals for the sport. It would aim to produce car technology to help improve the environment and to sell road cars by showcasing the manufacturers’ environment-friendly technology.
“We want to make sure the research work done in F1 is not just cost-effective but also road-relevant,” he said. “New developments in F1 should be those that are directly helpful to the car industry and in particular things which are relevant to perhaps the biggest single issue, which confronts the car industry worldwide, namely the reduction of the output of CO2.”
This season marks the first step in such moves. In line with the European Union objective for road-car fuel in 2010, racing fuel will have to contain 5.7% biofuel, which is made from organic matter.
Another new rule eliminates a previously obligatory 10-minute period during qualifying when the cars did nothing but burn off fuel.
Next season, a device designed to save the car’s kinetic energy during deceleration and then to use it in short power bursts, thus saving fuel, will be instituted.
Other so-called clean technology systems, including one using heat from the engines to produce extra power, are in the works.
“By bringing in rule changes which make these technologies the only means by which a power advantage can be obtained, we can ensure that the outstanding engineers and huge budgets available to Formula One will be deployed on energy recovery technologies, which are directly relevant to the car industry’s efforts to reduce CO2 emissions as well as the average motorist’s fuel bill,” Mosley said last week at the Geneva Motor Show.
When Mosley first began discussing these ideas, many racing purists said that they had nothing to do with sports, that they showed how far Formula One had wandered from its roots.
Since then, environmental issues have become important on government and business agendas, and the surge in the cost of petrol and diesel fuel has changed driving habits and affected car sales.
Tony Purnell, a former F1 team director and now an FIA technical consultant, said racing could suffer from a public backlash if it did not develop environmentally cleaner cars.
“In our little world of racing, we like to think about the next race, and who cares about these big problems?” he said. “But this is probably the only sport in the world which can have a profound influence on peoples’ opinions and their aspirations and what they think is a sexy car, a desirable car. If we can achieve the objectives that challenge the automotive industry, with Formula One spearheading those changes, I think we would have achieved something really worthwhile.”
© 2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES