The Embrace of Sustainability by Formula 1, Pirelli, and Others in Motorsports
Surrounded by the spectacle and pageantry of the inaugural Las Vegas Formula 1 (F1) Grand Prix, it's difficult to imagine that behind the scenes, the fundamental engineering core of F1 is going green.
There is nothing subtle about Formula 1. A motorsport that's gained popularity in recent years in the United States thanks to the drama-rich Netflix show, Drive to Survive. Toss in the glitz of Las Vegas and everything is kicked up a notch. Yet, at its core, the motorsport, like all others, is grounded deeply in engineering.
For the Las Vegas race, one item was on the minds of fans, teams, and drivers: the cold weather and the tires. The desert grand prix would start at 10 pm local time. Vegas has a well-deserved reputation for scorching temperatures during the day in the summer. Winter at night though is a different story. While 50 degrees doesn't sound cold to most people, for Formula 1 tires, it's down-right chilly for compounds engineered to grip asphalt at warmer temperatures.
Drivers have three dry-weather tires to choose from. The hard tires offer longevity and work well at high temperatures offering grip as they warm up. The soft tires, don't last nearly as long which means more pit stops but offer more grip to the road without needing the heat of the hard tire. And in the middle, the medium tire. A compromise between the extremes.
Ahead of the race, Aston Martin driver Fernando Alonso, shared his concerns during an interview. "We have three tires to choose from, the soft, the medium, and the hard. The hard probably has not been useful for anyone at the moment. It's an unknown how that tire will behave in this cold temperature. But the soft, they are struggling with the long straights and heavy braking," Alonso said.
Fortunately, the weather mostly relented on race night. The temperatures crept above that of the previous evenings when the teams were qualifying. Still, the cold temps and new road course did yield more than a few moments of lost grip. The chilly temps, cold tires, and a race track bump were blamed for the spark-filled incident that had McLaren's Lando Norris spinning out of control and into a run-off portion of the track during lap 3.
The temperature situation put Pirelli, the official tire supplier in the spotlight. Mario Isola, head of Pirelli F1 told SAE, "During our 13 years, we've had many new races. I have to say that Las Vegas is one of the most difficult because the weather expected was colder. Our tires are not designed to work in very cold conditions."
There are other weather considerations on the minds of Pirelli, F1, and motorsports at large. Climate change continues to create chaotic weather conditions that will worsen if as a society a move to a more sustainable system isn't put into action.
In 2026, Formula 1 will transition to fully sustainable fuels and will nearly triple the electric power coming from a new hybrid motor. The vehicles are almost poised to be lighter. All of this means Pirelli will have to develop new tires to adjust to the weight and power of the vehicles will could be up to 1,000 horsepower.
This is in addition to starting in 2024, all Pirelli F1 tires will be FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council). The company is already recycling the tires by sending them back to the UK to produce energy. Soon they'll begin breaking down the materials of the tires to create new materials that can be used in items like flooring.
Formula 1 isn't alone in the motorsports world in a quest to wow fans while trying to have a smaller impact on the planet. NASCAR will eventually add hybrid motors to the grid and is also investigating using sustainable fuels.
Meanwhile, Indy cars will receive an updated hybrid motor. A version of this update is being used in the Honda CRV "Beast." A bonkers test bed for engineering that we were lucky enough to ride in a few months back at Laguna Seca. Called a "Rolling laboratory" behind the passenger area is an 800-horsepower Indycar hybrid power complete with all the issues surrounding working with a high voltage system.
During a walk around of the vehicle, Honda said that it was lucky to have team members from the Formula 1 side of the business (Honda supplies motors to F1 teams). It's difficult to find people who are comfortable working on high-voltage race cars because it's not the same safety protocols as production cars. There's currently no training ground for this type of skillset.
For those interested in entering the motorsports world, any training in high-voltage systems will likely be beneficial. SAE's Battery Academy could set the groundwork for those on the crews with some of the more granular training taking place on the job.
As with production vehicles, the path to sustainability in motorsports is a multi-pronged approach that requires new skill sets and those passionate about a cleaner world. In the grand scheme of things, race cars on tracks are a tiny fraction of the pollution created in the world. But even that tiny bit can be reduced and done so in a way that doesn't diminish the joy of a great race.