• Red Earth

Greenpeace & F1 - A partnership opportunity

Updated: Feb 15, 2018

The Greenpeace protest at the 2013 Spa Grand Prix wasn't directed at F1 but was designed to embarrass Shell, an F1 sponsor. The stunt was a bit of damp squib but what stood out was the reaction of the race fans to the protest - Booing the protesters and tweeting “I’m going to go drive my V8 hard to show them” and “I’ll only buy Shell products from now on”.

Surely, Greenpeace has its approach wrong. Should it be engaging with F1 and not disrupting it?

Let me explain. F1 fans are a fascinating group. They are engineering and technically literate, technology devotees, basically the sort of person you’d ask which TV, car or power tool you should buy. There are also a lot of them - 3 million people go to Grands Prix, more than half a billion watch on TV and at least another 70 million fans follow online. For those charged with introducing new products and behaviours, this is a very significant group. But, crucially, F1’s influential audience is somewhat less concerned about the environment than the average. Swaying its purchasing decisions around a choice of vehicle technologies or fuel choice has the potential to create substantial positive global impact.

To turn that potential into consumer action we need to answer a question. Is F1, a place where - let’s face it- we burn fossil fuels for fun, also a place where we can change consumer behaviour related to sustainable vehicle technologies. First, let us separate myth from reality. Though petrochemical fuel is at the heart of the F1 show, other entertainment activities, some with much smaller audiences, like football leagues, big budget movies, television shows, even going fishing have a carbon footprint that exceeds that of Formula One. For example, the Olympic cauldron lit by Cathy Freeman at the Sydney Olympic Games produced more CO2 in the few short weeks of the Sydney Games than an F1 team does in its entire annual on-track operation. We could calculate the carbon cost of all the construction work at a modern Olympics, but Redstone doesn’t own a calculator big enough.

As consumers we embrace what we think is sustainable behaviour based on feel-good factors and marketing – we buy organic but from distant supermarkets in increasingly massive motorcars and get outraged watching “An Inconvenient Truth” on huge, energy-hungry flat-screen TVs. The superficial nature of consumer decision making limits practical solutions to our energy and environmental concerns. The average consumer is overwhelmed by contradictory advice and, frequently, gives up.

I’d go as far to say that human nature dictates that as a whole we aren’t going to take a single regressive step in our consumption habits while we have money to spend. If that theory is broadly accepted, the question becomes how do we rapidly develop and popularise technologies and fuel products that are more efficient at using what we have.

Might F1 become part of the solution?

F1 is at the apex of engineering. Its development cycles are measured in hours and days rather than months and years, and every two weeks the work is subjected to a brutal trial by fire in front of more than a hundred million people on the track. The US Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency went as far as to say

“The motorsport industry is capable of delivering technologies to combat global warming faster than any other industry. Nothing drives innovation like competition.”

That innovative, relentless engineering environment has an unbeaten record of transferring what it creates from the track into consumer products. The composites that are used to make F1 cars make them stronger, lighter and thus more fuel-efficient. The weight-saving that carbon fibre provides is essential for electric vehicles as it has a direct effect on the cars’ range, which is a significant barrier to buying an electric vehicle at present. Your new boiler probably has an advanced magnetic oil filter which was originally developed for F1 engines and is now used in domestic and industrial heating systems improving efficiency and reduce energy consumption. McLaren F1 monitoring systems have been trialling in a children’s intensive care ward. McLaren has also helped to make GlaxoSmithKline’s factories more efficient and cut the emissions of aircraft at airports for the National Air Traffic Control Service. ABS, seatbelt pre-tensioning, the accelerometers in your Wii and much more besides have all made their way from motorsports into our everyday lives.

All that technology transfer is a valid story but where F1 will move the needle is in changing consumer perception. Adding electrical power to F1 cars’ drivetrains sent an important message that helps popularise hybrid engine technology and which help hybrids lose the “Pious Prius” tag and replace it with something altogether more compelling – Made in F1.

In the real world, Greenpeace would probably stop short from engaging in useful dialogue with F1, no matter how compelling the rationale. But other organisations, involved in making the world a more energy efficient place should and would reap significant benefits.

I hope they do. I have a V8 that I hope my six-year-old son - and maybe his kids - will be able to drive.

Redstone is an investor in automotive and high-value engineering

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