It’s hard to go faster on the road than in a Formula One car, which can reach top speeds of 220 miles per hour. The so-called pinnacle of motorsport races takes place around the world, from Australia to Sao Paulo. And after an exciting week of preseason testing, the 2023 season got underway at the Bahrain International Circuit on March 5. Reigning world champion Max Verstappen won for Red Bull Racing, with his teammate Sergio Perez in second. There are 20 drivers across 10 teams in F1, and none of the other 18 drivers finished within 30 seconds of Verstappen. Only time will tell if the other teams will be able to catch up.
Below F1 are Formula Two and Formula Three, which are called the feeder series, and function in a similar fashion to baseball’s minor leagues. They’re mostly young drivers attempting to prove their worth by competing against each other for a spot in the big leagues. It’s how most drivers gain one of the 20 seats currently available in F1. (All three F1 rookies this season, Nyck DeVries, Oscar Piastri, and Logan Sargeant, drove at least one season in F2.)
But like any other vehicle with an internal combustion engine, Formula One vehicles burn fossil fuels, which is a problem in a world that must decarbonize to combat climate change. Beyond the 20 Formula One cars racing on tracks every other weekend, there are the massive transportation costs to move the teams and drivers across the globe and the millions of fans traveling to and from the racing circuits.
The Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), Formula One’s governing body, realizes that. In November 2019, F1 and the FIA announced plans to become fully carbon neutral by the end of 2030, and the plans to make that transition are already underway.
Formula One currently uses a hybrid fuel that’s 10% biofuel and will make the transition to fully renewable fuels in 2026, meaning all carbon output by the cars will be offset by the production of the fuel. There will be other regulatory changes as well.
Now, F1 has announced that their feeder series will be following along. Starting with the opening sprint race of the 2023 season at Bahrain last weekend, F2 and F3 cars will use a blend consisting of 55% “Advanced Sustainable Fuel.” And by 2027, according to The Race, the feeder series aim to use a type of sustainable, carbon-captured fuel called e-fuel.
What are sustainable fuels?
“Sustainable fuel” is a catch-all term for a bunch of different alternative ways of producing fuels for planes and cars with the goal of reducing their carbon footprint. It includes biofuels, which recycle organic materials into fuel (this is what F1’s hybrid fuel is) but also carbon-capturing e-fuels that are made by taking carbon from the air, which is what F2 and F3 plan to switch to in 2027. But what all sustainable fuels have in common are their low net carbon emissions.
When it comes to e-fuels created by carbon capture, Nikita Pavlenko, the fuel program lead at the International Council on Clean Transportation, says there are two different sources—getting it directly from the atmosphere, or getting it from smokestacks: “You have a fuel that is pretty close to zero carbon, just produced from renewable electricity and carbon dioxide captured from the air or from a smokestack.” While F1 is allowed to source their carbon from so-called point sources (Pavlenko says this is almost always taken from smokestacks), F2 and F3’s fuel must be fully sourced by direct-air carbon capture technology.
That strict direct-air carbon capturing is what differentiates e-fuel from biofuels and other sustainable power sources, and according to Pavlenko, it’s a very new technology. The F2 and F3 experiments will be one of the first large-scale applications of e-fuel, which has implications for the future of transportation. Ahmad Al-Khowaiter, the chief technology officer at Aramco, who will supply the e-fuel, tells The Race that the FIA understands this is a hard goal to reach because of how underdeveloped carbon capture technologies are but is committed to setting the course.
Pavlenko says he’s excited that F1 is pursuing e-fuels, because of their very prohibitive cost. “F1 would be one of the use cases that’s best able to support the cost difference,” he says. “It’s a relatively small quantity [in relation to the quantity of non-sustainable fuels] and I assume there’s a high willingness to pay.”
Even better: EVs
There are some concerns, however. The FIA will have to ensure that its e-fuel is made using renewable energy sources. Much like electric cars, producing e-fuel using electricity created by fossil fuels simply moves the source of emissions rather than limits it. In addition, Palvenko says that e-fuel generally has more applications in aviation than on the road, where using electric vehicles is the generally best way to go.
In the past 20 years, F1 has exploded in popularity, thanks to new ownership and a series on Netflix. But as it’s gone global, it’s come under increasing scrutiny for its sustainability, or lack thereof. The FIA is making an effort, however. Even before the fuel changes, F1’s sister electric-only series Formula E launched in 2014. Only time will tell if the two series will eventually merge, but anyone who’s watched Formula E can confirm that the racing is just as electric as the cars are.