Formula One’s Sustainable Development

Photo credit: Racecar Engineering YouTube page

This is a magazine-style article that I wrote as an open-topic paper for one of my classes in school. Here, I explain as best I could how I understood the modern Formula One Power Unit (engine) and, through these new hybrid-powered engines, the sport attempts to be more environment-friendly. This is an edited version of the originally published (submitted to my professor) article on March 20, 2015. 

2014 marked a change in Formula One engine regulations, where new 1.6-liter V6 engines were introduced. This came as an effort by the sport to be more environmentally-friendly. One year after an implementation that has quite turned out to be a success, the cloud that surrounds this recent change comes from aesthetically-concerned fans. The new engines, however greener they may be, were labeled to be too quiet.

Sound Issues

Part of what has made Formula One popular as the pinnacle of motorsport has been the hair-raising sound of the car’s engine. Back when cars were fitted with V10 engines, spectators flock to race circuits equipped with earphones to suppress the amount of noise their ears were exposed to. The sound the cars produced through a television was similar to that of a screaming banshee. Indeed, fans would always associate the high-pitched engine noises with an iconic era of Formula One, which included the fierce rivalry between legends Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen.

In 2006, 2.4-liter V8 engines were introduced, which actually reduced the car’s power while also generating a slightly lower-toned engine sound. Fans still embraced it and still got to enjoy some dramatic races featuring a new generation of talents such as Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel, and Lewis Hamilton.

Eventually, the 2014 season arrived, which ushered in the arrival of turbo-charged hybrid V6 engines. The engine noise got significantly lower in tone compared to its higher-pitched naturally-aspirated predecessor. Some fans have complained about the lack of exciting racing in recent years and the addition of the “quieter” engines, for them, only turned into added fuel to the fire of alarmingly growing fan dissatisfaction. The fans wanted loud engines— and F1’s glory days—back.

Unfortunately for their requests, it’s looking like Formula One will stick with the greener, more sustainable engine regulations.

Reducing Waste

At the heart of the green technology that Formula One is starting to promote is the advent of hybrid power. Aside from the new turbocharger and engine package, the car is also equipped with two Motor Generator Units (MGU) and an Energy Store (battery), all of which as a whole comprises of the car’s Power Unit.

Under acceleration, the car’s Heat Motor Generator Unit (MGU-H) is connected to the turbocharger and harvests energy from exhaust gases. The energy is converted to electrical energy, either to be transferred to the battery for storage, or to the Kinetic Motor Generator Unit (MGU-K).

The MGU-K is connected to the engine’s crankshaft and helps produce additional power for the engine to use whenever the car is accelerating, effectively turning into a motor. On the other hand, the MGU-K harvests energy that the car gives off under braking and stores this energy to the battery.

Because of braking, both the engine and the turbocharger slow down. That’s why when the car accelerates after a braking event, the MGU-H keeps the turbocharger spinning at a relatively high speed to match the engine and prevent turbo lag.

All in all, these units give the car a power boost of up to 150 brake horsepower (on top of the roughly 600 bhp that the engine produces on its own) over the course of a lap around a circuit. This hybrid system designed around the car’s Power Unit has made energy more efficiently managed, primarily by reducing wasted energy and converting it into useful power boosts.

Furthermore, to continually reduce carbon emissions and waste, only a total of 5 Power Units may be used per car in the entire 19-race 2014 season. In comparison, the 2013 season allowed for 8 Power Units per car over 19 races. To further encourage sustainability, 2015 rules have designated only 4 Power Units per car over a span of 19 races. Each Formula One race is approximately 315 kilometers long, which means teams are now pressured to increase engine mileage by up to 5 race distances, or up to almost 1,600 kilometers. Going beyond the prescribed 4 Power Units would constitute a grid-place penalty, dropping the driver a corresponding amount of spots on the grid at the start of the race.

Finally, fuel efficiency has been promoted through a new rule that regulates a car’s fuel flow rate. In Formula One, pit stops do not feature refueling, so the car must be able to start and finish the race with just one full tank of fuel. The amount of fuel the car must carry has been limited to 100 kilograms, with its flow rate not exceeding 100 kilograms per hour.

Additionally, the car must have at least 1 liter of fuel left after the race, to meet the regulations for post-race inspections. The new fuel flow rules have reduced CO2 emissions by up to 35%, says Andy Cowell, head of Mercedes F1’s Engine Programme. The limitation to the amount of fuel a car is allowed to carry has challenged teams and drivers to strategize for optimal fuel consumption throughout the race.

It is apparent that teams have been challenged to be greener not only with their cars but also with their race strategies. Carbon emissions and wastes have been reduced thanks to the new engine regulations, making Formula One a more environment-friendly racing experience.

New Regulations on the Horizon?

Despite appearing to have achieved a long-term solution, Formula One has had teams lobbying for a new set of engine regulations. The new hybrid power unit, as complex as it is, is definitely very expensive. Coupled with the recent rise of financial difficulties that face certain teams, Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner lobbied to have a simpler and more cost-effective power unit. He proposed that maybe a twin-turbo could solve the aesthetic issue regarding the engine sound, as well as that a simpler energy recovery system (instead of the Motor Generator Units) could potentially reduce costs.

This comes after the field of cars has slowly been shrinking, after Caterham F1 Team and Marussia F1 Team both entered into administration last year. Admittedly, the cost of sustainable development at the pinnacle of motorsport engineering is quite high. Environmentally, the hybrid power units are sustainable but on the financial side, it may be a tad too expensive.

Adding to that is the common complaint that the new engines have affected Formula One as a spectacle. Even Formula One’s own boss Bernie Ecclestone has joined disgruntled fans in condemning the new engine noises. Gone are the high-pitched screaming banshees that raised hairs at the backs of viewers’ necks. Fans have mocked the new cars, saying that they sound like lawnmowers and look like anteaters.

Although no official decision has been made regarding a proposed new set of engine regulations, Formula One must respond to the right concerns. Trading away energy efficient and environment-friendly engines in lieu of louder ones may not be the smart choice, but if it will be in lieu of more cost-efficiency to protect the lower-budget teams, Formula One may have a challenge at its hands. That challenge is to innovate to not only save the environment but to also save its own teams.

Ultimately, this would only pave the way for further research and thus further innovation. Formula One cars are the most sophistically-engineered machines to hit race tracks around the world. Whatever technology may be developed on these cars can be transferred to the cars that are driven on our roads every day. The kinetic energy recovery system (KERS, the predecessor to the MGU-K) has already been incorporated in the McLaren P1 supercar.

Perhaps there may be a simpler and less expensive alternative to the current system and perhaps it may be developed in the near future. Greener and cheaper alternatives may still be on the horizon both for Formula One and for road cars.

Photo credit: RacecarEngineer1 on YouTube

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