Formula 1: bone-shaking noise, precision, aggression. Playboy drivers and towering egos.
The awesome spectacle of the motor race is having a rough time facing down the pious tutting of a global net zero push.
Because hundreds of thousands of fans aren’t filling modern-day colosseums to watch silent electric cars travel at slower speeds while managing battery conservation to the end of the race.
And with F1 contemplating that problem of saving its product, hydrogen may bag a pivotal pitchman for the developmental fuel.
Hydrogen-powered cars could be the future of motor racing, F1 managing director for motorsports Ross Brawn told the BBC.
“Maybe hydrogen is the route that Formula 1 can have where we keep the noise, we keep the emotion but we move into a different solution,” Brawn said.
The irony is that hydrogen will likely be powering more trucks and buses than cars. So any victory with F1 would be for media space, not sales. But that’s no small victory.
Battery-powered electric cars are poised to take markets as the European Union and other governments seek to link them to increasing deployment of renewable energy. Hydrogen lost the battle on costs (electricity is required to make hydrogen) and various technical specs.
However, hydrogen – a clean burning fuel – has been tabbed as an answer for transport that depends on the performance and reliability properties of traditional fuels, such as aviation and long range shipping. According to one study, hydrogen produced from wind generation may become cost-competitive to the fossil-fuel variant within a decade.
For proponents of hydrogen as an alternative fuel, the value of having a highly visible media presence, such as fueling F1, is undeniable.
Shares in hydrogen-focused companies roared out of relative obscurity last year as the pandemic sparked environmental awareness in governments and funds. Instead of worrying about higher costs in energy, investors worried about global warming and the prospect of pandemic-style disruptions becoming the norm.
Shares in hydrogen players like Plug Power, Nel Hydrogen, ITM Power and others soared to dizzying heights in a green wave of investment, as renewable hydrogen gained substantial state support in the form of public pledges to heal its weakness on cost.
The green bubble burst earlier this year, sending shares tumbling as investors wait to see what actually happens. All the same, prices have stabilized at levels which remain at a significant premium to several years ago.
F1 plans to go net zero by 2030, but mainly via carbon offsets and non-racing actions like clean energy offices and reduced travel. And pressure will only increase to move on from fossil fuels.
The world’s main motor race can’t sacrifice its noisy, combative, thrilling product. That is the hallmark of its business. But there is only so far it can go in ignoring the shift to green energy – and its consideration of hydrogen shows that F1 recognizes what’s at stake.