Mon.
Sep 26
2022

Formula 1 Sets Sail in Low-Carbon Turn

Stephen Bierman
Dec 23, 2021
Formula 1
Image: America’s Cup

Formula One’s supercharged racing cars aren’t enough for the loud, chippy, adrenaline-drenched rivalry between the Mercedes and Red Bull teams. The grudge match is going to sea in a new yacht sailing competition that promises to carry a fraction of the carbon cost that comes with auto racing.

Dating to 1851, the America’s Cup – a major sailing competition – is the oldest trophy in international sport, pre-dating the modern era of the Olympics and the World Cup. The cup even came before the automobile and the petroleum era itself. The event happens every four years and constitutes a technological arms race of engineering, spending, nerve, endurance, mental toughness and athletic prowess. The competition is total. The rules are re-written every campaign.

Great Britain’s entry, Ineos Team UK, backed by British petrochemical group Ineos-owner Jim Radcliffe, drafted the Mercedes Formula 1 Team (Ineos also a sponsor) to the previous cup to get the best in engineering. It will continue the partnership for the 37th America’s Cup (AC37) in 2024. Great Britain, for all its illustrious history as ruler of the seas, has still never won the cup.

Red Bull wants to keep it that way.

The Red Bull Formula 1 squad scored an auto racing victory earlier this month when driver Max Verstappen passed Mercedes Lewis Hamilton with a dramatic, and disputed, final lap season-sealing victory. Red Bull seized the moment to announce a partnership with Swiss pharmaceuticals billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli to form the Alighni Red Bull Racing bid for the America’s Cup. 

America’s Cup sides will start design on boats immediately.

Viewership will be a guilty pleasure that looks to have all the fun of watching a bad divorce, a car wreck, a fist fight, a sinking ship and England taking Euro or World Cup penalties (too early?) all in one. Yet setting that aside, something else quite interesting is going on.

The once plodding, clubby, exclusive, conservative world of yacht racing has transformed completely to deliver a product that is watchable, compelling and, realistically, as interesting to auto racing as vice-versa.

And there’s no fuel but the wind. It’s not carbon free: the event will be filmed via helicopters with cameras, just like auto racing. But the footprint is a fraction of the much more popular auto racing. Still, it gives hope that compelling performance gains can go beyond simply stepping on the accelerator. 

“Red Bull Advanced Technologies is a world-class technology center that offers services to different entities including other sports, born out of the innovative, technical expertise we’ve generated throughout our years in F1,” Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner said on Dec. 14. “Red Bull Advanced Technologies will establish synergies with Alinghi Red Bull Racing. We will share our experiences, engineering tips, etc. It is a two-way cooperation.”

The main crossover is the similarity between the racing yacht’s hydrofoil and the race car’s airfoil, as well as the drag and downforce or upforce related to each. This has long been key to auto racing. It is now the key component in yacht racing.

The foiling technology, which has elevated sailing yacht speeds from a slow jog to something in excess of freeway speed limits, has been in play in the America’s Cup for just a decade. The underwater foil essentially acts as a wing. With sufficient speed, the wing lifts the hull out of the water, reducing drag and delivering drastic gains in speed. 

Different wind speeds require variable approaches for foils. In light winds, a yacht needs a larger foil, or wing, underwater to generate the lift to propel it out of the water. A smaller foil will not generate the lift. Yet in stronger winds, a smaller foil reduces drag and allows the yacht to travel faster.

In either instance, steering a yacht balanced on a small underwater wing through gusts and waves and currents is a very delicate process. Tipping points are razor thin. And gusts can literally launch a yacht out of the water, as what befell the American Magic yach racing team, which almost sank as a result in AC36. 

Ineos Team UK and Alighni Red Bull Racing will both have their work cut out for them beyond the desire to outdo each other. They will have to wrest the cup from champion Emirates Team New Zealand, which has won the last two competitions. Italian finals contender Luna Rosa has also thrown its hat back into the ring. Whether Ferrari or Mclaren or some other F1 team creates a partnership and follows suit is interesting but beside the larger point.  

Modern sports entertainment yawns at the history and prestige of the America’s Cup. That’s a reflection of general audiences, which find it boring. Yet new events, personalities and technologies are now kicking down the door and demanding attention.

The compelling aspect of what’s happening is exactly that. The elite of the petroleum era, the tops of Formula 1 racing, are transferring engineering and technology and ideas into a sport that has no fuel at all. For a sport that’s frankly been a historical relic, to see such new blood flow into its veins is notable. It’s emblematic of an era where petroluem-based fuels and renewables energies will work more closely together in everything from electricity generation to transport.

Formula 1 going to sea means more then a juicy rivalry, or a historic Cup. It is very much the path the world will see for engineering and energy use for decades to come.

Stephen Bierman

Stephen Bierman is a finance and energy reporter with over 15 years of experience, including at Bloomberg News and Energy Intelligence.

Tweets at: @StephenBierman1

bierman@neweconomy.site

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