The transcendent nature of sport lays in its ability to engage with and impact society. Whether it is influencing mass participation and propelling people towards healthier and more active lifestyles or, using the platform and stature of sport to tackle deeper societal problems such as racism or sexism, sport can be more than just an entertainment spectacle. Indeed, when it comes to tackling such issues, sport has no place to hide; inclusion is, or at least should be, at the heart of every sport. In recent times, the question of a higher purpose in sport has become even louder and more prevalent. At its core, sport is about entertainment and competition, but as fanbases continue to grow, levels of responsibility do too.

Marcus Rashford’s extraordinary foray into politics during the pandemic is a great example of the power of a sport’s “star” and the influence that they can have on driving change. This comes from an individual who has used his position to further causes close to his heart. Alongside this, there is an increasing pressure on governing bodies and sports as a whole to contribute positively to the world in a manner beyond the scope of entertainment.

Previously in this blog we discussed cycling and how its unique position as an elite sport as well as a green, every-day mode of transport means that its potential to make a tangible, real-world difference is vast. This time, the focus is on a sport that has much less obvious connections to a greener, sustainable future: motor racing.

Despite being underpinned by the thrill of watching petrol cars do laps of a circuit as quick as possible, motor racing still has a part to play in a push for sustainability and legacy. Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes’ decision to don black overalls and black cars as well as taking the knee in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests was a powerful and meaningful political message. Yet the focus here is more to do with motor racing’s contribution to a sustainable planet and how much is being done to challenge preconceived ideas about racing.

Firstly, there is the obvious link with road safety. Racing cars have transformed the approach to the safety of everyday road cars. Brake systems, suspensions, head supports are just a few examples of where the sport has influenced everyday life in a wholly positive way.

Further afield than cars, motor racing has played a role in innovation that transcends the sport. In 2018, ASDA implemented Formula 1 technology in 187 of its stores, expecting to reduce energy costs associated with refrigeration by 17%. Aerofoil, developed in conjunction with Williams Advanced Engineering (WAE), is said to reduce carbon emissions of supermarkets by up to 30%. The enhanced refrigeration efficiency also reduces food waste. The innovation that is so entrenched with, and essential to, the increased sporting performance at the highest level therefore has real-life, tangible positive impacts on the sustainability of the planet. There are sponsorship benefits of motor racing innovation too. WAE’s partnership with Unilever saw the development of the Unilever Synergy Programme in 2015. As part of the partnership, engineering expertise was utilised to drive efficiency, reducing energy bills at Unilever by up to 15%. A great example of a two-way, higher purpose activation sponsorship agreement.

More recently, in the face of the pandemic, the innovation of Formula 1 once again came to the fore. Ferrari and Mercedes both contributed brand new ventilators, easing the pressure on hospitals across Europe. Even prior to the pandemic, McLaren’s data systems have been used by hospitals to monitor patients in intensive care wards.

In November 2019, Formula 1 announced a ‘detailed and ambitious sustainability plan’ to have a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030. The previous year, F1 calculated its total carbon emissions at 256,551 tonnes, not including fans’ transport. Journalist Laurence Edmondson pointed out that there are countries who have aims of being carbon neutral in that time frame – suggesting that F1 perhaps could have been more ambitious. Such a claim has been echoed by Lewis Hamilton, who himself has called for faster, more drastic changes. Renewable energy sources generating electricity for factories and a reduction in air travel in 2020 has shown that the pledge is being put into action. Such action is not confined to just Formula 1. W Series’ entrance into motor sport in 2019 was not just successful in forwarding elite women’s racing, but also in accelerating motorsport’s environmental push. The claim from W Series is that they are on track to becoming completely carbon neutral by 2025.

Electricity the answer?

Electric racing could be viewed as the answer to many of the sustainability problems that have plagued traditional motorsport. Introduced in 2014, Formula E’s efforts have subsequently been recognised – receiving the highest award possible for sustainable events. Here though, lays the crux of the issue. Electric racing cars are slower, Formula E races are half as long those in Formula 1, and, crucially, the viewing figures are considerably lower. Moreover, attracting fans and delivering cars and people to circuits around the world will always limit environmentally sustainability.

This aforementioned demand for all sport to be rooted in a push for sustainability and broad societal change is understandable in the context of such issues as the climate crisis and gross misuse of social media. There is, however, a limit on how far some sports can go. Whether the cars are run on electricity or not, motor racing will always involve huge environmental costs on testing facilities, air-travel and logistics. Moreover, while petrol cars are involved in racing, co2 emissions will mean that total environmental sustainability is an ambitious yet extremely challenging objective. Traditional motor racing is right to target sustainability and to minimise the negative impact on the environment. Pledging to have sustainable events from 2025 and reducing plastics and unnecessary energy usages are obvious and essential steps. And while Formula E and W Series are good examples of ambitious attempts to minimize the problem, initiatives elsewhere feed into the point of this writing. Extreme E’s mission is centred around environmental sustainability, whether it is successful or not remains to be seen. There is, however, logic behind a sceptical view that there is a limit to which holding SUV races in areas damaged by climate change can make a tangible positive impact. The core legacy of moto racing should perhaps instead be more concerned with its ability to make a difference in matters that transcend the sport. The most impressive feat of racing teams and the wealth behind them is their capacity to innovate. By continuing to share technologies with industries far removed from cars and engaging in sponsorship activations that give back, motor racing can continue to have a tangible impact on the environment that supersedes the need for the sport itself to be less environmentally unfriendly.