Weekend Debate: What is future for F1 as world moves towards ban on petrol cars?
Posted By: James Allen  |  12 Aug 2017   |  9:45 am GMT  |  431 comments

This last month has seen some momentous shifts in the journey towards road cars becoming zero emissions and one can’t help but speculate what impact this is going to have in the long term on motorsport in general and F1 in particular.

Volvo announced it would soon stop making petrol and diesel cars, the UK government joined other European governments in setting a date by which the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned; 2040 in the case of the UK.

These moves are being replicated by governments around the world and will be replicated by other manufacturers, giving a clear indication of the direction of travel for the automotive industry.

So the question is where F1 fits into this, as the world’s most high profile fossil fuel powered race series and what its future will be? Will it eventually be forced to merge or be taken over by Formula E?

John Malone’s Liberty group owns both series, so has its bases nicely covered.

This is the first of a series of posts considering some of the factors around this debate.

As the world goes zero emissions, how will motorsport be viewed?

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned in the last few months came at the FIA Sports Conference in June when Vincent Caro, who is responsible for historic racing at the FIA, said that his sector was the fastest growing in all of motorsports.

In terms of new entrants, new championships and new licence holders, people are flocking to historic and classic racing. There are several reasons for this: it’s much more affordable to buy a 1970s saloon or a pre 1984 Formula Ford than it is to go racing with a modern car. It’s simple, cheap thrills at the basic level.

The cars are simpler technically so can be tinkered with by enthusiasts, there is a great community spirit around the classic racing scene (witness the immense popularity of events like Goodwood Revival and Silverstone Classic).

But crucial for me is the idea of nostalgia that runs through this. In many cases these are men and women who have made a bit of money and want to satisfy their long held dream to ‘have a go’ so they buy cars from the era in which they first fell in love with the sport.

Nostalgia is a fascinating thing and a very powerful emotion. It drives trends in other sectors, especially fashion, art and music. When achievers from each generation reach their late 30s or early 40s and have a wider influence on the world around them, then the period in which they came of age gets a spotlight put on it and there is a revival of some of the things that featured heavily back then.

Of course we are now seeing young entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg having a huge influence on the world in his 20s and that trend, downwards in age, could well strengthen.

I think nostalgia plays a huge part in how fans follow their passion, as they mature. Many readers here discovered F1 in the 1970s and 80s, when you could bolt a Cosworth engine into a chassis and be competitive. They don’t like modern F1 much.

Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley were always nostalgic for that era, when they came of age as team owners, and wanted to take F1 back to that kind of model.

They failed because technology is a wave that you cannot order to roll back and that’s why F1 is where it is today with hybrid turbo engines and manufacturers like Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault (and even Honda) in a very strong position in the F1 ecosystem.

What has to happen next is a long term plan to go from where we are today towards an F1 where the cars are closely matched as they were in the 1970s Cosworth era, but where the sport is also seen to be helping the automotive industry – and by extension society – towards a zero emissions future.

It needs to do this both technically and in communications.

F1’s global platform is spectacularly powerful to tell that story and I suspect that FIA President Jean Todt and F1 CEO Chase Carey have already had discussions on this.

For example, the drive to zero emissions will put huge emphasis on charging infrastructure. Qualcomm is a world leader in this and very much part of the journey in FE. It is also a sponsor of Mercedes in F1. Using F1’s communications platform to tell the story of how charging infrastructure is being ramped up around the world helps consumers feel more confident in buying an EV and making that switch.

But F1 then also has to square that role with the nostalgia of the fans for noisy, outrageous looking cars. And if it ultimately decides to diverge and retain noisy petrol engines (albeit hybrid) as part of the spectacle, then it would be making a big bet that nostalgia would maintain the fanbase.

That could sustain quite well for a while; kids today who are taken to a Grand Prix or Le Mans or even the Silverstone Classic by enthusiastic parents, get just as excited by a racing engine, the speed and the smell as did previous generations.

As the world’s roads become more silent and smog free, the cars more perfect but lacking emotion, there will be a hankering for the old noisy petrol engined cars that can be seen down at the race track. Hopefully the Governments will allow them to continue to race there, even after the roads have become zero emissions.

So F1 as a series based on petrol driven engines clearly has a sell by date on it, although interestingly the UK Government has confirmed that hybrids are not part of the 2040 moratorium, only ‘conventional’ petrol and diesel cars.

How can F1 be part of the solution, not part of the problem?
It’s no co-incidence that while all these announcements have been going on at Government level, Formula E has received a massive shot in the arm with Mercedes and Porsche committing to the series, joining other manufacturers in throwing their weight behind the race to go faster and further on a single electric charge.

McLaren Applied Technologies, under the project leadership of Rodi Basso, are developing the batteries for Season Five which will do the whole race on a single charge. That will be a game changer and if the story is well told, it will draw a lot of attention to Formula E.

F1 needs to be part of the solution here, not the problem. If the world is going zero emissions, then F1 must surely become obsolete, be overtaken by Formula E, or it must adapt?

But F1 has a vastly bigger fanbase, while Formula E has many admirers but struggles to find ‘fans’, in the sense of passions being ignited. Manufacturers try to sell their EVs speaking of the ’emotion’ of owning and driving them, but while they are easy to admire they are hard to love.

If Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and the Red Bull dynamic duo were racing Formula E cars, would it be exciting?

It would if the cars were going much faster and the TV technology were optimised to show it both to fans at home and in the grandstands. That is a journey, a technological journey, as has been the whole history of this great sport.

There will be more on this discussion, but please send in your thoughts on what you have read and your own thoughts on what the move to zero emissions on roads will do to motorsport. Leave comments in the section below

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In light of the above, and to improve the show generally, F1 should go back to naturally aspirated, unmuffeled V-8s. Let the rest of the world work toward electric cars. Let F1 be the only place fans can get a thrill. Twenty F1 cars running on exotic fuel will not destroy the earth’s atmosphere. And then Liberty Media will really have something to attract new fans as well as keep the old. I even dislike the hybrids, which prove nothing as far as road car development goes. In the old days I could hear the naturally aspirated V-8 F1 cars from my Montreal hotel near Mount Royal coming all the way from Ile Norte Dame across the St Lawrence – at least three miles! I would not go to an electric car race if it was on my street and you paid me.


To get some of the audiences/enthusiasts of the 90’s-00’s to return to Formula 1 and also broaden the base, I would include an historic Formula 1 race on the Saturday lead up to the main event.
If you divided it into ‘era’ classes with each era represented 3-4 times per year in it’s own mini-championship.
Then let the current Formula 1 drivers have a 3-5 lap non-timed demonstration run in these historic Formula 1 cars. This would also open up the debate of which era cars were the most demanding/challenging, etc.


Next f1 engine spec should be a choice between turbo 1.2 litre 4 cyl and a naturally aspirated 10-12 cyl 3 litre… no rpm or boost limits, no fuel limits – but have a max # of engines of 5 or 6 per year before penalties to help keep the costs a little more reasonable


I have watched parts of a couple of formula E races… sorry, but to me they seem to race on kart tracks and have a problem with high speed acceleration – just boring.


I love the way the Formula E circus turns up in huge diesel trucks, carrying massive plastic barriers, and charges the batteries using petrol generators….. Until a new form of fuel is invented, all these green initiatives are doing is pushing the pollution from the road back to the power station

Kevin McCaughey

Until they stop using lithium-ion and move to an all new technology the series will be a bit of a joke. Like dodgem cars at the fair. At the moment they can’t use existing tracks as they would run out of battery. The street “circuits” are dreadful with no straights or fast corners that might drain the battery.

I suppose you gotta start somewhere, but we need more FAST (development fast).


These electric cars cost at least DOUBLE and sometimes THREE TIMES the price of the equivalent petrol car. Who can afford that? This move to electric will be at least another 30 years away when manufacturers have stopped trying to make a buck out of it being a new technology.


Fundamentally, Formula E is boring. Watching identical cars drive quietly around a street circuit until the power runs out. If F1 went all-electric there’d have to be competition in engine, battery and car design and the cars would have to be terrifyingly fast and hard to drive so the fans build respect for the drivers.


I live 60km from any metropolitan region. The nearest movie theatre is 80km away. The nearest “big four” sporting team (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB) is 200km away. The nearest “Power Five” intercollegiate team is 70km away. The nearest major golf tournament is 100km away. Most of the areas are wide-open spaces. The electric cars work when you’re in a metropolitan city within 15-20km, but when you are far into the wide open spaces, or into the mountains (I had to drive through mountains to reach to a friend’s wedding), electric cars are not practical. There is a clear urban bias, where those who are out in the countryside are being punished.

There is a reason in the United States, pickup trucks and truck-based SUV’s (not these jacked-up passenger cars that call themselves SUV’s) outsell passenger cars, including electric cars. They are able to go through hills and dales, valleys and farmland, and the drive up the byways of the heartland. Try going through 230km of farmland on the way to Atlanta, a 350km drive, with absolutely nothing in sight between Augusta (home of the US Masters) and Atlanta (a city so decrepit that 21 years later, their Olympic stadium has become a 25,000 seat gridiron stadium for their local college, and the massive 72,000 seat basketball and gymnastics venue is being demolished, while the primary field hockey venue, is decrepit; the practice athletics tracks used for the Olympics has faded where their signature athletics event, the big 10km on Peachtree Street, is now rebuilding them in the parks; the primary venues that are prominent are the secondary field hockey venue (Clark Atlanta Stadium for other sports) and secondary basketball venue (Forbes Arena, built for the Olympics on Morehouse College, is now the school’s venue).

What works in a large city won’t work when you’re in farmland.


Mr Allen, I wonder what can be done to only receive the email notification when the reply to a post is actually approved and visible on the website. It’s disrupting a conversation when one receives an email with the reply but can’t see until it is approved. It takes hours sometimes. Thank you.


Battery powered cars charged from main electricity are at best a stop-gap, and at worst a fad. There are three reasons – lack of range, long charging times, and the amount of available electricity needed if a country like the UK replaced all it’s cars with electric equivalents. Yes, engineers are clever people and the technology will have moved on by 2040 to mitigate these problems to some extent, but other tech – such as hydrogen fuel cells – will have moved on too. My prediction is that most cars on sale in 2040 will have an internal combustion engine, but with a hybrid system for electric running in cities or other areas of congestion. As such, the F1 game may be changing, but perhaps it will change more slowly than this article suggests.


The two will end up merging, or FE will become a junior formula with F1 remaining the apex. I’d like to see the following happen to smooth the merger:
1 – More FE races on F1 circuits (short races as part of the F1 weekend)
2 – A mandate that over the next few seasons the percentage of electrical power generated by the PU increases, so that we end up with almost 100% electric F1 that can last 70 laps at F1 pace on tracks like Spa, Monza, Silverstone etc.


I have no interest in Formula E and likely my son won’t either. I’ve desperately tried to get into it, but the lack of the sound, the need to switch cars (hopefully the new battery will fix) and the Street circuit preference. Most importantly the ridiculous pay to pass stuff where people could vote to give a driver a boost was nuts


if you want zero emissions then they should be running hydrogen fuel not electric hybrids. At least in F1 we generate the electric charge from the energy spent , largely produced by a combustion engine. The same principal over and over.

If I recall in the late 1890’s we had electric cars – until some corporation found a use for all the gasoline byproduct, a result of kerosene production.

Things have not changed much today, back to the future I suppose.

F1 has turned into a farce when it comes to “green energy”. BMW knows this. That’s one reason they stay away. Sure they play the electric car game – they almost have to – however its not the future. As long as big oil has its hands in F1 we can forget it.

What made F1 great is gone. Or is it. Stay tuned because hydrogen fuel may just brign back the V10…..


Two crucial observations:

1 “The cars are simpler technically so can be tinkered with by enthusiasts, there is a great community spirit around the classic racing scene (witness the immense popularity of events like Goodwood Revival and Silverstone Classic).” If you want to see a car that’s technically simple, that’s an electric car. As one Silicon Valley driver wrote on twitter today “I’ve driven 250 thousand miles and all I’ve had to do is change tires (sic) and screen fluid”.

2 “so they buy cars from the era in which they first fell in love with the sport.” So if we wait a few decades, or actually one decade, it’s all electric.

Whoops, that rather breaks your narrative doesn’t it? The future is electric.


Formula E’s founder and CEO is Alejandro Agag, I thought his organization owned Formula E and that the FIA sanctioned the series?


Formula E covers battery tech so that’s not the route for F1 which has always been at the leading edge.
Hydrogen has to be the way forward for F1…


No need for this discussion
The ” sport ” will be long dead by then as driverless cars will become the norm sooner.


Electric street cars is inevitable as the technology is finally mature enough, 120 years after it was first put into street cars. But the technology for a race car isn’t at all interesting yet. IMO I would recommend putting electric motors into a open wheel chassis is a boring thing to witness. Put it into a RWD street car and do 3 or 4 short sprint races over all whole day. Make it actually tangible/relatable for the fans. Bets format for a scenario that involves long “refueling” periods, do a qualifying race, sprint race, then a final race. And put one version of it on ovals and one on road courses. I’m all in. Formula E? bleh.


Formula E doesn’t currently entertain purely because it is too slow. As soon as it becomes F1/Indycar fast I don’t see them being able to run on the tracks as they are now as they’re too tight, so it is then a question of if there are enough Monaco/Long Beach/Singapore’s out there that are cost effective, as street tracks cost a huge amount to set up. F1 with governments paying can just about get away with it, but I’m not sure the numbers are there for FE.

An interesting parallel is the Isle of Man TT. The electric bikes were hated when they first came, but are now getting close to being quicker than the combustion ones. As soon as they are that’s a game changer.

Given that Liberty is rightly in the business of the show, why not have a historic race on the Sunday morning of the Grand Prix to tap into the nostalgia. Could be a great showcase for GP2 drivers and the four manufacturer’s would all love it as they could show their old cars.


Phil FE will never become “as fast as F1/Indy Cars”, well not in my lifetime or my grandchildren’s or their grandchildren’s. There is no magic in battery technology that’s going to suddenly jump up out of nowhere and make it so. Batteries are over 200 years old, for example the wet cell like we still find in our cars today was sold in 1802. In 1901 Edison invented the NiFe battery and the “great saviour” (some would have us believe) lithium batteries have been around for over 25 years.

The fact is, despite the extreme over hyping, battery technology is evolutionary, not revolutionary.


I don’t agree. Yes the principle is from 1802, but the watts/kg are improving at a massive rate. You’re right that it is evolutionary, but it is very fast process.


You would have a full grand stand for the historic race and an empty one for the main feature.


My understanding is that most automobile pollution now from new cars is not exhaust emitted, modern engines are relatively clean. The major element in pollution appears to be tyre and brake dust and the heavier the car the worse this is. Electric cars tend to be heavy and likely to be more polluting than hydrocarbon fuelled cars. Additionally where will the ten to fifteen nuclear power stations be placed around the UK and when and at what cost will they be built ? Just as an aside nuclear is the most polluting material known to man.
I think we are back once again with rules being made by people with no knowledge which will produce unintended consequences.
The anti lead issue of the 80’s is a case in point. No research appears to have been done after it was removed to see if there was a change for the better, fuel consumption rose significantly ( especially in comparison with the direction Jaguar had taken with lean burn May’s cylinder heads) and the resultant emissions went from those involving lead (and not definitively proven to be the cause of airborne lead pollution) to carcenogenic.
FE is the yawn of the year, the time I watched it I gave up and opened a tin of paint to watch it dry, I’d rather watch even Wimbledon. Motor racing should go its own way, the amount of pollution generated is absolutely nothing on a world stage. Horse racing creates massively more.
The hydrocarbon ban is a massive political gesture and gamble which will risks very large sections of the economy for technology that does not exist and may not be possible. It has a high chance of going horribly wrong.


You keep saying ‘zero emissions’ as though it’s some kind of elixir… Electric cars are powered by burning fossil fuels and are far from zero emissions.


F1 has had its day like group B rally cars of early to mid eighties.Take away the noise,excitement and risk and you have a sterile environment of cars just going around in circles.


So, in 2040, we’ll have millions of zero-emissions vehicles running around – on batteries presumably. Now what happens to the World’s Pollution levels when all of these batteries finally become unusable? Will we just dump them into the ocean somewhere?


Dangerous subject James, because it involves politics, in fact the push to electric cars is driven (sic) by 100% politics. One one side you have the lefty greenies who believe that cars are the devil incarnate and must be eradicated at all costs. Then there are the libertarians who believe in personal freedom, the ability to get into their car and go where and as far as they choose. Then the conservatives who believe in keeping government out of their lives, personal responsibility for what car they drive.

For obvious reasons Formula E will never be good enough for any of the 3 political persuasions. Formula 1 must recognise that you can’t satisfy all of the people all of the time. Liberty need to face up to the reality that the greenies are not their target audience and never will be. So pandering to them is not only a waste of time but alienates the audience that they can actually reach and attract.


Well said Gary. I fully concur.


You are partially right (in the American political sense) but in Europe, where car manufacturers have used diesel to meet mandated fuel efficiency standards the population is waking up to the news they have been the victims of a massive fraud.

The problem is not just that the Europeans cars were fixing emission test results ala VAG, but they also colluded technically to prevent any single car company from designing better emission testing equipment. Considering how much diesel cars are subsidized by European governments, the allegations if proven are not only evidence of massive consumer fraud but essentially tax theft. Electric vehicle technology is the natural response by car manufacturer to the growing fear European regulators (who are politically more influential than the EPA) will declare the underlying diesel technology a technical fraud and kill diesel in Europe permanently. The tax subsidy will then be directed to some new alternative energy source – i.e. electric vehicles or fuels like hydrogen.

There is significant domestic politics at play, especially in Germany where the car companies are not only large industrial enterprises but most German cars are exported worldwide and represent a significant source of Germany’s global trade balance not to mention national pride. Electric cars will be an easy way for them to regain the technology initiative from what is proving to be an embarrassing episode in one of Europe’s global economic bright spots.

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