Op-Ed: KERS again? Can F1 be the model of environmental responsibility?

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Messrs. Noble and Rencken at AUTOSPORT have revealed that the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) will be meeting Friday to discuss the current state of the 2010 season as well as the challenges F1 faces with passing, regulations and a better, competitive series. That’s understandable but what they are also discussing is the return of the aborted KERS system–created by Former FIA president Max Mosley–for the 2011 season.

You’ll recall that the teams spent millions on KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) technology in 2008/2009 to present F1 as a “green” or environmentally responsible sport. Many, including myself, accused the FIA and F1 of “greenwashing” their product in an attempt to assuage the Green Police and become environmentally responsible citizens of the racing world.

The ongoing quest to guilt, shame and change the carbon hogs of F1 is certainly something that Mosley wrestled with and the result was KERS. Teams spent millions on KERS technology and it was completely antithetical to the massive push for cost-cutting in F1–not to mention that the resources spent on the energy recovery system programs outweighed the benefits KERS gave the planet.

I believe Mr. Noble is spot on as to why FOTA is discussing the return of KERS for 2011. FIA president Jean Todt is a major proponent of environmental responsibility and has said F1 needs to be “green”.

With all deference to Mr. Noble, I also think the recent announcement that Michelin is negotiating a return to F1 has something to do with it as well. No doubt the teams feel that KERS could be interesting and an aid to passing or improving the competitive racing but Michelin is currently being carefully courted for an F1 return and that may play a factor as well.

The French tire company left F1 in 2006 under bad blood when the FIA, effectively, showed them the door. Their 2005 USGP debacle was, in part, aided by then Ferrari boss Jean Todt’s refusal to allow a chicane to prevent the Michelin-shod teams from refusing to start the race as the tires were deemed unsafe. This set off a series of unfortunate political antics with Michelin leaving the sport with middle fingers raised.

Current single-supplier tire company Bridgestone has announced their departure form the sport at the end of this year and F1 desperately needs a new tire supplier that can provide services to this global sport. Michelin is the logical choice but there are stipulations as Michelin certainly feel they hold the upper hand.

“We might consider returning but there are some very clear conditions,” Senard said today in an interview in Paris. Rules on tire use would have to change to “show the performance they can bring, notably in terms of fuel saving and CO2 reductions.”

Michelin are currently enjoying strong sales of their Green X brand of tires and this dovetails with the American Le Mans Series’s (ALMS) Green X challenge. The tire company wants F1 to become more environmentally responsible and to promote Michelin’s Green X product line and services. The success of the ALMS Green X challenge has been good for both series and tire manufacturer and I suggest that Michelin would like to replicate that type of situation in F1 as a condition of their return. The demand could be that F1 must be more “Green” and promote the Green X tire line.

I am certainly not suggesting this is the main reason FOTA are discussing KERS as Honda and BMW both left the series in 2009 citing their Green initiatives as the reason and F1’s irrelevancy in marketing their efforts. FOTA certainly wants F1 to be relevant and KERS could serve two purposes. Increased passing and competitiveness as well as the ability to claim environmental responsibility. Will it work? I hasn’t before but perhaps the element of time will provide better solutions for both facets of a “Green”, competitive F1.

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