Op ed: Selling engine changes as ‘green’ is dishonest, and could backfire

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In many walks of life, including mine, there’s an oft-used, and only partly mistaken adage: perception is reality.

And it seems this applies to a green F1, too.

Come 2013, the sport will most likely be using four cylinder, turbocharged engines with a capacity well under 2 litres – let’s not bicker over the exact numbers until they’re published. We’ve known this for a while, and parts of the prospect are genuinely mouth-watering. It’s another chance to shake up the field a little, it’s a massive new engineering challenge, the size of the engines could lead to all manner of other innovations, and it might (hoping against hope, here) be accompanied by a decision to let engine manufacturers develop their product out in the open again.

It all seems genuinely exciting.

What’s less exciting is the reasoning behind it, or rather, the way it’s going to be packaged and sold for public consumption.

That’s right, ladies and gents, F1 is going green! Can you hear the fanfares, the parades, and bells tolling from the cathedral where the royal wedding of Nicolas Todt and Tamara Ecclestone is being held?

If you can, pinch yourself, and wake up. This new measure will reduce F1’s carbon footprint, at best, by one half of one percent. That really is the most generous estimate I can offer – it wouldn’t surprise me at all if I have exaggerated by more than 500%.

They’re old points, frequently made, so let’s keep them brief – but here’s F1’s real carbon footprint podium:

1. Winning the race by a whopping margin, there’s the rough average of 100,000 people who travel far and wide to attend each race. No matter how conservatively you estimate the distances and means of travel, it’s simply bound to put everything else in the shadows. (But don’t be alarmed, the same cost – or at least a comparable one – can be attached to almost any sporting event, music concert or festival, trade fair or even a climate conference in a Mexican resort town. F1’s in good company.)

2. The (entirely illogical) traveling teams have to do in the course of a season comes in a distant second – as they race around the world in a rather scatter-brained order. (2011 looking like so, just as a reminder: Bahrain, Melbourne, Malaysia, China, Turkey, Spain, Monaco, Canada, Spain again, Britain, Germany, Hungary, Belgium, Italy, Singapore, Japan, Korea, India, Abu Dhabi, Brazil.)

3. Development in the factory, computer running times, wind tunnel usage, general electricity use, the international deliveries of parts, composites and other materials, and other domestic logistics completes the podium. (For the really big teams, this is probably approaching second spot overall nowadays.)

And in special non points-paying positions, there’s the the indirect costs that can’t really be blamed on the sport, but would probably top the chart if they were considered contenders – the media and the audience. Hundreds of millions watching on TV or listening on the radio, and thousands of journalists and all their crews and equipment following F1 around the world so as to share it with us.

So, the piddly amounts of fuel being used on track, frankly, are irrelevant. They were all-but irrelevant when drivers were pounding out tens of thousands of testing miles each year, now they’re simply a non-issue from an ecological standpoint.

Instead of fighting for the perception of being ‘green,’ F1 – and the wider world in general – would be far better off trying to educate people about the real situation, so that we can make meaningful progress.

Stopping one superfluous Transatlantic flight per month (one per year, actually, but one each month seems an entirely realistic target) would do more environmental good than any changes to the specs of F1 engines. And, by extension, you see that scheduling the F1 calendar based on geography not market forces would also have an almost infinitely greater impact.

The reality within the sport is that this is a commercially attractive proposition that might get other engine manufacturers on board, and could help improve the quality of the racing. And there might just be some kind of trickle-down effect for the car industry, too. AWESOME!

But it seems the FIA and F1 would rather try to sell it to the wider world as an effort to “clean up our act,” rather than pointing out how there’s not really an act to clean up. Sure, it’s an easier pitch that doesn’t require being boring or promoting thought among the masses; but ultimately, it’s an admission of guilt that will leave the sport wide open in 2015 to cries that the changes didn’t go far enough. All this when the inconvenient truth is that pedal-powered F1 cars – if they maintained the same schedule, fan base and media interest as the current fleet – would be at least 99% as harmful to Mother Earth as their contemporaries.

I consider myself an ecologist, the climate is an issue of great concern to me – but what scares me most is the almost blanket ignorance over why we are where we are, and what really would need to be changed to make a meaningful impact on our polluting habits.

So, let’s have a little more perspective and a little less perception, please. Go ahead and change the engines, but treat us like adults and tell us the real reasons why!

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