Why hydrogen could be the future of Formula 1

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F1 2022 crop 12You could say Formula 1 has a spring in its step. This weekend’s British Grand Prix sees the introduction of an experimental new format, with qualifying as we know it set to take place ahead of a short ‘sprint qualifying’ race to set the grid for Sunday’s full grand prix.

Fans are back too: the main event will be watched by a capacity crowd of 140,000 people, almost 12 months on from Lewis Hamilton’s astonishing three-wheeled victory in front of Silverstone’s deserted grandstands.

And the reveal of a mock-up 2022 car to promote the next year’s regulations has also been a source of optimism: a lot of work has gone on behind the scenes to find a formula that allows for much closer racing and, by extension, more excitement.

All of this is taking place against the backdrop of a sustainability drive that bosses say will make F1 net carbon-neutral by 2030. Having already pioneered the most thermally efficient engines in the world, it’s hoped the 10% biofuel mix used to power the current 1.6-litre V6 hybrids will be replaced by a fully sustainable fuel when the next generation of engine rules come into force in 2025.

Throw in the environmental activism of drivers like Hamilton and fellow world champion Sebastian Vettel, and the sport looks more thoughtful and forward-thinking than at any other point in its history.

F1 2022 crop 18But can it last? F1 is sticking with turbo-hybrids as the car industry turns to battery-electric vehicles. In the UK, we’re less than nine years away from a ban on petrol and diesel cars, with hybrids set to be outlawed too by 2035.

F1’s managing director Ross Brawn is adamant that the sport can’t go fully electric. Speaking in an interview with the BBC this week, he points out the cars “would need a six- or seven-tonne battery” just to last the race distance.

He isn’t wrong. There are certain types of transport – aircraft being the most obvious example – that just aren’t feasible with lithium-ion batteries, even if their energy density increases rapidly in the coming years. F1 too needs an alternative.

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George Russell (GBR) Williams Racing FW42.
British Grand Prix, Sunday 14th July 2019. Silverstone, England.

When pushed on what that might be, Brawn offered this: “Maybe hydrogen is the route that Formula 1 can have, where we keep the noise, we keep the emotion, but we move into a different solution.”

Hydrogen has become something of an enigma. Once viewed as the fuel of the future, it has refused to take off in the way that EVs are doing right now, but nor have its many technical problems (the cost of production, the energy required to make it, the NOx produced by burning it or its inefficiency by volume) cleared it from the launchpad.

Earlier this year, JCB revealed details of a hydrogen-fuelled piston engine that it intends to put into production, and just last month Toyota ran a lightly modified, hydrogen-fuelled Corolla in a 24-hour endurance race in Japan. For all its faults, hydrogen still has its backers.

Does it have a future in F1? Perhaps. Something else being looked into is synthetic fuels, or e-fuels, which combine hydrogen from water and carbon from the air to create a potentially carbon-neutral fuel that’s compatible with today’s internal combustion engines. Porsche and its partners are developing a pilot factory in Chile to prove that the idea is feasible.

Either way, Brawn admits that F1 can’t be “seen as a dinosaur”, which surely means less extinction, more Extinction Rebellion. The bottom line is that, one day, it will need to reconcile the desires of its fans with the realities of decarbonisation.

For that reason, F1 and hydrogen look destined for each other. The world just isn’t ready yet.

Joe Holding

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