Can Formula 1 be ethical?

Once again, an interesting comment was left on a post — this time the one about human rights in China — and I wanted to share it on the front page. Step forward Can:

Like it or not, the F1 world is about excess. I think it’s a crucial and fundamental part of its nature. I always enjoyed that crazy and elitist essence. I guess that enormous waste that in many ways F1 racing means can make us feel weird or even bad about it, when considering social or political that are really important. But this show it’s a different world. In a smaller scale, it’s like those efforts to make F1 look like a ecologist activity: KERS (racing is anything but sustainable) or trimming minutes in Q3 (they said the reason wasting less fuel, but the fact is that those minutes were just boring). Maybe it’s a good idea trying to use F1 to solve some real problems, and the intentions are good too, no doubt. But changing those things that are inherent to F1 will bring a different show.

Can’s assessment is bleak for the more guilt-prone among us. Not only is Formula 1 unethical, but it shouldn’t even try as being ethical would change the whole character of F1! I hope I am not distorting Can’s opinion here (and my sincerest apologies if I am). But that is my reading of it.

I happen to disagree, in a sense, about the assertion that F1 is excessive in its use of resources. For one thing, fundamentally, a successful Formula 1 team is all about efficiency. Wasteful teams will go nowhere.

I suppose whether or not you think money spent in F1 is ‘wasted’ is based on a value judgement. We could get into a protracted debate about road relevancy. Many argue that the development of technology in F1 cars has no relation whatsoever to technology in road cars, so the trickle-down of successful technologies doesn’t happen.

On the other hand, I find it difficult to believe that were it not for motor racing today’s road cars would be as resource efficient as they are today. Certainly, Honda find their Formula 1 programme important enough that they send their road car guys to work in F1 for three years to gain engineering experience.

For instance, life-saving technologies such as ABS and traction control have benefited from early experimentation in racing cars. We may see energy recovery systems such as KERS take great leaps forward in years to come thanks to their development in F1 cars.

And surely F1 and motor racing in general have a lot to offer in terms of road safety campaigns. Last year we saw an F1 driver survive a 75g crash. Yet one million people are killed on the world’s roads every year. The FIA Foundation can do a lot of good work in this area.

You could take a classical liberal approach and say that as long as Formula 1 benefits its fans — in the sense that it brings us great enjoyment — then that is enough to justify it. At the end of the day, people are only ever looking for happiness. F1 provides this.

Someone else will come along, though, and point out the damage that Formula 1 does to the environment. This seems to be the heart of a lot of what Can is saying. F1 does damage to the environment: get over it.

But does F1 damage the environment as much as some people make out? For one thing, the FIA have ensured that Formula 1 and the World Rally Championship are both carbon neutral. They have been doing this since 1997, long before it became a trendy thing to make everything carbon neutral.

Even disregarding that though, is F1 really that much more damaging to the environment than other activities? The cars are surely gas guzzlers. But the amount of carbon emitted is an iota of a smidgen of a hair of the environmental damage being done at any one time.

If you think about it for a bit, it is clear that football — to pick just one example — is far more environmentally unfriendly and resource-intensive than F1 is. Take just one football league, the English Premier League. In one season there are 380 matches. Each of these matches can expect to attract a five figure attendance. Often these spectators will travel hundreds of miles to watch their team play. Those carbon emissions are stacking up pretty quickly.

And that is just for one tournament in one country. Throw in peripheral club tournaments such as the Champions League, the FA Cup and the League Cup and you have one seriously smoggy sport.

Even if one F1 race meeting looks excessive compared to one football match, the fact that F1 can come up with a World Champion (not just a national competition winner) in a maximum of 20 races makes it look like a model of restraint, efficiency and low carbon emissions. Yet, I do not see anyone jumping up and down about the environmental impact of football.

Where I agree with Can is that I think that Formula 1 shouldn’t change. Leaving aside the question of whether or not F1 is ethical / environmentally friendly / whatever, he is right that altering F1 to make it more ethical (etc) would fundamentally change the sport.

I would not be opposed to certain changes to alter the balance. Formula 1 is a restricted sport — it wouldn’t be a ‘formula’ otherwise. The introduction of KERS is, I think, a good idea. Similar changes, as long as they are carefully thought out and in the interests of the sport, should be greeted warmly by F1 fans. (This does not include engine homologation, which is a terrible idea.)

What I think would be a fabulous idea would be the formation of an explicitly environmentally-friendly (or at least relatively green) motor racing series to run in tandem with Formula 1. Perhaps GP2 could be transformed into such a series.

This might mean mistakes being made along the way. Who would doubt that such a series would have put all of its eggs in the biofuels basket, biofuels being a major cause of the increased food price inflation we are currently experiencing the world over. But at the same time it will do a lot of good as well, in the public relations stakes if nothing else.

What do you think? Am I kidding myself on that F1 can be defended as an ethical sport? Is there a role for the introduction of greener technologies?

(As an aside, I don’t know why Can is named so. But Can is one of my favourite bands, so kudos for that. 😀 )


  1. From wikipedia:

    Ethics is a major branch of philosophy, encompassing right conduct and good life. It is significantly broader than the common conception of analyzing right and wrong. A central aspect of ethics is “the good life”, the life worth living or life that is satisfying, which is held by many philosophers to be more important than moral conduct.

    So the question is not whether F1 can be effectively positive for the environment and society as a whole. That would be moral, but is it ethical?

    The question is, then: is it worth the environmental and societal cost?

    My answer: overwhelmingly yes.

    A few cars that get crap gas mileage driving around in circles is one of the most popular spectacles in the world. It provides some distraction for people who’s lives are otherwise pretty terrible.

    I don’t think there’s anyone who follows racing and doesn’t make the connection between efficiency and speed. It’s a balanced equation. If we wanted, we could make all racing cars environmental in the extreme. But who wants that? Are you excited about a competition between the most frugal? Of course not. We want to see power and speed and furious energy.

    Racing at its core is about stirring the human spirit. If you take that away, people will stop caring. Is a life is centered around efficiency and frugality with no outlet for our natural human aggressions, then it’s not a life worth living and by definition unethical.

    The solution? Give people an outlet. Let them experience all the speed that 21st century man can wring from 4 wheels. Then summarily take away their Escalade and give them a minicar that runs on unicorn farts, or whatever.

  2. Motor racing is just such an easy target. People (non motorsport fans, obviously) are all to ready to cry out ban motorsport to help the environment – the positive effects of doing so would be an absolute drop in the ocean. And you’re right – they’d never call for Footy to be banned on environmental grounds. Here in Oz (and I am not sure about the details 100% as I’d rather eat catfood than watch footy) the season lasts from march to september and has 20 teams, so thats 10 matches every week. Most involve at least one team flying interstate, and I’d say at least 2 matches are at night held under full lighting.

    Not to mention the greenhouse gas emissions from the spectators travelling to the match, the cows raised/slaughtered for the leather, the watering of the footy field, the paint used for the markings (and on ground advertising)and it all doesn’t look so green any more, does it?

    I for one would rather see motorsport stay as is – although I am interested to see where hydrogen technology goes – and the general populace rely a LOT less on their own private motor vehicles and more on public transport (green fuelled of course)and cycling, walking etc. You’d see a far greater environmental impact from that, than any cessation in motorsport (said from someone, who although a massive rev head, is also a bit of a greenie and gave up my own car 2 years ago out of environmental concerns. To date, I am the only person I know who has done so.)

  3. F1 will only be as ethical as it needs to be… order to not face any flak.

  4. Ok, step forward!

    First of all, as I already said, this is a secondary lenguage for me, I sometimes can’t manage nuances in a proper way, so my excuses if I sometimes sound a little bit rude. Last thing I want is to offend someone here.

    You made a pretty accurate read of my comment, Duncan. But when I talked about “excess” I didn’t mean exactly “waste”. You pointed some good examples of technology used in our daily life that was implemented, when not directly invented by F1 teams.
    But I also think we don’t have to miss the main point in this sport/show: there’s an incredible amount of money, time, engineering put together to gain a single tenth on the car’s performance. It’s true that efficiency will be the key to be succesfull in this quest, but it’s a quest for tenths of a second! Other aspects, such as specifically designed fuel or tyres for specific teams are somehow both efficient and excessive, I think.

    I also read somewhere, don’t remember now where exactly, that gasoline/diesel engines are an obsolet invention since fifty years ago. I was a little shocked when I read that. Of course there’s been a lot of development to make modern engines and thus modern cars as efficient as they are, but in a second look, if you think about: wouldn’t be already the time to abandon petroleum based fuels (sorry if that sounded a little weird) and focus on other alternatives, like hydrogen, as Pink Peril pointed?

    There are some other aspects, such as all the machinery and human/economic resources necessary to build up a racing circuit, that certainly are not exactly “sustainable”, I think. Would any ecologist organisation allow now circuits like Nürburgring, Hockenheimring, or Spa/Francorchamps? Are they respectful to the environment? I seriously doubt it, but damn it, seeing cars “driving around in circles” (liked that definition, Dan H) is just pure joy in that circuits.

    I have to admit that maybe KERS will be the next big thing in driving, and I agree with you that is a good idea, but I also think that there’s something about avoiding people’s critics, as Peterg commented.

    I really like the basis of F1: taking to the limit both man and machine. If some profits come out of this as asides, much better!

    (Sorry if I disappoint you, but Can is only a shorten for my surname, but I heard a lot of good about that band, maybe I should start listening to them…)

  5. There has been a lot of talk about capping expenditures to save F1 money…as an alternative to all the regulations that have been instituted with the purpose of saving money…that have only seemed to have moved spending from one area to another and raised overall spending–the “law of unintended consequences” at work. Perhaps the challenge could be both a dollar (pound or euro) limit as well as a carbon limit–with the removal of HUGE numbers of specs. The idea would be to challenge the teams to do more with less–in innovative ways. The way things are now the regs force all the teams to focus development in one area with all the cars being forced into a narrow solution. Open the regs, restrict the resources and watch innovation bloom.

  6. “Open the regs, restrict the resources and watch innovation bloom”

    Yes, that’s for sure what F1 needs to recover their historical role of leading motorcar innovation process.

    The problem is how you can restrict budgets.

    For all those teams owned by a Motorcar manufacturer is so easy to hide the level of investment in F1 Team budgets.

    So, in my opinion, the way should be more less like:

    “Open the regs, control engine consumption, mechanic durability, electronic solutions/aids, and watch the innovation bloom.”