My name is Duncan, and I am a motorsport fan

This the accompanying article to my contribution to this week’s edition of The Pod Delusion. Here you can find videos and links if you want to delve further into the topic.

As you may guess from the title, this article is about motorsport. I do not normally write about motorsport on this website. That is reserved for my motorsport website, vee8. However, I have published it here as it is designed to be of interest to people who do not like motorsport.

You can listen to the full podcast below.

My name is Duncan, and I am a motorsport fan. Is it a bad thing? Am I evil? Do I need to join Petrolheads Anonymous?

This year’s Formula 1 World Championship is coming to an end. The Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships have been wrapped up by Jenson Button and Brawn-Mercedes respectively, and now we have one last race to enjoy before the sport takes a break for the winter.

This has not been an easy year to be an F1 fan. In terms of newsworthy stories, it’s the sport that keeps on giving. But even by F1’s standards, it has been an extraordinary year for scandals.

Bear in mind that in previous years Formula 1 has brought extraordinary enough stories. There was, for instance, the so-called “spying” scandal which led to the sport’s governing body, the FIA, handing the McLaren team a fine of ONE HUNDRED MEELION DOLLARS. Then there was the “German prisoner” sex scandal involving the FIA’s President Max Mosley.

This year cranked up the scandal ever-further. Even in the first race, a major scandal blew up when Lewis Hamilton and his McLaren team were caught lying to the race stewards.

It also emerged this year that the Renault team had colluded with its driver Nelsinho Piquet to deliberately crash his car to hand an advantage to his team mate Fernando Alonso in last year’s Singapore Grand Prix. This endangered the life of Piquet and of other drivers and spectators.

In the past year, two major manufacturers — Honda and BMW — have pulled out of the sport, with persistent rumours surrounding the commitment of the other manufacturers. Moreover, almost all of the teams threatened to break away from F1 to set up a rival championship, in protest at the way the sport is governed by Max Mosley and the FIA.

The governance of the sport may change this week, as Max Mosley is stepping down as FIA President. The election to replace him is taking place today, on Friday. This actually may have more widespread implications than many realise.

Even though during last year’s sex scandal Max Mosley was persistently described by the media as “F1 boss”, the job of FIA President goes much further than that. The FIA has significant sway over road safety issues and effectively represents car users on the world stage. If you are a member of the AA, the RAC or even the Camping and Caravanning Club, you are represented by the FIA.

Clearly, this year there has been a lot going on in the world of motorsport. While cynics point out that, for the sport’s commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone, any publicity is good publicity, this all served to further discredit a sport which isn’t exactly the most popular among some. Formula 1 is seen by many as a sport which is dangerous, environmentally unfriendly, the personification of greed — and perhaps even sexist.

No doubt there is an element of truth to some of these accusations. So, how does this sit with me? I am a massive fan of motorsport, but I have liberal political views and a concern for the environment. Do I lack principles? Is F1 a guilty pleasure for me?

I actually see no reason why it should be. Some motorsport fans are unapologetic about their passion, and they see no reason to dress it up as anything but an extravagant bit of fun. But I see motorsport as a positive force that has a lot to contribute to the world.

Yes, Formula 1 is dangerous. This year, one driver, Felipe Massa, had an horrific accident when he was struck on the head while travelling at 170mph by a spring as heavy as a bag of sugar which had fallen off another car and was bouncing around on the circuit. He was lucky to have suffered no long term damage. The spring destroyed his helmet, but if it had hit him at another point he could have lost his sight or even died.

Sadly, one Formula Two driver was not so lucky. Henry Surtees was killed when he was struck on the head by a tyre which was bouncing around on the circuit after it had detached from another car in another accident.

While a ticket to a grand prix states in large letters, “motor sport is dangerous”, such accidents are mercifully rare in top-line motorsport these days. Major injuries are rare, and the last fatality in Formula 1 was in 1994. Believe it or not, more than 2½ times as many people have died while competing in the Great North Run than have died in F1 since 1981, when the Great North Run began.

But this year’s events in motorsport show that complacency should never set in, which is why improvements in safety are always being pushed forward. Perhaps the real scandal though is that, despite the increasingly safe environment that professional racing drivers face, 1.3 million people still die on the world’s roads every year.

F1 technology can play a major role in reducing the number of accidents on public roads, and already has done. In 2007, one F1 driver, Robert Kubica, survived a 75g impact with nothing more than light concussion. The materials that make an F1 car so safe are exotic and expensive, meaning that the opportunities to help make road cars safer using F1 research are a bit limited.

But electronics such as ABS and traction control are commonplace on today’s road cars. Such technologies unquestionably save lives all the time, and their development was helped by early applications in racing cars.

The money that flows through F1, and the high-stakes nature of the competition, make it a great test bed for important technologies that improve our daily lives. F1 is an R&D powerhouse.

There is currently an exhibition in the Science Museum in London called Fast Forward, which showcases twenty instances of F1 technology improving the lives of others.

Included on display are high-tech tyre pressure indicators which alert drivers to a developing puncture before it becomes dangerous. Then there are F1 materials being used to help protect troops in Afghanistan from bullets and explosions. Slip-resistant boots based on F1 tyre technology for people who work in slippery environments, thereby reducing injuries in the workplace, are also on display.

A bit more down to earth is the gadget that can stop your central heating system from becoming clogged up with rust and sludge, thereby reducing energy consumption in the home. Hospitals have even analysed mechanics’ behaviour and procedures during pitstops in order to improve the speed and accuracy of medical teams.

But how about the environmental impact of this gas-guzzling sport? I must say that my view is that rather too much is made of this. That is not to say that Formula 1 does not a significant environmental impact — it does. But emissions from the F1 cars themselves are actually a drop in the ocean. The racing itself does little environmental damage.

What is really damaging is all the travelling that teams, the media and fans must do in order to attend the races. The good news on this front is that F1 is carbon neutral, and has been since 1997. The FIA Foundation, the charity arm of the FIA, has taken into account not only emissions from the F1 cars and the travel of the teams, but also the transport of the fans that attend the races.

But any activity that involves being somewhere requires travel. F1 is a global sport, so there is a lot of global travel involved. But otherwise the sport actually seems rather restrained. In just 17-or-so races, a World Champion driver emerges.

Compare this to another competition, say the English Premier League in football. To come up with a mere national league-winning club, 380 football matches must be played, with all the travel this entails too. In comparison, F1 looks positively restrained.

Maybe that is an apples-and-oranges comparsion. It is just as well, then, that F1 technology also looks set to pave the way towards a green future. Formula 1 has the potential to help greatly reduce energy consumption. Refuelling during races will be banned from next year, shifting the balance more towards fuel consumption rather than raw power.

Another major initiative is the Kinetic Energy Recovery System, or kers, which the FIA finally legalised for this season. Kers is a system which harvests the kinetic energy that is dissipated under braking and would otherwise be wasted, and re-deploys that energy into the powertrain.

This technology has had a rather troubled birth in F1. The systems have been too expensive for teams to develop in the current economic climate, and it looks as though kers may take a back seat for a few years. There is also scepticism over whether kers as it is applied in F1 is actually relevant to road cars.

But one team, Williams, is adamant that its flywheel system will find a large variety of applications in the real world. The team says that its energy recovery system could improve road cars, vehicles used in mining, rail systems and “anything that moves”.

(For more on this, I highly recommend the recording of a Q&A with the Technical Director of Williams, Sam Michael. I was lucky enough to be invited along to the Williams F1 factory earlier this year along with a number of other web journalists and bloggers. The excellent Brits on Pole website has fantastic coverage of the visit.)

Plans continue to gather pace on this front. On Wednesday, the FIA outlined its plans for a green future of F1 (PDF). This includes a plan to make motorsport a competition based more on efficiency than raw power, and a stronger focus on energy recovery technologies.

The FIA also plans to introduce its own carbon neutral scheme, including offsetting its regulatory presence. It may also make carbon offsetting a condition of involvement in a championship.

So there you have it. Motorsport is a force for good in the world. Not bad for something that is hugely enjoyable. My halo is in tact.


  1. Well, count me as another one!

    I have no idea how they managed to carbon offset the Singapore race – is Brazil big enough to hold all the rain forest they’d have had to plant? And some things like the green wristbands last year are just silly. But it’s good to be reminded of all the genuine advances and advantages.

    However I fear this one, like Ming’s Jaguar, is not something that can defended with logic, strong though the logic is.

  2. “the last fatality in Formula 1 was in 1994.”
    Um, that was the last driver fatality. A marshall was killed since then (2001 or 2003 I think).

    The crash structures that make up an F1 car are not unsuitable for road cars because of the exotic materials, but because F1 structures are designed to withstand one impact only. A road car in a motorway pile-up must take several bumps without allowing the occupants to become injured. It is less about choice of fancy materials, more about how they are designed.

  3. Andy,

    Truth be told, I’m not too sure about the FIA Foundation’s carbon offsetting scheme. Reliable outlets ran with the story in 2007. But there has been little mention of it before or since and I haven’t been able to find anything about it on the FIA Foundation website. It’s also interesting that the FIA itself now feels as though it needs to have its own carbon offsetting policies.


    You are quite right about a marshal dying. In fact, two marshals have been killed since Ayrton Senna’s death — Paolo Ghislimberti in 2000 and Graham Beveridge in 2001. I hate myself for neglecting to mention that.

    Thanks also for the clarification re the unsuitability of F1 materials in road cars.

  4. Count me in as another liberal F1 fan. Some good points about the comparison between F1 and other sports…and I honestly don’t think working to address global warming means we need to lead a joyless life. When I’ve attended the US Grand Prix we’ve always driven rather than flown…and go as a family so there are four of us in the car…thus reducing our carbon footprint while attending :- ).

  5. “more than 2½ times as many people have died while competing in the Great North Run than have died in F1”

    This year I think there were 54,000 competitors in the Great North Run. How many people compete in F1? Even when you add up all the races and practice sessions, I suspect the figure falls somewhere below that.

  6. Duncan2,

    You are of course right about the number of competitors. But I brought it up because it is counter-intuitive. Motorsport is supposed to be dangerous, but running is supposed to be safe or even good for you. Which it is. But the point I was making is that there are very few activities where the risk of death is zero, and motorsport is perhaps closer to zero than many believe.

  7. […] jobs – lots of them. This is about the British brand in global commerce and industry. And, as Scottish Lib Dem blogger Duncan Stephen argues, it is about technical innovation with relevance to […]