Formula 1 should ditch the internal combustion engine

The Tesla Roadster
The Tesla Roadster. Image source: Tesla Motors.

Honda’s withdrawal from the hugely expensive world of Formula 1 motor racing is another illustration of the pressures on the world’s car-makers. Now might be a good time for reflection. Does it make sense to use the petrol engine as the power source for the cars on the track. Isn’t it time to switch to electric cars?


The internal combustion engine is dying. Although small improvements in efficiency are still being made, Formula 1 cars only convert about a third of the energy in the petrol into motion. This is better than the typical suburban saloon, but not by much. An electric car is much better, turning most of the energy in a battery into usable motive power. The elders of the motor racing industry know that Formula 1, exciting and innovative as it is, is doomed by the coming obsolescence of the petrol car. The yearly global circus is coming to be seen as unsustainable, both financially and environmentally. By cutting its Formula 1 presence, Honda expects to save $500m a year, an illustration of the extraordinary cost of participating in this extraordinary sport.

Are electric Formula 1 cars a possibility? Yes. Electric cars can have extraordinary acceleration, very high top speeds and a range that is only dependent on the weight of the battery. The new Tesla, designed and partly built at Lotus in Norfolk, UK has a top speed of 130 mph (and it could be more if it weren’t speed limited) and an acceleration of 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds. Its driving range is over 200 miles. Unlike a supercar of the same specifications, its fuel cost is a penny or so a mile.

Battery technology is improving all the time. The scope for continued advances is enormous. This is one of the fields where nanotechnology will make a huge difference. We need reductions in cost, charging time and weight. (However, any particular battery chemistry has an irreducible minimum weight per unit of charge – so advances will partly come from finding new chemistries that improve on the various lithium ion technologies.)

My suggestion is this: Formula 1 should establish a separate competition at each Grand Prix from 2010 onwards. Only pure electric cars could be entered. The distance should be more than 200 miles, with manufacturers allowed to replace batteries if needed. World governments should provide a prize of $20m a race. This prize is enough to get manufacturers small and large working to improve the characteristics of their cars and the batteries. This would produce very rapid innovation in power sources and drive systems.

The world needs electric cars. Even if the electricity in a car battery comes from dirty coal power stations, the emissions per mile are much less than from petrol. Renewably generated electricity can be carbon-free.

Eventually we can hope that the petrol Formula 1 races give way to all-electric contests. We’d lose the ghastly noise and the swarms of engineers in their fire-proof clothing (because electric cars aren’t a fire risk) but we’d gain a cheaper, more environmentally friendly sport that would really push the evolution of low-carbon propulsion. And, of course, we could add the horrible noise back by installing loudspeakers on the back of the cars if the fans demanded it.

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  1. Patrick Sunter’s avatar

    Great idea! Hope a few big-wigs in the motoring world (i.e. Honda?) are reading…

  2. Reg’s avatar

    It’s already coming to top league motorcycle racing. Isle of Man 2009. TTXGP

  3. Andy Player’s avatar

    The Race of Champions 2009 should feature the Tesla as one of the racing cars. It is going to be hard persuading motor-racing fans about this, but with the Tesla’s amazing performance and Peugeot’s hybrid at the 24 hours of Le Mans next year, we are going in the right direction.

    I suspect there are a lot of green-leaning racing fans out here, we’re just too bashful to make ourselves heard.

  4. Marcello’s avatar

    Your solution is quite possibly the most detrimental one I’ve heard of for Grand Prix racing. There is no way that F1 cars could even come close to the level of performance of the internal-combustion V10′s they were using a few years back, and even if engineers could pull something like that off, the technology would be much much more costly than internal combustion. F1 is about speed, spectacle, noise, fame, glory, excitement, and danger. Not about the fucking environment.

  5. Radam’s avatar

    The stated typical consumption of these guzzlers is about 4 miles to the gallon at races (US gals). Using that these are about 30% efficient and that electric is about 90%. You get to about 200 kilowatt hours per 100 miles.

    Thats why Tesla roadster got out of charge just after about 40 miles when subjected to Top Gear conditions. Not to forget that most batteries empty alot faster when you drain them fast. So Tesla would have to have its battery exchanged about every three laps.

  6. Scott Allison’s avatar

    Chris Goodall,
    I really thought your story is a winner! I am working hard at the moment to create the World’s first all electric Grand Prix (PDXGP) in Portland Oregon USA 2009. I hope that if you have more insights on this subject that you might think helpful to this endeavor that you might contact me. I hope to keep you informed as to what becomes of this idea. I want to host an EV Expo alongside the river front in Downtown Portland as well that will showcase as many new EVs (and old too) as possible. Thanks again for being a true inspiration.
    Scott Allison

  7. Matt Jeary’s avatar

    I am already in negotiation with a major ‘slot car’ manufacturer to sponsor this, and have been since Oct 2008, the trouble is that most of the Manufacturers at this years Geneva Car Show 2009, do not want to be involved. They are keen for Hybrid technology or Hydrogen Fuel Cell to be the answer. So Honda would probably submit a V10 mugen engine and swiss watch battery as their combatant in the race…..
    The next stop is to invite the Government to offer tax incentives to set up R&D companies in the UK to get this moving along. They like talking about ecology, and they were keen enough to take money from Cigarette advertising many years ago on F1 cars, let us see if they can ‘put their money where their mouth is’. This would give massive growth to the UK and out us at the forefront of Eco-friendly technology.

  8. CSN’s avatar

    Sportscar racing would be a much more appropriate venue for electric cars to break onto the scene. The limited range when driven hard would have to be overcome but otherwise I don’t think it will be long before these cars are ready for racing prime-time. I think a spec-series competition is plausible now or soon and a ‘GT-E’ class could race alongside GT cars in the ALMS/LMS once range issues are sorted out or an effective battery-swapping method can be devised.

    F1 is struggling to go halfway with KERS so you may be right that they are overdue for the change. The implementation is not trivial though. Those cars are extremely light and very very low on space. They also must race for something like 1 1/2 – 2 hours to be viable television entertainment. The Formula One series does have the benefit of being able to “extort” large sums of money from host nations. A “GT-E” support race could be an effective way of promoting EV’s if it’s televised well and you get the constructors involved.

    You think the noise of an F1 car is “ghastly”? Clearly you haven’t been to a Grand Prix, or you’re one of those whiny idiots who moves in next to a racetrack, knowing it’s there, and later complain that it’s too loud.

  9. Luke Bowman’s avatar

    Formula one is all about internal combustion; take it away and you will lose so much of this sport. Batteries are hugely problematic, and in my view are not the solution. Hybrid technologies like flwheels, and the possibility of hydrogen fuel cells are the way forward. Electric cars are not. Besides, when compared to just a few commercial flights, an F1 race’s complete carbon footprint is outweighed, so the competition itself in the grander scheme of things is not particularly damaging.


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