The thing that petrolheads most fear about eco-friendly cars is the lack of noise. Whether it is the screaming snarl of a frustrated Lambo at a robot or the ribcage thump of a really big old V8, the sound of a powerful engine gets us going. But one by one the demons of the decibel have fallen silent, leaving just that 2012 Honda Civic with the red R and the big exhaust at the supermarket car park, and of course, Formula 1.
Well, F1 is a definite maybe at this stage. In 2014 the primal scream gave way to more subdued bellow, courtesy of the massive restrictions on the new hybrid engine. At least it still roared. But for how long?
Honda has just announced that it is leaving Formula One for good to pursue electrification, leaving only Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault as engine suppliers. Formula One has always been a testbed and marketing platform for engine manufacturers, and the fact that the pinnacle racing format has been reduced to just three suppliers probably speaks more to the future of engines than of racing. If the whole world is going electric, what’s the point of sticking with internal combustion?
Outgoing Renault F1 boss Cyril Abiteboul asked the question: “If the future of the sport is zero-emission, should FIA start exploring electrification as an option?
“We need to define what the right technology will be for the next generation,” he said, “a few years ago we were never talking about hydrogen. It is a new thing up and coming. Will it be adequate or appropriate for Formula 1? I don’t know.”
Formula One is busy working on new engine regulations for 2026 and the move by manufacturers to electrification must play a part. Abiteboul wants the F1 community to work together, to do an advanced study of the next generation of power units for the sport and get it right in terms of cost, of competitiveness and how it will fit into marketing.
Hydrogen is a definite option, though. It is still the stepchild of battery power in that battery technology is more advanced and recharging infrastructure is easy to bolt onto existing electricity grids. Until quite recently, bulk hydrogen production had a very bad emissions profile and also could not compete with batteries in terms of conversion efficiency from electricity. Although hydrogen is transportable like liquid petroleum gas, it has to be massively compressed or cooled to make this viable, requiring even more electricity.
Yet several major carmakers have hydrogen cars in production, while a number of others are busy developing these. Hydrogen infrastructure is also being developed, albeit still ten or fifteen years behind pure electric. Economies of scale also mean hydrogen motors are three times the price of comparable battery units.
But the game changed for hydrogen when renewables became cheaper than traditional power generation, in construction and running costs. You can build massive solar fields to power green production and storage of hydrogen. As hydrogen becomes more abundant, the price premium will lessen and the two technologies will compete more evenly.
And that is where F1 should get involved. Abieboul admitted he did not know whether hydrogen was the answer for F1. So when Formula One releases its new engine specs in 2026, why not throw it wide open, the way it used to be? For the past 70-odd years F1 competitors have had a lot of leeway within specified limits, and this allowed manufacturers to develop and showcase their technology.
Formula One follows where cars go, but F1 often sets the pace in tech development. Cars are going electric, so it would be extremely ostrich to persist with ICE from 2026. Specify only a zero-emission limit on F1. In all other respects, teams can do what they want. Batteries will compete directly with hydrogen will compete with what? Imagine if the best minds in auto engineering had to find the optimal trade-off between power and weight and endurance. Formula One will quickly become the world’s very visible technology testbed.
And the winners will be we drivers. We will lose the sound, but imagine what we will gain on the road, and in our wallets. Imagine what the earth will gain.