Relic of the past or invaluable innovator: is motorsport compatible with our sustainable future?

For many, the word motorsport conjures up images of fast cars, loud exhausts, characterful drivers with outlandish lifestyles. Its pace, excitement, ruthlessness and ferocious competitiveness seem at odds with the notion that motorsport could be a beacon of eco-friendly sustainability.

Not only does racing itself generate emissions, but the further you climb up the tiers of motorsport, the more energy and material is consumed to stay abreast of competitors. From manufacturing and associated waste to the extensive logistics of moving equipment and cars around the world, the price of performance is not always clear to those enjoying the action.

While many will feel this opinion justified, it is equally important to recognise that the relentless pursuit of innovation within motorsport has delivered a great many technologies that are now seen as critical to existing and imminent sustainable transportation. Perhaps the best-known example is Formula One's Kinetic Energy Recovery System (Kers). Kers uses vehicle deceleration to recharge onboard batteries which can then be used to assist propulsion via an electric motor. If this sounds familiar, it is because these systems found their way into the hybrid and electric vehicles of today.

Understanding this ‘trickle down’ of technology is important because it highlights the ingenuity, financial resources and pure engineering talent that motorsport attracts. When you consider the incredibly short lead times and rapid change within motorsport, its ability to thoroughly prove technologies before they reach high volume markets is unparalleled. This incredible force of invention could be easily guided toward the development of sustainable technologies – simultaneously thrilling fans, spurring innovation and attracting the younger generation.

One idea, growing in popularity, is that sustainability should be one of the performance metrics to which motorsport teams must adhere.

At the end of the day, that is fundamentally what motorsport is all about. From a commercial perspective, maintaining and growing an audience of loyal followers is essential. Racing is expensive and it is funded by corporate sponsors looking to promote their brands and fans attending races, watching at home or purchasing merchandise. Stray too far from public consensus and you risk alienating your fans and driving away lucrative sponsorship deals.

The motorsport industry clearly understands and shares this concern. The creation of the Formula E all-electric series is a strong indication that motorsport’s governing body is taking its responsibility to promote sustainability and sustainable technologies seriously. Indeed, Formula E has been an important proving ground for electric vehicle (EV) battery technology and already made valuable contributions to the field. Despite these moves, it would be hard to argue that modern motorsport could be considered a sustainable activity in its own right.

One idea, growing in popularity, is that sustainability should be one of the performance metrics to which motorsport teams must adhere – design rules and regulations that factor the sustainability of a team and its race car. This could be an incredible way to harness the pace of motorsport innovation and engineering to the significant benefit of the environment and the motorsport industry itself, gaining wide approval from audiences and sponsors.

The pressure is on to create more sustainable racecraft

In fact, there are already pioneers looking at ways to make motorsport truly sustainable. Bcomp is a Swiss sustainable lightweighting company that sees natural fibre composites as a vital pathway toward sustainable motorsport, and it is already having an impact. Specialising in composites made from natural fibres, Bcomp’s technologies enable the production of parts that have an 85 per cent lower CO2 footprint than those made from carbon fibre. More impressive still, Bcomp’s flax fibres are carbon neutral over their entire lifecycle.

While carbon fibre retains superior in strength, Bcomp’s proprietary AmpliTex and PowerRibs deliver equivalent stiffness and weight which are the main design criteria for parts like bodyworks, air ducts or interiors. To demonstrate that high-performance flax composites are even suited for structural applications, Bcomp teamed up with Italian advanced technology company YCOM to design and manufacture a Front Impact Absorbing Structure (FIAS) – a component integral to protecting drivers in the event of a crash.

The AmpliTex FIAS was extensively analysed by the International Automobile Federation (FIA) approved test house Politecnico of Milan. It was found to deliver results equivalent to that of a similar carbon fibre part. Critically, though, the natural fibres of Bcomp’s FIAS meant that the part did not shatter into sharp debris like carbon fibre. With safety a paramount concern within motorsport, could natural fibre composites help to reduce the risks to drivers, marshals, and equipment while also making the sport more sustainable?

“As a proof of concept, YCOM’s FIAS has demonstrated that natural fibre composites, even as structural parts, can play a critical role in the future of motorsport,” says Christian Fischer, chief executive and co-founder at Bcomp. “We are talking about a safer material that has a significantly smaller carbon footprint with no or minimal differences in performance in most applications. As the technology evolves and the motorsport industry increases its focus on sustainability, developments like natural fibre composites will be an easy and obvious transition from traditional performance materials.”

Fischer believes that including sustainability as a new element in measuring motorsport performance could open the door for other ‘green’ innovations while catering to growing public, government and corporate concern about climate change. He thinks that no industry is better equipped to deal with the rapid change demanded by sustainability than motorsport.

“We are seeing increasing emissions legislation throughout the transport industry; I think motorsport regulations and innovation should better reflect this,” he said. “When you consider that racing is inherently quite a high-consumption, emission-generating activity, there is a clear need for change.

“We have already seen incredible developments in the evolution of hybrid and electric powertrains, now it is time to look at bodywork, structures, tyres, lubricants and less obvious aspects like logistics, manufacture and waste management. Sustainability needs to become an integral part of everything new we develop, continuously shrinking the circularity gap being the only viable option.

Christian Fischer, Bcomp chief executive and co-founder, believes that sustainability needs to impact all spheres of motorsport

“Motorsport is about looking at every element, every part, every action and asking: ‘how can we do it better?’ This exact same approach is the reason why I believe motorsport could be one of the fastest industries to incorporate sustainability within its business models and brands. If we change the objective from ‘how do we increase performance?’ to ‘how do we sustainably increase performance?’, then we will have harnessed the collective, imaginative power of one of the world’s most talented industries. ”

While it may be fundamentally driven by money, the romance and allure of fast cars, fierce competition, rivalry, defeat and glory make motorsport a cultural cornerstone. As such, its continued evolution is dependent on its relevance to audiences and sponsors. With many now realising the pace of change that will be required to address climate concerns, it is up to regulators, teams and suppliers like Bcomp to ensure that motorsport has a strong future.

Want to learn more? Sign up to Bcomp's latest webinar on 23rd June at 2pm CET here.