While Formula One racing might be the world's best advertisement for the power of petroleum, even race organisers have not missed out on a larger green movement sweeping the globe. After repeated criticism that it was too wasteful and polluting in a time of climate change and energy scarcity, F1 decided to go on the offensive last year. It brought in a rule that at least 5.75 per cent of fuel must be derived from biofuels and next year it will ban teams from refuelling during races.
The new regulations are serving as a catalyst for engineers to increase the amount of energy in each gram of fuel, says Mike Evans, a fuels development project leader for Royal Dutch Shell, Ferrari's official F1 supplier. "That's a huge challenge for the team and for us," he says. "It's the renewable, the biofuels component, all these type of areas, where all the work is really going to be. That's the future."
Engineers from international oil companies are trying to figure out ways to deliver the same power for F1 cars from fuels made from plants instead of petroleum. The push for a greener racing fuel presents a creative opportunity for F1 engineers, who are traditionally bound by tight specifications that leave little room for innovation. In the first decades of the sport, exotic fuels were sometimes a key variable in the race. Today, F1 rules specify the proportion of chemicals in racing fuel and put tight limits on its energy content. The sport's present propellant closely resembles the high-octane petrol available to normal drivers, Mr Evans says.
While tighter fuel specifications reduced the options available to engineers, they also encouraged more commercial benefits for the companies that employ them. Research on the racetrack translates into developments in road fuels and lubricants. "It's a test bench for us to test new ideas about fuels and lubricants, it's not just sponsorship of Ferrari," Mr Evans says. "Ten years ago we developed the first sort of choice fuel and that's the forerunner of the V-Power fuel you see around the world."
The precursor to the current brand of engine oil marketed by Shell was also first developed for the racetrack. In the biofuels sector, such research could eventually have far-reaching effects on the development of new fuels for the general public. "It's very difficult for transportation fuels to change much," he says. "These sort of bio-hydrocarbons may well come to be part of the solution." Biofuels are considered renewable and zero-carbon in principle because they produce only as much emissions when burnt as they would absorb as growing source plants.
Oil companies favour their development as opposed to other sources of renewable energy because they would allow the world to continue using its current fleet of vehicles and filling stations. Sparked by necessity, the racetrack could be the ideal setting for the development of a powerful new fuel that would allow drivers to burn petrol without warming the world. "You get the best engineers, the best scientists in the world involved in this, and they really are able to improve things," Mr Evans says.