Feature

How sustainable is motorsport?

April 06 2023

In the first of our ‘How sustainable is…?’ series, we discuss motorsport and the steps taken by governing bodies, teams, stakeholders, manufacturers and event organisers to become more sustainable.

How sustainable is motorsport?

Commenting recently on Paris 2024’s claims that next year’s Olympic Games would make “a positive contribution to the climate”, sports ecology expert Madeleine Orr from Loughborough University stated bluntly: “The most sustainable event is the one that doesn’t happen.”

Of course, events are inevitable in a world in which 70% of the global population consumes sport. 

However, some sports events are more impactful than others – and with a long-standing reputation as gas-guzzling purveyors of lavish consumerism, one might expect motorsport to be the last place in the industry where the concept of sustainability has a foothold.

Indeed, the sheer popularity of motorsport – which leads to millions of spectators attending races every year – revs up the sustainability challenge, but perhaps also the opportunity.

Sam Bloxham/Extreme E

Sam Bloxham/Extreme E

Global popularity

As the pinnacle of four-wheel motorsport, Formula 1 was watched by a cumulative television audience of 1.55 billion in 2021, a 4% increase from 2020. 

Like many motorsport series, F1’s events jump from country to country and continent to continent across the season. The championship generated an eye-watering carbon footprint of 256,000 CO2 equivalent tonnes in 2019 – the same as the total emissions of more than 55,000 cars on public roads each year. According to F1, 73% of the emissions were generated by the logistics associated with moving the race set-ups across the globe.

Motorsport, though, covers a range of widely followed formats that range drastically in terms of their impact on the environment. The ABB FIA Formula E World Championship, which has been built on the concept of electric car racing, attracted a cumulative audience of 381 million for Season 8 last year.

Meanwhile, in motorcycle racing, MotoGP is watched by a global cumulative audience of 400 million annually.

In many ways, motorsport’s sustainability challenges and opportunities are encapsulated by the three series mentioned above – Formula 1, Formula E and MotoGP, with all having taken steps to enhance sustainability as the top championships in four-wheel, two-wheel and electric racing.

However, regardless of how the action is fuelled, motorsport’s global reach demonstrates how it has a major platform upon which to support and promote sustainability, as long as the different series are serious about taking solid steps.

Hanson Lu on Unsplash

Hanson Lu on Unsplash

Formula 1

Back in 2019, the FIA-sanctioned Formula 1 launched its Sustainability Strategy based around three pillars; to achieve net zero carbon by 2030, including the utilisation of 100% sustainable fuels; to leave legacy of positive change and to take steps to build a more diverse and inclusive sport. 

Sustainable fuels are a solid starting point for many motorsport series. In the United States, for example, the NASCAR stock car-racing series has reduced its emissions by 20% since 2011 thanks to its use of biofuels.

However, Formula 1’s top-line goal is hugely ambitious: to be net zero from factory to flag by 2030. It will do this by having net zero carbon-powered race cars; ultra efficient and low or zero carbon logistics and travel; 1,005 renewably powered offices, facilities and factories and what the series describes as “credible offsets”, as well as breakthrough CO2 sequestration programmes. 

By 2025, Formula 1 plans to have every race qualify as an F1 sustainable spectacle; use sustainable materials with all waste re-used, recycled or composted; incentives and tools offered to every fan to encourage a green way to travel to reach races; circuits and facilities that are better for fan wellbeing and nature; and offer opportunities for local people and causes to be involved in the action. 

Since these plans were launched in 2019, F1 has redesigned freight containers to allow the use of more fuel-efficient aircraft, while remote broadcasting has been implemented to reduce travelling freight. Planning for future calendar regionalisation is already underway and bosses have recruited sustainability specialists to ensure progress is being made. 

Other steps include delivering more events using alternative energy sources like solar panels, green tariffs and biofuels; engaging local communities and charities to allow surplus food donations post-race; prioritising public transport to races; and reducing single-use plastics across events. 

Matt Seymour on Unsplash

Matt Seymour on Unsplash

Formula E

Formula E in itself was designed to be the greenest version of ‘motorsport’ possible when it was conceived in 2011, with its first championship launched in 2014. 

The series’ most recently completed Season 8 featured the launch of the GEN3, considered to be the fastest, lightest and most powerful and efficient electric race car ever built. It is powered by electric motors that are more efficient than internal combustion engines, converting more than 95% of the electrical energy compared to roughly 40% in high efficiency internal combustion engines. The GEN3 also produces more than 40% of the energy it consumes from regenerative braking. 

This latest car also has a focus on life cycle, with a clear path towards a second life at the end for tyres, broken parts and battery cells. It uses linen and recycled carbon fibre in the bodywork, with all waste carbon fibre reused for different applications. Natural rubber and recycled fibres make up 26% of new GEN3 tyres, which are fully recycled after racing. 

Part of Formula E’s commitment to sustainability comes from its work in social projects, boosted by partnerships with UNICEF and its Safe and Healthy Environment Fund; the FIA Girls on Track activations and legacy projects within race locations. 

Formula E has also recently restated its commitment to maintaining the championship’s net zero carbon status from inception. The sport said that it was the first in the world to achieve such a status, and last season announced a 24% reduction in emissions compared to Season 5’s baseline. This is ahead of a 45% reduction target by 2030. 

Formula E was recently independently ranked and recognised as the most sustainable sport in the world by the Global Sustainability Benchmark in Sports (GSBS), and also maintained its International Standard for Sustainable Events (ISO 20121) and the FIA Three-Star level for Environmental Accreditation. 

The FIA-sanctioned off-roading electric racing series Extreme E has similar initiatives in place to that of Formula E, and held its inaugural season in 2021. The series’ goals include promoting greater environmental responsibility, reducing the overall climate impact from sports, using its platform to educate for climate action, promoting sustainable and responsible consumption, and advocating for climate action through its communications. Extreme E is a signatory of the United Nations’ Sports for Climate Action Framework. 

As well as the overall mission outlined above, Extreme E successfully committed to having a net zero carbon footprint by the end of its first season, with anything that could not be avoided offset through ALLCOT-certified global programmes. 

Harlie Raethel on Unsplash

Harlie Raethel on Unsplash

MotoGP

The Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM) Grand Prix World Championship, more commonly known as MotoGP, has its own sustainability platform in place. The Racing Together initiative involves stakeholders, fans and those that participate within the sport. 

Initiatives include supporting local-led programmes in Africa; developing zero-carbon fuels that will be launched in MotoGP in 2024; aiming to make events smoke-free; creating a more sustainable and social paddock; the development of MotoE and the FIM’s 10-year-old Ride Green initiative, KiSS – which stands for Keep it Shiny and Sustainable – and is related to the positive impact of each circuit and event. 

The bigger picture 

The Sustainable Motorsport Index 2023 report featured 105 global two-wheeled and four-wheeled motorsport championships, demonstrating the huge depth of the sector. 

The Index was established in 2020 by independent agency Innovation Consulting, Dr Cristiana Pace and Professor Paolo Tatichhi, who is the Professor of Corporate Governance at UCL School of Management.

The recent report argued that the most significant way in which major motorsport championships can race towards a more sustainable future is by influencing fans and viewers to take steps in their own sustainability journey. 

The report said: “With millions of fans across the world watching and attending international motorsport events annually, motorsport championships hold an influential position in the global sustainability race. Not only can they have a significant positive environmental, social, and economic impact across their own operations, championships can also influence their wider ecosystem, including their suppliers, promoters, hosts, and fans.”

This year’s Sustainable Championships Index (SChI) ranking saw Formula E in first place for sustainability, followed by Formula 1 in second, and Extreme E and MotoGP tied in third place.

A number of other championships were given honourable mentions for being in the early stages of their sustainability journeys. The FIA/FIM World Rally-Raid Championship, the Indycar Series in the US and the International Motor Sports Association in the US were all noted to have implemented environmental initiatives over the past year. 

Setting the pace 

As noted by the Sustainable Motorsport Index report: “There are clear signs of progress being made across the 105 global motorsport championships reviewed, with an increasing number of championships making strides to not only improve their sustainability performance – but to also effectively communicate their efforts.”

There is little doubt that motorsport’s long sustainability journey is likely to encounter bumps in the road. 

However, it is also clear that motorsport has the potential to use its massive platform to amplify efforts to enhance sustainability in the coming years, as well as taking tangible steps themselves.

    GSS Weekly Newsletter Registration

    Register your interest in receiving our free weekly sport and sustainability newsletter and get it delivered to your inbox every Thursday

    GSS Weekly Newsletter Benefits:

    • Free access to all the latest sustainability news and features

    • Free weekly newsletter featuring all the latest developments in sport and sustainability

    First name

    Last name

    Company

    Title

    Email

    Nation