NUERBURGRING, Germany (Reuters) - Talking about climate change at a Formula One race might at first glance seem like praising celibacy in a brothel.
The world’s top motor sport competition is for many the epitome of gas-guzzling wastefulness with powerful engines burning nearly a liter of fossil fuel per kilometer while a vast entourage of people and machines jets to races round the world.
But green winds of change are blowing through one of the world’s most popular sports, and a growing number of team bosses say they want to make Formula One a high-tech pioneer and leader in fighting climate change rather than a whipping post.
Proposed changes include smaller engines, using bio-fuel and restricting the use of wind tunnels -- which may be anathema to hardcore fans for whom speed and victory are what count.
Formula One says it will introduce major rule changes by 2011 to promote fuel conservation. Many of the 11 teams have already implemented measures to reduce their “carbon footprint” -- but faster speeds and winning races remain the main target.
“Unless Formula One can become a contributor to the technology that might help the environment, it’s likely it will become a dinosaur,” Nick Fry, team principal of Honda racing, told Reuters in an interview at Sunday’s European Grand Prix.
“It’s almost come true with the floods in England last week. If there are environmental disasters happening around the world in the future before races, people will say it’s inappropriate to then put on a glitz show, burning lots of fossil fuel.”
Fry, a catalyst in the push to cut carbon emissions and waste in a sport known for its conspicuous consumption, put a huge picture of the earth on his team’s two race cars this year, uncorrupted by the usual commercial logos.
“Formula One is one of the best marketing tools in the world,” said Fry, pointing to the 600 million television viewers. F1 technology breakthroughs trickle down to road cars, he said. “If we get behind it, the potential is unsurpassed.”
“The people who like the sport would be the hardest nuts to crack. They tend to be performance fans and drive cars for performance rather than economy. We’re trying to say you can be a fan of fast cars and do good things for the environment.”
Honda race cars emit 17 metric tons of CO2 a year and 1,500 grams of CO2 per kilometer -- 10 times more than a small road car.
“We’re just starting,” said Fry. “We have a long way to go.”
Formula One’s governing body, the International Automobile Federation (FIA), wants the sport to cast off its gas-guzzling image and provide answers to public fears about climate change.
Backed by most of the carmakers which dominate the sport -- Ferrari, Mercedes, Toyota, Renault and Honda -- FIA has proposed rule changes for 2011 that include a switch to smaller turbo-compounded 2.2 liter engines running on bio-fuel.
But some carmakers fear a loss of engineering autonomy and argue the changes are too radical. With less power for the same speed, the engines would have their revs cut nearly in half.
Another rule would require cars to have a 25-kg device to store brake energy to use when accelerating. Also planned are limits on the number of staff teams can take to races and on wind tunnels, which use vast amounts of electricity.
“We are discussing rule changes to make Formula One a real pioneer,” BMW team boss Mario Theissen told Reuters. “Formula One does not have to be on the defensive. It’s on our agenda to take developments in Formula One and use them for road cars.”
Other Formula One leaders appear less enthusiastic.
Norbert Haug, head of motor sport at Mercedes, which provides the engines for McLaren, defended the sport and said that the millions of people watching Formula One races on television are thus not using their cars while the race is under way.
Kees van de Grint, head of track engineering at tire maker Bridgestone, said his firm now sends 2,200 tires to races by ship and truck rather than air freight. Bridgestone has also cut the oil content of tires by 35 percent in the last 10 years.
“There is definitely more awareness,” he said. “I‘m not sure if Formula One can set the best example but it can set an example. With greener rules, it’s going in that direction.”
But he conceded that no one has yet asked him to come up with a low-resistance tire to reduce fuel consumption.
“I don’t think that’s the name of the game in Formula One.”