Among the many themes that animated the weekend of the Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring there was also the meeting between the engineers interested in a future commitment in Formula 1, to trace the guidelines of the power units that will debut between 2025 and 2026. The discussions are still at a preliminary stage, effectively preventing us from going into the details of what will be the architecture of the motors of the near future of the world champion Circus, although deadlines are pressing more than what appearances may suggest.
In these early stages of assessment, rather than an in-depth study on the numbers and technical characteristics of the engines for the second half of the decade, a digression on the political, environmental and technological framework of the automobile market is instead appropriate. The leaders of Formula 1 are in fact still intent on maintaining a technological relevance or at least a link between the category and the automotive industry., a will that results in the determination to pursue and at the same time precede the development of ecologically sustainable mobility.
The hypothesis of some enthusiasts that the environmental sustainability pursued by Formula 1 stems from a policy aimed at giving a “green” image to sport does not fully include the technological and legislative framework of the automotive world. The current environmental scenario and the future prospects deriving from atmospheric pollution, the greenhouse effect and the consequent global warming in fact lead the legislative bodies, in Europe and beyond, to issue international regulations to imitate polluting emissions into the atmosphere. Hence the need for manufacturers to develop alternative forms of mobility able in the years to come to be subject to these limits and, consequently, the need for Formula 1 to adapt to the new guidelines of the automotive industry.
Engineers and Formula 1 leaders sitting at the Red Bull Ring negotiating table then discussed the most cost-effective and engineering ways to improve the environmental sustainability of propulsion technology from 2025. weighing at the same time the limits of the different possibilities. Given the enormous breadth of the subject, it should be premised that in the following lines it will be treated in a synthetic way, referring for a more detailed discussion to the interview last November edited by Gianluca Calvaresi ad Andrea Dolfi, head of research and development of PETRONAS Fluid Technology Solutions.
F1 | Petronas and the green fuels of the future
Formula 1 far from the electric
Hybrid technology has pushed Formula 1 single-seaters from 2014 to today, at the same time carving out an important slice of the market where it is present with a wide variety of different solutions. However, the permanence of a combustion engine powered by fossil fuels does not completely eliminate carbon dioxide emissions. (CO2), which contribute to the greenhouse effect responsible for global warming. The automotive industry and, consequently, Formula 1 are therefore looking to alternatives that can offer a long-term solution.
Among the forms of alternative mobility, all-electric propulsion has met with some success on the international scene, thanks to the total absence of emissions tank-to-wheel, literally from the tank to the wheel, thus limiting the analysis to just using the car. However, the issue is different for emissions well-to-wheel, that is from the energy source to the wheel, as by taking the entire production cycle into consideration, it emerges that the level of zero emissions is maintained only if the production of electricity takes place using renewable sources. Furthermore, it should not be underestimated how the extraction of the minerals necessary for the construction of batteries such as lithium in turn entails an impact on the territory, to which must be added the disposal problems for batteries at the end of their life, despite the spread of reuse and recycling.
Finally, the all-electric propulsion still has limits in terms of weight, range and charging times, although growth on all three fronts is proceeding at a rapid pace. Electric mobility therefore offers interesting prospects for the future, but there are still problems to be solved in order to guarantee complete environmental sustainability. Formula 1 is also unable to embrace 100% electric technology due to the exclusivity held by Formula E for the next two decades.
The frontier of hydrogen
Another possible alternative that is slowly spreading in the automobile market is that of hydrogen propulsion in its two forms, namely through fuel-cell or as a fuel for combustion engines. In the first case, the hydrogen is exploited for the production of electricity directly on board the car by means of the fuel-cell, energy subsequently exploited to power a traditional electric powertrain. Among the advantages is the considerable reduction in the size of the battery, thus limiting the problems of production, recycling and disposal. In the context of competitions, hydrogen fuel-cell is ready to debut in a class reserved for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2024, in anticipation of a future extension of the category to the entire WEC championship.
Hydrogen, the new frontier for Le Mans
Hydrogen as fuel for a thermal engine could instead make its debut in motorsport always in the field of endurance competitions, with Scuderia Glickenhaus, engaged with its hypercars in the premier class of the WEC, which has feared the intention of embracing this technology in the next future. The same solution was also considered by the leaders of Formula 1, although interest seems to have shifted more decisively towards biofuels. In fact, hydrogen mobility presents many unknowns in view of its potential large-scale diffusion, including the need for the distillation process to be powered by renewable sources to guarantee zero emissions. well-to-wheel.
The topic of biofuels
Given the current imperfection of hydrogen and full-electric forms of mobility, the apparent intentions of the leaders of Formula 1 to develop alternative fuel technology acquire a coherence that goes beyond the simple desire to keep the thermal engine to preserve the charm of the sound. However, the actual environmental sustainability of the project will depend on the fuels that will be used, whether they will be first-generation biofuels with a high impact on the exploitation of the soil and the food chain or whether they will be second-generation biofuels, obtained from biomass recycled from industrial waste. Finally, the perspective of the e-fuels, ie synthetic fuels, discussed in depth like biofuels in the aforementioned interview with Andrea Dolfi.
Depending on the chemical composition and the production process, the environmental sustainability of alternative fuels may lie in the absence of CO2 emissions or rather in the exploitation of the carbon dioxide emitted by industrial plants or already present in the atmosphere for the production of the same fuels. In this way, while continuing to emit CO2 from the exhaust terminal, the atmospheric concentration does not increase in the overall balance. However, emissions of other substances such as nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide remain which, although they do not contribute to accelerating the greenhouse effect, are still harmful to health.
The cards on the table
The problem of green mobility is therefore still far from being solved. The road that Formula 1 and the engaged engineers seem to want to follow starting from 2025/2026 is that of hybrid power units, but with profound differences compared to the current architecture. The possibility that the thermal engine is powered by biofuels is becoming more and more evident, while other aspects remain to be defined. In the past the leaders of the Circus had praised two-stroke engine technology, which with the current progress of engineering has shown on some prototypes to guarantee efficiency values higher than 50%, but in recent months the hypothesis seems to have weakened.
As for the electrified powertrain, the electrical component will increase, but without being the only source of energy, thanks to the exclusivity currently held by Formula E. It seems very likely that the MGU-H will disappear, the electric motor generator coupled to the turbocharger, whose costs have often been at the center of criticism. The compactness of the electric motors, on the other hand, opens the doors to their possible installation also on the front axle, thus switching to an all-wheel drive. The feasibility of the project in terms of dimensions is demonstrated by the third generation Formula E cars that will debut in 2023, which will be equipped with a second electric motor at the front that will be used exclusively for regeneration under braking.
The increase in the electrical component will in any case require a greater capacity and therefore weight of the battery, an increase to be limited by working on the aerodynamic efficiency of the cars. The discourse on power units cannot therefore transcend that of future aerodynamic rules, which could go towards a greater search of the load from the bottom compared to the wing appendages, which would also help to reduce the aerodynamic disturbance for the car behind, facilitating close pursuits. Pat Symonds also, technical director of Formula 1, had previously mentioned the possibility of greater use of active aerodynamics, driven by the need to reduce drag, energy consumption and, lastly, the weight of the battery.
Motors 2025: the proposals on the table
In conclusion, it will be hectic months awaiting the Technical Working Group and the other competent bodies of Formula 1, called to define the power units for the near future of the category. The hope is that the desire of the Circus to take part in the race towards sustainable mobility in order to maintain a technological relevance for the industry will translate into an effective freedom of development for motorists, through the drafting of a less binding technical regulation than the current one.