Since 2014, Formula 1 has been using hybrid power units that combine a six-cylinder internal combustion engine with a turbine and two energy recovery systems: the first, MGU-K, converts kinetic energy into electricity, and the second, MGU-U, uses exhaust gases for the same purpose. Turbocharging, banned from 1989 to 2013, allowed the cars to maintain speed while meeting the fuel consumption limit set in 2014 (no more than 100 kg per race). Finally, thanks to the hybrid component, the cars have increased speed of passing in straight lines and became more fuel efficient when accelerating in low gears.
However, the switch to hybrids from naturally aspirated eight-cylinder engines resulted in the loss of the famous Formula 1 sound. The engine roar, which had always been a symbol of the Queen of Motorsport, has become much less intense since 2014. The problem could be complicated by a possible switch from hybrid to purely electric motors, which is discussed periodically inside the paddock. However, Ross Brawn ruled out such a scenario: “We don’t want [drivers] looking at power conservation modes and trying to make the battery last long enough to get to the end of the race or saving the battery up so in the last five laps, they can really go for it. That doesn’t seem to engage the fans.”
The need to conserve battery power is a challenge regularly faced by the racers of Formula E, the open-wheel electric car racing series that has been around since 2014. Over the past seven years, ex-Formula 1 drivers have repeatedly become its champions. Among them are Nelson Piquet Jr., who won the title in the 2014-2015 season, Sébastien Buemi (2015-2016) and Jean-Eric Vergne (2017-2018 and 2018-2019). Racing electric vehicles are gradually improving: their first generation could reach speeds of up to 225 km/h, while the second one – up to 280 km/h.
But the notion of Formula E as a full-fledged alternative to Formula 1 is out of the question. “We have a one-and-a-half-hour race, we have 1,000 horsepower cars, we are the pinnacle of motorsport. You can’t get that bang without fossil fuels,” Brawn said. In his opinion, switching to hydrogen could be a solution: “Maybe hydrogen is the route that Formula 1 can have where we keep the noise, we keep the emotion, but we move into a different solution.”
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have only recently gained commercial acceptance. For example, in the United States, their number increased from 4 units in 2012 to 10,803 in July 2021, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Among European countries, Switzerland has become one of the pioneers: a year ago, South Korean Hyundai delivered the first trucks of the XCIENT Fuel Cell model there. And this year, Germany’s Daimler Truck and Sweden’s Volvo Group formed a Joint Venture (called Cellcentric) to begin building their own fuel cell trucks by the mid-2020s.
This technology has yet to being used in motorsport. In Formula 1, the transition to hydrogen may be preceded by the temporary use of a new synthetic fuel, which will be produced from biological waste, ethanol and toluene. Last winter, manufacturers of Formula 1 engines received 200 litres of this fuel each for bench tests. Gilles Simon, the FIA’s technical director, spoke about this in an interview with Auto Motor und Sport in February.