The steps needed to help save motorsport’s future

“It’s fundamental to our existence and the future that we get this right.” Such a statement might seem extreme, almost sensationalist, but Motorsport UK CEO Hugh Chambers is acutely aware of exactly how important embracing sustainability has become.

Whether it’s referred to as climate change or global warming, it is (pardon the pun) a hot topic and with good reason. The flooding that caused the cancellation of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix and the wildfires that have engulfed parts of Canada are just two of the high-profile climate disasters around the globe in recent months.

Closer to home, the UK is undergoing another heatwave as global temperatures continue to rise year on year. There’s no escaping this stark reality, and it means a greater focus is being placed on all aspects of society to lower carbon emissions. Motorsport, rightly or wrongly, is under scrutiny more than any other sport and, as a result, critiqued immensely on what it’s doing to make a difference.

“A few years ago, I remember having a conversation with one of the larger circuit owners in this country and they were extremely sceptical about the need to embark on any proactive interventions in regard to sustainability,” says Chambers. “I think the actual expression they used was, ‘if you put your head above the parapet then it will just draw everyone’s focus to us, and everyone will start zoning in on us.’

“Fast forward a couple of years and the attitude has literally gone 180 degrees, which is that we need to be on the front foot. We need to be leading and we need to be setting examples.”

Rather than ignoring the issue – or denying that it’s even one in the first place – Motorsport UK is facing the challenge head-on. The governing body has released a Sustainability Strategy to look at how it can make a positive impact on the environment, as well as society and the economy more generally. This it hopes will be achieved by working alongside the FIA and adopting 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals as outlined by the United Nations.

Chambers is clear on the importance of taking a proactive stance to futureproof motorsport by adopting sustainability measures

Chambers is clear on the importance of taking a proactive stance to futureproof motorsport by adopting sustainability measures

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

While the UK’s governing body itself intends to reach a net-zero carbon footprint by the end of 2025, it also hopes to reduce 50% of the carbon emissions of all UK motorsport by 2030, primarily by using sustainable fuels, which it intends to make available at all venues by 2026. It also wants to make greater use of electric vehicles in disciplines such as StreetCar and seeks to inspire the next generation of engineers and participants through its involvement with F1 in Schools, Greenpower and Formula Student.

Motorsport UK has offered resources and guidance to clubs and competitors on how they can reduce their own carbon footprints. Head of sustainability Jess Runicles believes that while the governing body should be leading the way, it also needs to empower clubs, venues and competitors to make a difference on their own.

“It’s about engaging the community,” she says. “How do we support our community, whether it’s licence holders, venues or clubs, to reduce their own emissions?

“And that’s around providing tools, it’s about providing guidance. It’s talking to people, understanding that venues and clubs might have slightly different areas of interest or areas that they should be focusing on. That’s also different from a competitor.”

“We’ve got to recognise that with the 60,000 competitors we’ve got in the UK, all of them bar a handful are using hydrocarbon-fuelled internal combustion engines, and that’s not going to change any time soon” Hugh Chambers

One notable resource it offered earlier this year is a carbon calculator, whereby clubs and venues can work out the CO2 emissions from competitors across a year. This work was initially the brainchild of the Vintage Sports-Car Club, which was recognised for its sustainability work and awarded the Sustainable Club of the Year award by Motorsport UK in 2022.

The club runs some of the oldest cars in the UK across various disciplines including race, hillclimb and trial meetings, and is also leading the way on sustainable initiatives. This began with the carbon calculator, on which it started work in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown, allowing it to accurately predict and ultimately offset its carbon emissions.

“I think it [the pandemic] gave us some time to look at the big picture and we were very lucky that we had a new member [Mark Dibben] who’s an academic and has been able to lead the working party that’s looked at this, and make recommendations that perhaps we wouldn’t have thought about without his influence,” says Tania Brown, the VSCC’s club secretary.

VSCC has taken active steps to offset its carbon footprint and describes its ethos as “the ultimate in repair, reuse and recycle”

VSCC has taken active steps to offset its carbon footprint and describes its ethos as “the ultimate in repair, reuse and recycle”

Photo by: Mick Walker

“Not only now do we offset all of our competition events by 400%, but we also offer all of the business miles that we do. We’re now looking at also offsetting all of our staff home-to-work mileage and allowing people to offset the emissions from a car build and parts if they’re purchasing parts.”

The VSCC’s carbon offsetting is done through a company called Tree-V and is achieved through tree-planting and peatland restoration in the UK, as well as via ‘carbon credits’, which are used to buy the power generated by wind turbines in India. Brown is keen to stress that although carbon offsetting “can be seen as greenwashing” by some, the VSCC has been thorough with its research and “we do our own due diligence, to the extent that actually we highlighted a particular project to them [Tree-V] that we didn’t think met the Gold Standard Certification, and they reviewed it and removed it from the programme.”

The 750 Motor Club is another organisation in the UK that has taken active steps on sustainability, becoming the first club to carbon offset in 2021 alongside Racezero, the creation of CALM All Porsche Trophy organiser Philip Waters. While the VSCC passes the cost on to club members – the highest total is £21.40 for trial competitors across the year, applied through entry fees – the 750MC absorbs the cost completely. The club works with Carbon Neutral Britain to offset the emissions of its competitors from all of its events, primarily with the planting of trees in the UK and, like the VSCC, has looked to expand offsetting beyond the track.

Giles Groombridge, the 750MC’s competitions manager, believes that while other sectors may produce more carbon emissions, motorsport, in particular, is under scrutiny and needs to take action.

“In the short term does it need to?” he asks. “Maybe, maybe not. But I think certainly medium to long term it does. And it’s not just motorsport – all manner of industries will have to. I think if you really look at what impact motorsport has on the environment compared to commuting or aviation travel, it’s minimal, but a lot of it I guess is hearts and minds and how things look. I think it is important and I know Motorsport UK share that view.”

While carbon offsetting is an initiative that continues to grow in club motorsport, a bigger topic centres on how cars will be powered in the future. Electric and hydrogen are the most publicised alternatives to the internal combustion engine, but Chambers is keen to point out that making the switch to either is no mean feat, and for the survival of national motorsport it has become imperative to explore all options.

Insight: How close is widespread adoption of hydrogen in motorsport?

“We ran an open day in Parliament last July, and the theme was ‘the future is eclectic, not just electric’. We wanted to play our role in lobbying politicians and, without being patronising, educating politicians,” says Chambers. “By all means, legislate for the outcome, net-zero by a given date, but leave it to the clever engineers and to the scientists and the petro-chemical companies to come up with the most effective solutions.

Motorsport is entering a period of transition as new technologies such as hydrogen are developed

Motorsport is entering a period of transition as new technologies such as hydrogen are developed

Photo by: Masahide Kamio

“I think the role of motorsport isn’t just to reduce its environmental impact, but also to become a leader in technology which it’s done so successfully over many decades. We’ve got to recognise that with the 60,000 competitors we’ve got in the UK, all of them bar a handful are using hydrocarbon-fuelled internal combustion engines, and that’s not going to change any time soon. You marry that together with the fact that there are 1.3 billion internal combustion engines worldwide and you realise the scale of transition.”

One of the answers, at least in the short term, is the use of synthetic and biofuels – something that is already being implemented not only at the top of the sport in Formula 1 but also at a national level. While renewable fuels are currently more expensive than conventional fuels, the price is coming down and the availability is going up, which is starting to make it a viable option for competitors in the UK.

Both the VSCC and 750MC are already looking into the technology this season and have hopes that competitors running on the alternative fuel will take the track. The 750MC has changed the regulations in its Club Enduro Championship to allow cars to run the alternative fuel, with a Mazda MX-5 expected out later this year using a German-made biofuel, while the VSCC also hopes to have two cars using synthetic fuel in action in different disciplines.

“If you explain it to them on the basis that we’re trying to safeguard your passion by doing this, much in the same way that when you roll out the latest safety improvements that keep the sport insurable, then they start to get it” Giles Groombridge

“Our cars aren’t natural for EV conversion,” points out Brown. “For us, an engine is the beating heart of the car and stripping that out and putting an electronic unit in isn’t part of what we are, which is the ultimate in repair, reuse and recycle. We’re keeping cars on the road, but we have to do that responsibly. People are rightly worried about the environment. We’ve got a very strong youth section, but we’re also lucky that we have an older demographic who have the means to be able to pay for some of the more expensive fuels.”

While solutions continue to be developed and implemented, the hardest challenge remains in changing the mindset of competitors, clubs and venues to the idea that they need to embrace sustainability. But it’s becoming less of a taboo word, and more people are starting to acknowledge it as the solution rather than the problem.

“We don’t get too much pushback or criticism,” says Groombridge. “I wouldn’t say we’ve had loads of interest, but I think it’s a case of educating people. While there’s still a lot of people out there that don’t believe in global warming, and think it’s all a hoax or a conspiracy, if you explain it to them on the basis that we’re trying to safeguard your passion by doing this, much in the same way that when you roll out the latest safety improvements that keep the sport insurable, then they start to get it.”

Attitudes have already begun to change. The VSCC has been approached by various other clubs in the UK about how best to begin their own sustainability work, with the carbon calculator and other resources available for free on its website.

Motorsport faces an uphill battle, but steps are being made to help secure its future. As Chambers says: “We really are taking this extremely seriously. It’s stating the blindingly obvious, but if motorsport, of all the sports, doesn’t take sustainability seriously, we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Competitors in this year's Fastest Mini in the World contest at Brands Hatch will use Coryton SUSTAIN Classic Racing 50 fuel to lower emissions

Competitors in this year’s Fastest Mini in the World contest at Brands Hatch will use Coryton SUSTAIN Classic Racing 50 fuel to lower emissions

Photo by: Gary Hawkins

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