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Why you should care about Formula One’s green technology

Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton visits the Mercedes engine factory in Brackley, Brixworth


'Green" technology is ubiquitous in the automotive industry today and it has also made its way into the most expensive, extravagant, gas-guzzling form of motorsport: Formula One.

The biggest changes in decades are coming to F1 for the 2014 season with downsized engines and significantly more hybrid power. Forget about the howling V-10s of the past or even the V-8s of today; next year, a new 1.6-litre V-6 turbocharged engine becomes the standard. The hybrid part is called ERS (Energy Recovery System) and it should be good for adding 160 hp for 33 seconds a lap, getting the total available up to about 750 hp. These engines can rev to 15,000 rpm and each one is supposed to last for 4,000 km.

The point of this is to bring about a 30 per cent increase in fuel efficiency and enable F1 cars to burn no more than 100 kilograms (about 140 litres) of fuel in a race. "Big deal," you say. "What about fuel burned by the fleet of jumbo jets that flies the teams, the trailers, the cars and everything else around the world to the various races?" Well, it is difficult to argue rationally in favour of F1 if you're an environmentalist.

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Nevertheless, if F1 is pouring resources into producing as much power as possible from a given amount of fuel, don't you think that technology will eventually trickle down to the car in your driveway?

I saw how massive this undertaking is during the factory tours I was on last year. These were visits to the Mercedes-Benz Formula One headquarters and factory in Brackley, England, and its engine plant just up the road at Brixworth. The former head of the engine plant is Ola Kallenius, who is now CEO of Mercedes-Benz AMG. Kallenius was in Toronto last week.

AMG is the high-performance shop within Mercedes and about 2 per cent of Mercs sold worldwide are loaded with expensive AMG performance upgrades. Kallenius agrees AMG is a big money-maker for Mercedes and, without providing numbers, he says AMG's profitability is "disproportionate" to its size.

Mercedes is going to use its Formula One team to maximize exposure for AMG. There was a big management shakeup recently announced for the F1 team and expectations are that its huge investment in engine development will pay off next year when new engine regulations come into effect.

The Brixworth engine plant, known officially as Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains, is a massive and modern engineering centre. Andy Cowell, its managing director, says success in F1 engines is about "improving efficiency in energy conversion. The package extracting the most performance from the fuel energy will perform best."

Cowell's "stretch target" for the 2014 engine is to achieve 40 per cent thermal efficiency. Most current gasoline engines have a maximum thermal efficiency of 25 to 30 per cent; in other words, of the total energy released by the gasoline consumed, 70 to 75 per cent is wasted as heat without being used to drive the car. Hitting 40 per cent would be an accomplishment and would even top the 35 per cent efficiency of modern car-based diesel engines.

Here's where Kallenius steps in to make the most of Formula One cachet and its new technology advances to sell more AMG cars. He says he has "no operational role" in the Mercedes AMG F1 team but has a "voice" in its overall direction. His "voice" is strong enough to ensure that you're going to see AMG plastered all over the Mercedes F1 cars and that the F1 story will be prominently displayed in the "AMG Performance Centres" (soon to be 20 in Canada) where the high-end AMG stuff will be peddled.

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Mercedes isn't alone in pursuing an F1 technology and marketing strategy. Ferrari and Renault's de facto works team, Red Bull, is also developing new 2014 powertrains. Championship titles sell performance brands and new technology makes championships possible.

No, F1 will never be "green," but its technology spin-offs might be.

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