Formula One, Efficiency Too: How Excessive Speed Doesn’t Mean Excessive Fuel Consumption

October 18, 2013 | 9:20 am
Josh Goldman
Former contributor

When you think of Formula One racing, you tend to think of speed, power, and skill. I mean, look at how much faster F1 cars are compared to high end racing cars with exotic pedigrees that are usually thought of as “fast.”

F1 Cars are Becoming More Efficient

Not only are F1 cars frighteningly fast, they are also about to become more efficient. A major suite of new regulations set to take effect at the beginning of the 2014 racing season will significantly improve F1 cars’ fuel efficiency, and reduce the sport’s environmental impact. At the center of the regulations is the requirement that F1 cars use a new generation of engine that is becoming more similar to the engines in the cars we drive on the road today — and those we’re likely to drive in the future.

Currently, all F1 teams use 2.4 liter V8 engines, which have already shrunk from 3.0 liter engines that were used several years ago, and from the 3.5 liter engines common in the mid-1990s. In recognizing the importance of increasing efficiency, F1 has decreed that the new engine for 2014 will be a V6, 1.6-liter engine, with roughly 550 horsepower and 15,000 revolutions per minute (rpm). My car, for comparison, maxes out around 6,500 rpm — and expresses monumental displeasure when revving that high. By downsizing the engines, F1 cars are set to use 30 percent less fuel during each race and will include two forms of energy recovery systems: one for reusing energy recovered during braking and another for reusing energy created from exhaust heat.

How Energy Recovery Systems Work

Reusing energy recovered during braking is nothing new. F1 has been using Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) for several years, though the new system for 2014 will be twice as powerful, providing bursts of 160 horsepower of energy. Drivers are able to release this stored energy by pushing a “boost” button that gives their car extra zip when passing or trying to make up for lost time. Here’s one of my favorite drivers, Lewis Hamilton, explaining how the boost feature works.

How Everyday Vehicles Use F1 Technology

What does this technology have to do with the everyday driver? Actually, a lot. Hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius and the Ford Fusion Energi utilize the same basic principles behind F1 energy capture systems during braking, which helps these vehicles and similar hybrids achieve outstanding fuel economy. The 2013 Toyota Prius, for example, gets approximately 50 miles per gallon (mpg) and the 2013 Ford Fusion Energi, a plug-in hybrid, achieves an impressive 100 mpg when using both electricity and gas. Going farther on each gallon of gas means saving more at the pump, creating fewer emissions, and helping reduce oil use. As F1 continues to push the technology of these energy recovery systems to create more power and achieve better fuel economy, we could also see conventional cars adopt these improved systems that have been tested on F1 circuits around the world.