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Petrolheads steer for green track

Richard Black | 16:40 UK time, Wednesday, 30 June 2010

I know some regular readers have me pegged as a bleeding heart liberal who's racked with pangs of self-hatred if I should so much as cycle over a worm or eat anything more technological than home-knitted organic muesli; so it may come as a shock that I really enjoy the high-octane buzz and top-end thrills of motor racing.

Yes, I know - the huge carbon footprint, the high-consumption lifestyles of the rich and famous, the gender division apparent in the way the drivers walk through an avenue of scantily-clad beauties on their way back from slaying a buffalo for dinner - sorry, winning a race - the blatant product placement, the publicity-hungry hangers-on...

But think instead of the skill involved in putting your car six inches from a concrete wall at 200km/hr, the quick-wittedness of the passing, the sheer technological exuberance of the chariots... well, it works for me.

McLaren_car_in_Grand_PrixIt clearly works also for people with real expertise in design and engineering. No surprise there; what would you rather work on - a Ferrari Formula One car or a Renault Clio?

One insider told me that if you want a technical job in F1, don't even bother applying unless you've got a top-line PhD as a minimum.

And that's what's intriguing, I think, about the "green" progress that Formula One has just unveiled, and the package of technological advances it's working on.

The goal that teams are probably going to settle on is this: to virtually double fuel efficiency of their cars between 2013 and 2018, with no loss of performance.

Out will go the 2.4-litre normally-aspirated V8 engines of current design. In will come something more akin on paper to what you'd find in the average family car these days - maybe 1.5-litre, turbocharged, in either a straight-4-cylinder or V6 configuration.

Fuel consumption would be cut from about 160kg per race to about 80kg. Yet they'd still accelerate from 0 to 100 in a flash and top 300km/hr.

The word is that the engine manufacturers - Mercedes, Renault, Ferrari and Cosworth - think this is do-able.

Ladies_watching_GPIf they're right, the big question is what it means for ordinary vehicles, from luxury liners of the road to carbon-fibre three-wheelers, from juggernauts to motorised rickshaws.

Lawmakers in the EU, US and elsewhere are mandating improved energy efficiency standards for vehicles. But the auto industry hasn't always lived up to promises in the past - and where is it going to get its ideas from, in any case, for leaner cars that we still want to drive?

I don't want to get carried away here, but what you have with the F1 brains trust is a kind of mini-Manhattan Project for auto engines. Set a demanding goal, provide a major pot of money and point enough brainy people in the right direction, and you stand a good chance of making it work - that's the theory, anyway.

It might seem a less purist approach to cutting carbon emissions than signing a global treaty on the subject, but that doesn't mean it won't bring in real savings - and even if you're not in the anthropogenic climate change camp, you might still appreciate the idea for the delay it will would bring to the onset of peak oil.

My colleague Andrew Benson who covers F1 for his day job has written more on this, so do read his thoughts if you're interested.

A petrolhead and a woolly tree-hugger writing the same kind of story - who'da thunk it?


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