Friday 30 August 2013

Further thoughts on the Belgian Grand Prix

F1 needs to talk green
For once Sebastian Vettel, basking in victory's glow, had to share the light. Perhaps even be left in the shadows. F1, with its strict management of the world feed, had just about managed to keep it from our TV screens, but there were plenty of still photos that the press and others replicated with relish in the days afterwards. Yes, Greenpeace protesters - unhappy with Shell's arctic exploration - had been able to unveil banners saying so both on the pit straight grandstand before the race and (twice) on the podium, as well as had one of their number abseil down behind the live podium ceremony. And Shell just so happened to be sponsoring the event, and as we know is in a conspicuous partnership with the Ferrari team.

The Greenpeace protest on Spa's pit straight grandstand
Photo: Octane Photography
The reaction that I sensed to all of this both in the media centre and among the sport's fans on social media was mainly dismissive however, as if all that was required in response was a contemptuous wave, to ignore them rather like you would a child throwing a tantrum. But such an attitude strikes me as short-sighted, as well as would be a manifestation of F1's persistent delusion that it exists inside a world of its own. I've thought for a while that F1 has been rather lucky on such matters, in that the green lobby, however we are to define it, has left the sport broadly alone. This is despite that F1 has in the past rather left itself rather open to attack from them on a few fronts. And Spa's race day demonstrated that, in spite of considerable security (and Spa's known for being among the toughest of the lot) as well as largely successful efforts to keep them off the television, the lobby doesn't have to do much to cause the sport significant embarrassment.

And such protests are the thin end of the wedge. Gone are the days when the green lobby was simply made up of ill-dressed cranks, who are easily belittled - this perception is at least a couple of decades out of date. The movement today contains serious people who are weighty and effective operators, and know how to influence important decision-makers. And it doesn't require too much mental extrapolation to identify the risks of F1 being targeted by the green lobby: sponsors and other investors could be talked into pulling out; governments that host - or fund - F1 races could be convinced to withdraw. So, doing nothing and allowing others to shape the narrative seems a perilous option.

A luminary struggles to remove a banner on the podium
Photo: Octane Photography
But the irony of it all is that F1 already has a strong case for the defence on matters green, and one that will get stronger from next year with the new regulations. One of the few tweets I read at the time which seemed broadly to get the point was by Mark Gallagher, wherein he said: 'Greenpeace banner will no doubt be applauding F1's hybrid '14 Powertrain reducing fuel consumption 35% & promoting energy efficiency'.

Furthermore to that, F1 attracts the best and the brightest and this, combined with the intensity of competition, usually ensures the rapid development of technology. Only war rivals it (for example, both of the two World Wars of the 20th century ended with aircraft technology barely recognisable compared with that when the war had started), and F1 for all of its faults is much less harmful than war! Therefore the potential for F1 greatly accelerate the development of green technologies seems obvious, and close to impossible to replicate elsewhere.

A protester attempts to join the podium celebrations
Photo: Octane Photography
If you don't believe me you only need to look at KERS, which had virtually been abandoned by the automotive industry, but its development by a handful of F1 teams in the 2009 season was sufficient to bring it right back onto the agenda. Now cars in the showroom boasting energy recovery systems are commonplace. Williams selling flywheel KERS technology to be used on buses and the like is also a fantastic story for the sport. All F1 needs to do is to orate its line of defence with more conviction and regularity. And it's always rather frustrated me that most in the sport do seem reluctant to talk it up, possibly because they, almost by definition, tend to be the car-loving, excess-loving, gas-guzzling sort. For F1 especially it seems, it's not easy being green.

Did those protesting at the Belgian Grand Prix know about F1 has done, is doing and can offer? And if they had, even though as mentioned their ire was directed at Shell rather than F1 per se, would they have targeted an F1 race to make their point? I suspect that the answer to both of these questions is no. Sunday really should have taught us that F1 needs to be talking green in a way that more can hear.

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