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Damon Hill predicts synthetic fuel future for F1

Damon Hill has suggested Formula 1 should consider ditching its hybrid power units for full combustion engines and use the rapid technological advances in carbon-neutral synthetic fuels.

Damon Hill

Hill got a taste of motorsport’s potential future at Daytona’s Sandown circuit, when he became the first person to drive a kart powered by fully synthetic fuel, produced by former F1 technical chief Paddy Lowe’s company Zero.

The carbon neutral fuel, which Zero makes from air and water using renewable energy, can be dropped directly into any engine. Once available at fossil-comparable prices – which Lowe predicts will be within a decade – it could help neutralise emissions throughout motorsport.

Speaking after the run, Hill said: “I think everyone is struggling with every brain cell they have to try to solve the problem of how we become sustainable and still produce the performance that people want.

“Motorsport is about high-performance vehicles and the entertainment side is key. It is a real technical challenge and what I see as increasingly a problem is the size and weight of the cars – in F1 particularly – in their attempts to be as green as possible.

“They are very efficient but they are huge and heavy and that impacts on the nimbleness of the car. It brings us back to the question of whether the practicalities of pursuing all-electric or even hybrid vehicles in this type of competition is a genuine direction.”

Hill was not the first to try Lowe’s synthetic fuel – it has already achieved a Guinness World Record for the first flight with synthetic fuel, was used in two supercars on Top Gear and fuelled the Duke of Richmond’s motorbike at Goodwood.

Damon Hill

Damon Hill

Photo by: Uncredited

This, however, was the first time it has been tested in a true motorsport situation and when Hill drove the kart he discovered that, as the fuel is more pure than fossil fuels and does not contain any impurities, it actually made the kart drive even better.

“It ran like a dream,” said Hill. “I thought it was quite zippy! It was the first time I had driven one of these karts and I drove it with both fuels. I do actually feel like the pick-up was slightly better on the Zero fuel.

“The sound and performance were the same as a normal petrol-powered machine, but as the fuel is made using the same amount of carbon that is emitted when it is used, it makes absolutely no difference to the atmosphere.”

F1 has explored the use of sustainable fuel, while in 2026 it plans to introduce new engines with almost triple the amount of electrical power compared to the current hybrid components. However, that is likely to come with a further increase in weight from larger batteries.

The combustion engine units will also run on sustainable fuels, likely to be derived from bio and municipal waste sources.

While electrification in road cars had influenced F1’s future, with road-going combustion engines no longer to be built in the UK from 2030 and EU from 2035, a recent change in the EU to allow synthetically-fuelled engines to continue beyond 2035 may open up new alternatives.

Hill believes while electrification has its merits, motorsport should still look to combustion: “There may be a place for everything and the right use and appropriate use of technology and innovation for different disciplines could be a better way of looking at things.

“If you look at aviation, the pursuit of electric aeroplanes is only feasible for short haul. Long haul it’s inconceivable. So, for certain sectors, you can use high energy density synthetic fuel like Zero’s and not contribute any more to increasing carbon in the atmosphere.

“You have to be honest about the problem. If F1 was to say, ‘we’ve found a way where we can go back to using pure internal combustion engines but we are not increasing the carbon in the atmosphere’, would everyone be happy? I think a lot of people would.” 

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