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Is F1 going to save the combustion engine from oblivion?

Formula 1 finds itself in a unique moment right now as it prepares for regulations that could well define the cars we drive in the future.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23, kicks up sparks

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

With Audi and Honda swelling F1’s ranks by committing to the sustainably fuelled turbo hybrid regulations from 2026, the significance of what is happening goes well beyond the spectacle of having six car makers going up against each other on track.

In fact, there is a bigger global picture at play here and one that could well dictate the future of road car engines.

It did not take long after Honda’s recent U-turn decision for some key messages to emerge about where F1 was heading and what it means for the vehicles that we see on the roads every day.

As Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said: “For me, it demonstrates that the combustion engine isn't dead yet and that there's still life in combustion.

“Obviously when they [Honda] withdrew, it was because of electrification. And I think perhaps with sustainable fuels and zero emissions, plus the route that Formula 1 is going for 2026, combustion became relevant to them again.”

EU developments

After many years where governments led car-makers and the public down a path where an all-electric future was being mandated, the landscape has been shifting over recent months.

Where once it appeared that an EU ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2035 would mark the death knell of the internal combustion engine, things are not so clear cut now.

As the EU regulations have worked their way through parliament, concessions have been made to ensure the necessary approval from various governments.

And, as well as low-volume car makers now being able to continue selling traditional engines, so the German government stepped in to ensure an exemption for engines powered by carbon neutral e-fuel.

That move has prompted the Italian government to seek exemptions for biofuels.

Now, helped in part by F1 representatives including CEO Stefano Domenicali being at the heart of discussions around Europe to better educate the decision-makers, the message seems to be getting through of a more considered response.

Stefano Domenicali, CEO, Formula 1, on the grid with dignitaries

Stefano Domenicali, CEO, Formula 1, on the grid with dignitaries

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Just recently the G7 gathering in Japan made clear the future it saw for road cars, and it was of them being electrified, not just electric, and including the use of fuels.

In a statement outlining its commitments, the G7 nations stated that they wanted: “To achieve 100 percent electrified vehicles in new passenger car sales by 2035; to promote associated infrastructure and sustainable carbon-neutral fuels including sustainable bio- and synthetic fuels.”

Equally there is a growing awareness of the life-cycle carbon footprint of electrical vehicles versus hybrids and traditional cars, which is showing there is no clear-cut evidence of electric being dramatically better.

This does not mean that car manufacturers are suddenly going to back away from the transition to electric completely in favour of more traditional engines.

But there seems to be a more sensible approach opening up to policy and a growing reality that the combustion engine has a future – especially if it can be powered by carbon neutral fuel.

New mindsets

Even Honda itself, which announced three years ago it was quitting F1 because of its shift to electric vehicles, says it is now open-minded about the future direction of road cars – even if its own plans have not yet been changed.

PLUS: How F1's future fuels can shape the automotive sector

Speaking last month as the Japanese company announced its commitment to 2026 with Aston Martin, Honda CEO Toshihiro Mibe said that his company could not ignore the likelihood of the combustion engine being around for some time to come.

“We're going to be moving towards electrification and we do not have a plan at the moment regarding the e-fuel,” he said.

“But in 2035, or 2040, if you ask me whether the cars running on the streets are unable to run on fuels, it is unimaginable. I think we will have to be prepared for e-fuels and the demand that may be present. But e-fuel has its problems as well, such as the costs.”

A Honda logo on a Red Bull engine cover

A Honda logo on a Red Bull engine cover

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

This open mindedness is something that F1's Domenicali has long called for, as he has been annoyed by what he feels has been almost a ‘religious’ casting by politicians of electric as being the one-and-only answer for carbon neutral road cars.

Speaking exclusively to Autosport, Domenicali said: “When you talk about electrification, the approach that I personally don't like is this kind of religion when you say, ‘okay, the world will be full electric, and the internal combustion engine is the devil.’

“This approach, personally, I don't think is correct and is not right.

“The objective of being sustainable, in all the things we're doing, is the right one, but as always in life, transition is the key to success. If you push for something that is not deliverable, it's a mistake.

“And it's basically something that will not help you achieve the bigger target that everyone wants to achieve.”

A more realistic future

F1 has long talked about its belief of a future where there are both electric and sustainably-fuelled combustion engines on the roads – with no place for fossil fuels.

Exactly where the divide goes between electric and combustion engine is hard to predict right now.

But how far F1 pushes forward its hybrid technology and the development of sustainable fuels – both from an energy-input required and cost basis – will be critical to defining this.

It is that very reason why F1 has pursued the sustainable fuel path, because it is about improving the technology at a rate that would not be achieved if left to regular commercial forces.

Domenicali added: “When we took the decision to go hybrid with sustainable fuel, we gave the opportunity to try to compress the time to market for a new technology that we believe will be essential in the approach of a future general de-carbonisation of the world.

“We know today that in terms of complexity, electrification is huge. And therefore, I think that F1 will help with another way of arriving to this target, in a much more efficient way.

Maintenance sign denoting that a car is fuelled in the Haas F1 garage

Maintenance sign denoting that a car is fuelled in the Haas F1 garage

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

“If you think about the number of cars, commercial vehicles, trucks, ships and planes there are, there is a demand of energy that means it is not possible to go in just one direction.

“I think that the reason why Honda came back, and also Audi and also other manufacturers have confirmed their presence here is because they see that as an opportunity through F1 to accelerate sustainability in a different way.

“It is also important to see how all the fuel manufacturers now have changed their approach from fuel to energy supplier. It is a different way that will enable the world to attack the sustainability project in a very consistent way.”

Facing the challenge

FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem says that his governing body has to step up now, as he says there is a duty to take action and do what is best for the environment.

He singles out how ethical concerns about the use of Cobalt in some batteries shows electric is not the perfect solution, while it is also known that lithium extraction has its own environmental downsides.

“Unless we lead, it will fail,” he told Autosport. “I would like to see the FIA as a hub for certifying fuel because, as the governing body for motor sport in the world, we are neutral, we are fair and we are trusted.

“But I believe there is common sense there now in understanding: are we reaching for what we want or are we rushing into things [too much]?

“I respect the governments in saying ‘let’s see’. I mean, can we keep the combustion engine and still reach our goals?

“Who cares how we do it, as long as we reach it [carbon neutrality] in an ethical way.

“But just look at Cobalt. You need Cobalt to do [batteries] and we’ve looked at it: where are the sources? If you look at our regulations, they have to be from ethical sources too. And then they have to be recycled again.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14, kicks up sparks

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14, kicks up sparks

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

“I am optimistic that we can reach [our targets]. Sustainable fuel is important. People were trying to push it aside, but now people are using it. So, I think combining together with energy companies, and with the teams and the OEMs, we can reach where we need to.”

F1’s pioneering force

After decades where F1 regularly changed its regulations to ensure it was road relevant, now it seems it could be leading the way and helping set the agenda about what is on the road in years to come.

And if F1 can succeed in changing the mindset that the only thing that matters is carbon neutral transport, whatever it is made up of, then why can’t it help keep the combustion engine a part of our everyday life?

Asked if he could see a long-term future for the combustion engine, Ben Sulayem said: “Yes, I can. But there is a challenge we all have to work towards.

“I do believe some of the manufacturers were laid back before because there was just a process of E5 and E10 fuel.

“Now there is big pressure, but you cannot do it alone. The FIA, OEMs and the manufacturers are very important for this. It’s the responsibility of everyone together.”

It is that challenge, and the possibilities that F1’s direction is opening up, that are key for Domenicali.

“To think that the internal combustion engine will go away in 2035 is to think that we're getting younger: it's impossible,” he said.

“It's a mistake to say that, and it is taking people who are not following this subject closely in the wrong way. That's why I feel that we have a responsibility to do our own duty on this kind of subject.

“No one knows what the limit in the future is, but with sustainable fuel, you may argue that if you have a fully sustainable fuel, and you will reach the tailpipe emissions zero target, what is the benefit of going in another direction?”

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