Return to journal

I’m falling out of love with F1, and this time Michael Massi isn’t to blame

Sustainability analyst Rebecca Ward explores the pressing issue of sustainability in the sport and sets out 4 key steps to transformational change.

Adobestock 501749104 Editorial Use Only

I, like many others, fell in love with Formula 1 (F1) having watched the supremely popular Netflix series, Drive to Survive. And I’m not alone, in 2023 an average of 1.11 million of us tuned in for race day. In the sport, men (that’s a topic for another day) with extremely strong necks and superhuman reaction times drive the fastest cars in the world around iconic racetracks and city circuits, battling to be the first across the finish line. There are thrills, spills, and an eclectic cast of drivers and team managers to keep fans entertained. 

However, the sport has come under much scrutiny since its inception. In earlier years, safety was often the focus of criticism. Today, the focus is undeniably on the environmental cost of the sport. The sport is built upon the power of combustion engines. As such, in the context of our warming planet and international pledges to reduce emissions, F1 faces enormous criticism regarding its roughly quarter of a million tonnes of annual GHG emissions.

Contrary to popular belief, emissions from power units of the cars makes up a miniscule 0.7% of F1’s total emissions. It is travel – including business travel and logistics – that is the major contributor to emissions in the sport (70% of emissions). It stands to reason then, that F1’s inaugural sustainability strategy – in which it committed to reach net zero by 2030 – would focus on setting robust targets to reduce travel, thereby reducing emissions. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. At this point, my love for F1 starts to wane. Instead,  F1 have committed to maximise logistics and travel efficiency, but no measurable target has publicly communicated. No need to panic yet, perhaps their actions speak louder than words? 


The popularity of the sport has skyrocketed in new regions such as the USA thanks to the Drive to Survive series. And unfortunately, it seems seven-time world champion, Lewis Hamilton, hit the nail on the head when he said, “cash is king”. Making more cash means more races. The inaugural 1950 season featured seven races. In 2019 – when the sustainability strategy was launched – there were 21. In 2024, F1 will have the most races ever, with 24 races across 21 countries. On top of this, the structure of the calendar is more chaotic than the finale of the 2021 season – when Michael Massi (arguably) single-handedly ripped a record-breaking 8th championship from Hamilton’s grasp. The calendar flip-flops from one continent to the next and back again, leading to significantly more emissions than necessary. By some calculations, optimisation of the calendar could reduce travel emissions by around 56%. Upon this realisation, my love for this sport is extinguished. 

Innovations in transport and logistics have resulted in a fractional reduction in total emissions at F1. But this incremental change will not cut it as we strive to save our planet, as we accelerate – DRS enabled – toward global boiling. And I’m sorry to say, incremental change is not restricted to F1. 

The evidence is clear, if organisations continue at this snail’s pace of change, we lose all hope of meeting even a 2-degrees warming scenario. The consequences don’t bare thinking about. So, how can we shift gears from incremental to transformational change, preferably at Max Verstappen-like speed?

1.    Set context-based targets. Collectively, we are living beyond the means of our planet, taking more natural resources than the planet can sustain every year. Context-based targets take into account these planetary boundaries, ensuring that an organisation operates within its own fair share of nature’s replenishable resources. Without context-based targets, no organisation can truly claim to be sustainable, merely less damaging than before. The FutureFit Benchmark and the UN Sustainable Development Performance Indicators (SDPIs) represent two of the first tools available to organisations to support such efforts. Both allow organisations to embed thresholds into their sustainability efforts, to close the gap between business as usual and a business model that operates within planetary and social boundaries. 

2.    Prioritise absolute targets. While many large companies have set emissions reduction targets, big emitters continue to pledge intensity-based targets regarding their hardest to abate emissions (typically scope 3 emissions). Intensity-based targets typically aim to achieve a reduction in emissions per unit of product. This means the targets allow for business growth, in other words, selling more units of product. In short, intensity-based targets often allow companies to increase their total emissions, while reporting positive progress toward a purported emissions reduction goal. Smells fishy, right? Conversely, absolute targets require reduction of total emissions to celebrate success. Both the SBTi and CSRD advocate for the latter, in the hopes that the transition to net-zero is a successful one. 

3.    Embed targets in organisational strategic planning. As we strive to reduce emissions, we cannot rely on fledgling innovations, or worse, those that are yet to be realised. Transformational change means re-imagining business-as-usual for success in the transitioned economy. Decision making to date has been driven by the financial bottom line, but it is time to consider the triple bottom line. Strategic planning must aim to turn a profit for the environment and society as well as the shareholder’s pocket. And doing so will bolster the resilience of businesses as climate scenarios become reality. 

4.    Communicate targets and be held to account. Once a business has set context based, absolute targets, and is embedding these into strategic planning, it is crucial to publicly communicate those targets. Not only does this demonstrate to stakeholders a commitment to transformational change, it also means businesses are held to account. And, through annual reporting, businesses can share challenges and learnings such that others can avoid experiencing the same pitfalls. This kind of open sourcing will be crucial to success, because tackling climate change is not a solo effort.

Maybe, just maybe, if Formula One can unleash transformational, race-pace change, by implementing these levers, I’ll be back to super-fan status in time to see Max Verstappen de-throned.