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FEBRUARY 28, 2006

Oil, money, technology and F1

FIA President Max Mosley has in recent days been talking about the inevitability of a major oil crisis and its effect on the sport.

"When that happens all those politicians will say, 'We must show the public we are serious about fuel economy and we must stop Formula 1'," Mosley argues. "There will always be politicians on our side but we need to arm them with good arguments. If all the research and development and engine work is on the cutting edge of fuel efficiency it would be much harder to argue against us."

There are several questions raised by these remarks.

Experts in the oil industry cannot agree on whether or not there is going to be a major oil crisis. Fears of a crisis are largely based on political questions, specifically in the Middle East where much of the oil reserves are located. This can lead to problems as was seen in 1973 when Arab oil producing countries cut oil supplies because of the West's support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War. Since then, however, oil-producing nations have constantly aimed to maintain stability. In part this is due to the fact that the Arab nations no longer have as much power as they used to have because oil production has spread, notably with developing fields in Russia, China and Central Asia. The Middle East supplies will outlast the new fields but in the mid-term the existence of alternatives ought to encourage stability. Fear of instability will also, inevitably, encourage governments to invest in research into better alternatives.

The assumption that politicians will go after Formula 1 in the event of an oil crisis is also an interesting idea but it is fairly easy to construct a series of arguments to prove that this would be an absurd course of action. As the FIA President himself has argued in the past, when putting across a point about air pollution, F1 is insignificant in terms of fuel usage when compared to commercial jet liners.

In 2004, for example, it is estimated that the US airline companies alone used up 18.5bn gallons of fuel, a rather larger and more realistic target than a few F1 cars using a few thousand gallons a year.

Mosley's remarks should perhaps not be viewed in isolation. The fear of an oil crisis may be a justification for the FIA President's long-term view of F1: a free-for-all formula with teams simply given a specific allowance of fuel and being left to devise the most efficient engine possible.

"All kinds of motors will be allowed," Mosley suggests, "but every car will get an equal amount of fuel. So it will be based on consumption."

This sounds like a worthy idea, to give the sport relevance to the automobile industry and to the world in general. It is clear that alternatives must be found. The world currently has around 1,000 bn barrels of proven crude oil reserves. World consumption is around 70m barrels a day. In other words the world needs alternative forms of renewable energy because within 100 years the dependence on oil will have to reduce dramatically.

The problem with this idea is that investment in unlimited engine development would almost certainly be greater than in the current engines. Research into normally-aspirated petrol engines is well-advanced and that means there are limits to the spending possible. Unlimited engines would mean the potential for unlimited budgets, particularly if car manufacturers felt there was a value in such work.

Thus the argument for exciting and useful new technology may conflict with the FIA's plans for cost-saving to protect the sport from big-spending car companies.