Drive to Survive – Energy Institute Blog

How we (could) harness innovations from racing for road transport.

My father has always been obsessed with race cars. I recall many a time sitting on some hot aluminum bleachers watching screaming combustion engines powered by leaded gasoline fly by. Niki Lauda, “the Professor” Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher were more frequently mentioned in our daily conversations than the Beatles. 

Formula 1 (F1) racing, which has arguably always been the crown of motor racing, has experienced massive spectator growth in the US and elsewhere thanks to a Netflix show called “Drive to Survive”, which my son binge-watches whenever he can. I will admit to having seen the whole series at least twice. Much of the show focuses on hyped-up interpersonal drama, complemented by some amazing camera work. 

There are many valid criticisms of F1 (or motor) racing. It’s a massive use of resources, schlepping whole teams comprised of hundreds of mechanics, engineers, and staff to 20+ locations around the globe. Further F1 caters to a wealthy crowd with tickets usually starting at $300 if you can get one. And finally, as my mom puts it – I just don’t get why we are doing this. Should we not focus on fixing the planet instead? As is almost always the case, she’s of course right. But in between constantly feeling conflicted about my passion for F1 (I have a Michael Schumacher autograph on my desk) and my wish for a better world, I tried to figure out if there is anything “good”, other than entertainment, that comes out of the sport. And it turns out there are some really interesting spillover effects. 

F1 cars used to be powered by very thirsty large engines. The earliest cars had 4.5L aspirated engines that produced 400ish horsepower and you could refuel during the race. Today’s F1 cars have 1.6L turbo powered six cylinder engines that produce 850 horsepower and have to do a race distance on 37 gallons of fuel. This creates big incentives for more efficient powerful engines. But. And this is a big but. Today’s F1 rockets are hybrid engines that raise horsepower to around 1000. This is roughly 20 times the power of my mom’s 1973 beetle. Each race is at least 190 miles. So the fuel efficiency is about 6 miles per gallon. Ouch. 

So why is this a good thing? By limiting the fuel cars are allowed to bring, teams had to learn to squeeze more power out of smaller engines. What they did as a consequence is improve the “thermal efficiency” of engines, which is basically how much per gallon of gas gets lost to heat, versus being translated into motion. In simple words, more efficient engines. The big engine manufacturers (Mercedes and Honda to name just two) were at the forefront of developing these technologies. I am told that one reason we have seen such massive reductions in fuel consumption per horsepower is this innovation in small turbo powered engines. I am also told that the requirement for hybrid engines in the sport led to significant insights into how to deploy these hybrid powertrains more effectively. However, as has been pointed out, we see much evidence that most progress in on-road engine technology and materials is being pushed into combustion engines with more power and the same efficiency, rather than combustion engines with the same power and better efficiency. 

Second, weight matters. The heavier the car, the worse the fuel economy and the harder they are to turn. This led to the introduction of lightweight materials in F1 cars. You might say that Aluminium is light. “I drink Diet Coke out of can, so I am an expert!”. Aluminium also bends. Which is bad when you crash. Aluminium also bends fairly easily and these racing machines are exposed to forces that require better materials. Carbon Fiber has revolutionized the sport and is used throughout the chassis. It is lightweight and extremely stiff. It is also extremely expensive, which means it has made its way into luxury cars more frequently than into your Honda Civic. 

Third, one of the most exciting things in F1 racing is watching a pit stop. Teams in F1 have managed to change all four tires on a car in under 2 seconds from when it stops. That is nuts. And very different from the old days, when a bunch of dudes put their beers down and switched old slicks for new ones with cigarettes in their mouths. Hospitals have become interested in replicating this efficiency. Using extensive monitoring networks and sensors on “who does what, how, and when” employed by pit crews in training, some hospitals have rethought how operating theaters and intensive care units are organized. 

Fourth, one of the most respected individuals in F1 is an engineer by the name of Adrien Newey. He is the Aero Whisperer. He designs cars in wind tunnels that maximize the performance of the vehicle not by pushing more power into the engine, but by how these rockets displace air. What race car engineers learn in wind tunnels translated directly into the design of road cars, as the less “fridge-like” your car is shaped, the more fuel efficient it becomes. 

Finally, F1 is one of the coolest applications of game theory in real-time. The choices you need to make are which tires to use and when to stop. There are all sorts of other intricacies here, but each race is a real-time application of choosing optimal strategies while guessing other teams’ strategies. This is ultimately what wins or loses races. It is exciting to see teams invest in people who study bizarre things like “econometrics” and “data science” and can tell a dominant strategy from a dominated one. The most talented and smartest of whom (in my humble opinion) is Hannah Schmitz

That said, I have no idea whether these unquantifiable benefits that F1 proponents push come even close to matching the externalities generated by the F1 circus. The question I guess is whether the competition in F1 is a more efficient way to generate this type of innovation by generating a “market” for it, or whether one would have achieved a similar amount of progress by incentivizing public and private R&D organizations to produce better technology and materials. That said, even if F1 generates technological progress, it is the role of regulators to make sure that manufacturers are incentivized to deploy it in ways that decrease greenhouse gas emissions and reduce other externalities (e.g. safety) rather than forever increasing the power of Chris Knittel’s Bronco.

Suggested citation: Auffhammer, Maximilian, “Drive to Survive”, Energy Institute Blog,  UC Berkeley, August 14, 2023,

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