Formula One Races Into Climate Change

What happens to a famously globetrotting sport when the globe becomes hard to trot?

An underwater F1 driver.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

This past Tuesday, the skies opened up over the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. What followed was record-shattering: half of an average year’s rainfall fell on parts of the region in just 36 hours, according to The New York Times. Twenty-one rivers broke their banks, and communities in the region have been inundated with water — at least 14 people have died as of Friday, thousands are homeless, and at least 10,000 people have been evacuated.

“It’s probably been the worst night in the history of Romagna,” said Michele de Pascal, mayor of the city of Ravenna, on Italian radio. “Ravenna is unrecognizable for the damage it has suffered.”

Among the places the rains inundated is the Autodromo Internazionale Enzo e Dino Ferrari, also known as the Imola Circuit. The circuit has a storied history: First opened in 1953, it has, for decades, played on-and-off host to one of two Formula One races in Italy and is the home of the Ferrari F1 team, with their iconic red cars.

Over the past few weeks, the circuit had been gearing up for its yearly spot in the limelight — this year’s Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix was scheduled for Sunday. But on Wednesday, as the floodwaters continued to seep into homes, Formula One made an announcement: the race was off. It’s the first time in the history of the sport that a race has been cancelled because of the weather.

Formula One is possibly my most climate-unfriendly guilty pleasure. I have, since I was a teenager, been a tifosi — a Ferrari fan, the F1 equivalent of a Mets fan — and the advent of the hyper-popular Netflix series Drive to Survive has meant that suddenly many of my friends are also F1 fans. But I’m acutely aware that it isn’t exactly the lowest-emission sport out there. A regular F1 season consists of about 22 races that take place around the world, and F1’s sustainability strategy from 2019 puts the sport’s carbon dioxide emissions at over 256,000 tons each year, or the equivalent of about 34,000 American homes. Sebastian Vettel, a four-time world champion, retired from the sport last year partly due to climate concerns.

Much can be written about whether Formula One’s climate commitments mean anything. But I can’t help but wonder about a different question entirely: what happens to a famously globetrotting sport when the globe becomes hard to trot?

The Emilia-Romagna floods are the prime example. Last year, the same region suffered from the opposite problem: Drought gripped the country, drying up the soil and making it less able to soak up water. This meant that when it finally rained earlier this year, the ground became saturated with water. A warming world results in an atmosphere that holds more water vapor, which results in storms that dump water of the magnitude we saw this week. With the ground already saturated, that water had nowhere to go. Added together, each factor compounded upon the other.

The F1 calendar is essentially a tour of climate risk: Last year saw the debut of the Miami Grand Prix in the shadow of a city that’s famously endangered by sea level rise. F1 cars are not air conditioned and run incredibly hot (you’re wearing multiple layers of fire protection while sitting in front of what’s essentially a jet engine that cooks the air around you as you drive), so this year’s brand-new Las Vegas Grand Prix will take place at night to avoid the searing daytime temperatures of Nevada. That makes it the fourth night race of the season, along with the Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore Grands Prix — that last one is so famously hot and humid that drivers work out in saunas to prepare. But climate change is making nights warm faster than days, so in a few years those places might not be safe to race in even after the sun goes down.

Outdoor sports at large are contending with similar questions: Last year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing relied entirely on artificial snow, surfing is becoming a bit of an endangered sport, and America’s favorite pastime might need a new asterisk strategy to cope with all the extra home runs coming with hotter weather.

Formula One, with its money and glitz, has so far managed to avoid the real-world impacts of climate change — a luxury the residents of Emilia-Romagna don’t quite have, though the motorsport made a 1 million euro donation to help with relief efforts. To adapt to the future F1 might, somehow, have to find a new racing line.


Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan. Read More

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