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Racing to save the planet

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Cars – and in particular racecars – might seem the villains in a world grappling with climate change. Racing Green: How Motorsport Science Can Change the World hopes to convince you of exactly the opposite, with science journalist Kit Chapman showing how motorsports not only pioneers new, planet-friendlier machines and materials, but saves lives on and off the track too.

The first part of Chapman’s argument tracks the historical development of cars and competition. His stories show how, from its start, racing has served as a research lab and proving ground for new technologies. The first organized motor races were competitions to encourage innovation, akin to today’s X-Prizes. In 1894 Le Petit Journal offered a purse for the first car to make it from Paris to Rouen, while later races emphasized pure speed or, like the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, endurance. Chapman provides a whirlwind tour through the development of the internal combustion engine-powered car and its damning limitations, including the copious greenhouse-gas emissions and the inability to ever achieve more than 50% thermal efficiency.

He then introduces us to new racing series like Formula E and Extreme E, which have changed electric cars “from an eccentric folly to the undisputed future of the automotive industry”. Chapman highlights the advantages of electric vehicles without glossing over their drawbacks: recycling challenges, the potential for difficult-to-extinguish fires resulting from thermal runaway, and ethical/sustainability issues surrounding the materials used. Throughout this section, he links motorsport advances with “real-life” applications. For example, the same flywheels that enabled Audi’s hybrid racecars to take all three podium spots at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2012 made London buses more energy efficient. Some connections are a little more tenuous than others, but they are uniformly fascinating.

Chapman’s brand of reportage often involves extensive travel. While the COVID pandemic limited his range, it provides some of the most interesting stories in the book’s second section, which focuses on lives saved and improved because of racecar technology. At the start of the pandemic, idle race teams built everything from face shields to ventilators. Britain’s National Health Service estimated it would need 30,000 ventilators, but a collaboration between University College London and Formula 1’s Mercedes-AMG realized that, even if they could provide the ventilators, there weren’t enough trained personnel to utilize all of them. Instead, this group exploited the race team’s expertise in aerodynamics and fast prototyping to produce continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines that kept patients from needing ventilators in the first place.

Other racing-centric techniques, such as remote sensing, predictive analytics and highly choreographed pit stops have been adapted to monitor patients outside hospital, evaluate budding surgeons, and minimize risks while transferring vulnerable patients. The scientists and engineers profiled by Chapman chose motorsport because it demands flexibility, versatility and – of course – speed.

The book’s third and final section on materials is my favourite because this area rarely gets its due in popular-science literature. As in previous chapters, Chapman considers the ethical and ecological costs of problematic materials before introducing us to alternatives. For example, carbon-fibre composites are heavily used in racecars because they have superior strength-to-weight properties compared with metals, but are energy-intensive to make and difficult to recycle. Chapman recounts efforts to replace carbon fibre with flax, bamboo or hemp to create materials just as strong, but with significantly reduced carbon footprints. Another material Chapman focuses on is the rubber used in tyres. I had no idea of the horrors committed in sourcing rubber during the Second World War, or how these actions existentially endangered the world’s rubber tree population. Chapman leaves each section on a more positive note, however, explaining, for example, how scientists hope to replace or augment natural rubber with the saps of the guayule shrub and the “rubber dandelion”.

Kit Chapman expertly places scientific developments in context while making you feel like he’s sharing stories over beer at the local pub

Chapman expertly places scientific developments in societal and historical contexts while making you feel like he’s sharing stories over beer at the local pub. His wry sense of humour permeates the book, especially in his footnotes, which are (sometimes distractingly) hilarious. His best personal stories come at his own expense. He relates how he – a 6 ft 5 in tall former university rugby forward – literally got stuck in the world’s fastest electric racecar. “I don’t want to make you feel bad,” an onlooker told him as he struggled to extract himself, “but a 70-year-old man does this in under 10 seconds.”

Chapman does an outstanding job including women’s contributions, which is saying something in a sport where women have been (and, in series like NASCAR and Formula 1, continue to be) scarce. He introduces us to the early 20th century “Fastest Girl on Earth” Dorothy Levitt who popularized the rear-view mirror, as well as to contemporary Formula E engineer Delphine Biscaye, a contributor to one iteration of the flywheels I mentioned earlier. (By way of disclosure: Chapman quotes me four times as he compares NASCAR with other forms of motorsport.)

Although the book covers plenty of science, it is not a nuts-and-bolts-level explanation of how racecars work. Even within the topics covered, I found myself wishing for photographs or drawings to clarify some of the text. Those without knowledge of racing and, in particular Formula 1, may find it challenging to keep straight the many people and events referenced.

Because he is a race fan, Chapman understands the intimate connection fans have with the sport. This is most evident in his dramatic recounting of the excruciating 27 s it took Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean to escape a fiery wreck in 2020 caused by a 192 kph, 67 G crash. Miraculously, Grosjean emerged with only minor burns on his hands and a sprained left ankle. Then Chapman flashes back to 1994 and remembers his mother crying the morning after the great Ayrton Senna died in a crash at San Marino.

Because of this emotional attachment, motorsports may be able to do what science sometimes struggles with: convince people to change their minds about cars. Formula 1, the world’s most popular motorsports series, claimed a viewership of 1.55 billion in 2021. Lewis Hamilton – seven-time Formula 1 World Driver’s Champion – reaches many of these fans in a way Bill Nye or Brian Cox cannot.

If you’re not a racing fan, you probably know one. Racing Green would be an excellent way to get them interested in the science behind the cars. But I also highly recommend Chapman’s book to scientists as a case study in how story can be just as powerful a force for change as fact.

  • 2022 Bloomsbury Publishing £20hb 320pp

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