Last month I was in Woking, not to visit the town’s now almost mythical branch of Pizza Express, but on my way to the presentation of the Bahrain-McLaren professional cycling team in the nearby McLaren Technology Centre.
Once we had taken our seats in the McLaren Thought Leadership Centre – a circular, space-age room deep inside the circular, space-age building that is McLaren HQ – the lights dimmed and a 360-degree screen lit up.
A film then told the McLaren story, from 1963 when Bruce McLaren set up the motor racing team, through his death in 1970, on to F1 successes in the 1970s with Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt, into the 1980s with Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, before finishing with Lewis Hamilton in 2008.
What was most striking in the footage of old grands prix was the brands emblazoned on all the vehicles bar Hamilton’s. Some looked more like flying Marlboro packets than racing cars.
It was jarring to be reminded of the ubiquity of cigarette advertising, but there it was. And as I watched these images of supercars whizzing around circuits, and felt the roar of their engines in my bones, I was struck by a thought: could Formula One itself go the same way as cigarette advertising?
In 30, 40, 50 years will we be watching these old races and scratching our heads, or wincing, wondering why we thought it was a good idea to be so reckless with the planet’s resources in the name of sport?
The questions that might be asked of F1 in the not-too-distant future are existential. And the sport sought to pre-empt them by announcing, at the end of last year, some bold ambitions. Among them is the aim of making all grands prix fully sustainable by 2025 and carbon neutral by 2030.
The ways to achieve this could include synthetic fuel, increasing the use of renewable energy at team facilities and eliminating single-use plastic. But the biggest contributor to the 256,000 tons of C02 released into the atmosphere annually by F1 is not the cars – apparently 20 per cent more efficient than everyday road vehicles – but the travel between events, in particular air travel.
The challenge is considerable, then, with the F1 calendar continuing to expand and take the sport to new territories. There will be a record 22 grands prix this year, starting in March in a country, Australia, in which rampant fires and suffocating heat are concentrating minds like never before.
But Formula One is merely the poster boy in the climate change debate – it isn’t the only offender, and probably isn’t the worst. When Fifa awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar there were lots of questions about the logic of taking the world’s biggest football tournament to such a small country, about the effects of the heat on players and fans, about building new stadiums with no obvious after-life and the appalling treatment of migrant construction workers.
As the tournament begins to shimmer on the horizon, so does another controversy: the environmental cost. Qatar is already the largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases, and the banks of air conditioning units in the open air stadiums, with vents under each seat, will not help.
By November 2022, when the World Cup starts, so much will seem grotesque, but wilful and flagrant environmental abuses could give the tournament a last days of Rome feel. It will be difficult to find anything to be positive about, although I suppose we could present Scotland’s likely failure to qualify as a boycott.
Returning to Woking and the McLaren Technology Centre, you couldn’t help but wonder why a motorsport company might be investing so heavily in the sport of cycling. Perhaps they sense the way the wind is blowing, and have a desire to diversify into a sport that might withstand some of the criticism levelled at one entirely reliant on burning vast amounts of fuel in a combustion engine.
Yet it would be a mistake to imagine professional cycling as some kind of green paragon. This was hammered home to me at last year’s Tour de France as I flew over the race in a helicopter – I know, I know: this was a one-off.
It was stage 19, we were in the Alps, and from this vantage point I could see another six helicopters, three for TV, three for VIPs. Thousands of metres above us, two planes, flying over the race for four to five hours every day for three weeks, relayed the TV pictures to satellites.
I could also see, on the roads beneath us, a vast convoy of vehicles – hundreds of cars in front of and behind the race, crawling along the narrow, twisting mountain roads. Sandwiched between the cars, barely visible, were 180 skinny men on bikes.
In other words, the Tour de France is a cycle race that is also a 2,500-mile journey around the country for 4,000 people in almost as many vehicles. Its environmental footprint is enormous. Indeed, the flagship event for what is, on paper, the world’s most sustainable sport may not, in its current scale, be sustainable.
An argument could be made that some of this is offset by the Tour’s role in promoting cycling as an activity and form of transport. I’m not sure Greta Thunberg, pictured, would buy that. Some appear to be waking up to their wider responsibilities. On Friday the world’s best team, Deceuninck-Quickstep, launched a sustainability project (#itstartswithus) to try to become the world’s first carbon neutral cycling team. Their footprint in 2019 was 1,288 tons of CO2: the equivalent of driving a car 179 times around the world, or 539 return flights between Brussels and New York.
Stage 19 of last year’s Tour was memorable for other reasons than my helicopter ride. As the riders climbed the Col de l’Iseran a violent storm broke on the other side of the mountain. Hailstones congealed to form sheet ice. Then a landslide spilled across the road. The stage had to be cancelled – the first time this has happened in 106 editions of the race.
Of course it’s not clear whether this unprecedented weather had anything to do with climate change. But, like the bushfires in Australia, it certainly got us all wondering, and worrying.