Automobile

Horses, Porsche to Formula 1, and the Future of Internal Combustion

In 1921, there were more than 25 million horses in a United States populated by less than 110 million humans. I’m not a mathematographer, by any means, but I think that puts us at a ratio of about one horse for every four-ish people out there.  And, just like there are many kinds of people, there are many kinds of horses, too.  There are Quarter Horses, paints, Arabians, Appaloosas, and – of course – Thoroughbred racing horses.

Something strange has happened in the last hundred years, though. There are a lot more people and a lot fewer horses, for one thing – just 3 million horses for a whopping 330 million Americans – but it’s a curious thing that there are a lot more Thoroughbreds in 2021 than there were in 1921. What’s more, it’s almost certain that the meticulously bred horses spending their 21st Century days in luxurious stables are serving a vastly different purpose than their hard-working forbears.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

THE CARS ARE LIKE THE HORSES

Longtime TTAC readers might remember the Grand National Problem – a 2012 piece written by the Great Jack Baruth wherein an alien comes to Earth to research how humans get around, and gets confused by the simple fact that, while the Buick Grand National (GNX) only ever accounted for 10 percent of the total Regal production numbers, “virtually every roadworthy example of the baroque Buick sports the blown-six logo and the ‘Darth Vader’ paintjob.”

What Jack pointed out then was that those cars, the boring A-B appliances that get us to and fro, they may be bought in greater numbers than the more sporting variants that have emotional value, but they aren’t saved the way those cars are saved. To use Jack’s words again, “The Plain-Jane Regals outsold the Grand National, but nobody saves a regular Regal. A normally-aspirated, light-blue Regal has no value beyond providing pleasant transportation. It’s the equivalent of a horse in the nineteenth century, and when it gives real trouble, it’s put out of its misery with the same unsentimental dispatch a farmer would use when packing a trusty but lame old horse into the glue van.”

It’s 2021 now. The EV future that was merely whispered about or scoffed at in 2012 is very much here, or near enough that it’s visible on the horizon, at least, and the ubiquitous rumble of a few dozen V6 engines idling away at a stoplight will soon be a hazy memory for – well, if not for us, then for our kids. But, if we’re rich enough, our kids might still know the euphonious rriiIIIIiiiippP of a flat-plane crank Ferrari and the turbo-tastic backfire of a turbocharged flat-six – and they’ll have Porsche to thank for that, in more ways than one.

SUSTAINABLE SYNTHETIC FUEL – BY PORSCHE

It’s a point of pride for Porsche that a majority of Porsches are still on the road, and Porsche – unlike many automakers – takes an active role in keeping old Porsches roadworthy. The company keeps making parts for them, for example, which is rarer than you might think in the auto industry. It also sponsors Porsche-specific car clubs and meet-ups, where professional drivers, coaches, and Porsche experts take time to teach Porsche owners how to get the most enjoyment out of their cars, whether that means walking them through a restoration project or helping them shave that last tenth of a second from their lap times. This kind of thing makes “Porsche people”, and it’s proven to be instrumental in keeping those people as customers.

Porsche wants to continue to keep these cars on the road – or, at least, to be seen as wanting to – so they’ve partnered with Bosch on a new product called SynGas, which behaves similarly enough to “conventional” gasoline to be used in an older car without requiring modifications to the factory fuel system or carburetor/EFI.

Bosch’s SynGas is produced exclusively with renewable energy, whereby hydrogen is extracted from water and combined with carbon that’s extracted from the surrounding air. The CO2 and hydrogen are then combined in a way that enables them to replicate gasoline, diesel, or kerosene, creating a sort of “closed-loop” of carbon emissions. This isn’t a theoretical thing, either – a Porsche-funded project built by Siemens Energy is on track to produce 55 million liters of synthetic, carbon-neutral fuel by 2024, filling out to 550 million liters per year by 2026.

Horses, Porsche to Formula 1, and the Future of Internal Combustion

This is really interesting tech, of course – and the SynGas that’s been made so far (only a few thousand gallons of the stuff) has worked as promised, with lower emissions and energy use than gasoline at just about every step in the production/consumption cycle. So, why hasn’t it been touted as the killer tech that’s going to bury the EV, affirm our fragile masculinities, and save the planet at the same time? One word: Cost.

By even the most optimistic estimates, Porsche CEO Oliver Blume predicts that SynGas will cost “about $10 per liter”, or more than $40 per gallon, for those of you who prefer “landed on the Moon” numbers to metric.

“(That’s why) we’re looking for partners,” he says. “They’ll take care of the technology, and at the end they’ll produce the fuel. Our task as automakers will be to find the right specifications so that these fuels will be able to run in our combustion engines.”

Apparently, Porsche has found a partner that can make good use of a few thousand gallons of fuel – one that doesn’t care about a $40/gallon price tag, and is looking for a way to both suck up to Porsche and greenwash its most public-facing operations. That partner is Formula 1.

GOING GREEN AND IMPROVING THE SHOW

Formula 1, circa 2021, has a problem. The current hybrid engine formula, which uses a turbocharged V6 mated to an energy-generating turbocharger called an MGU-H, has been something of a commercial failure for the sport. It’s expensive, for one thing, which is enough of a barrier of entry to keep most manufacturers away – but the MGU-H has proven a tricky thing to get right. Mercedes stumbled into the right configuration early on in 2014 and has dominated the series ever since – meanwhile, Renault has taken a beating, losing every one of its customer teams while Honda (who got the MGU-H even less right than Renault) has been chased out of the series altogether.

For the fans, it’s been worse. The dominance of Mercedes-Benz AMG’s engine combined with the brilliant driving of seven-time (so far) World Drivers’ Champion Sir Lewis Hamilton might be considered boring, but you could argue that watching Michael Jordan dominate the NBA in the 90s was boring, too, if you weren’t a Bulls fan, so that’s not the problem. What is the problem is that these hybrid V6s sound “a bit like a puppy dog farting into a coffee can” as a friend once told me – and he’s not far off.

The current engines lack the visceral buzz of the manic V10s, and it’s objectively hurt the show – but the hybrid formula was chosen in the early 2010s as a way to keep F1 technology conceptually relevant to passenger vehicles and help manufacturers justify their investments in racing by drawing that connecting line between racing cars and road cars. Ten years later, hybrids aren’t really considered “green” anymore, and the show put on by Formula E and other electric series is – let’s go with “less good” than what you might want. That’s why Formula 1 has a new plan, going forward: Out with the MGU-H, and in with Porsche and SynGas.

That’s not quite what the official press release says, of course – Formula 1’s marketers are far too cagey for that. What the release actually says is that, from 2025, the series will switch over to a now, “low cost” engine formula that’s meant to attract more manufacturers to the series. That engine will highlight “sustainable technology”, and use “100% sustainable ‘drop-in fuel’ – meaning it can be used in a standard internal combustion engine without any modification to the engine itself – [that] will be laboratory-created, using components that come from either a carbon capture scheme, municipal waste or non-food biomass, while achieving greenhouse gas emissions savings relative to fossil-derived petrol of at least 65%.”

Without saying “Porsche SynGas”, they’ve said Porsche Syngas, and that comes not too long after Porsche and Audi attended an open technical meeting in June to discuss the 2025 Formula 1 engine rules along with heavy-hitters like Daimler chairman Ola Kallenius, Renault CEO Luca de Meo, Ferrari president John Elkann and Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz.

With Formula 1 essentially promoting and proving out their investment in a new, low-emission fuel and lowering their barrier to entry by creating a new, potentially “level” playing field for engine-builders, only a fool wouldn’t predict that Porsche’s announcement to return to F1 is imminent … which brings us right back around to the horses.

THERE IS NO GLUE FACTORY FOR THOROUGHBREDS

Regardless of how well the line worked in Jack’s article, it’s just a fact that when a Thoroughbred champion isn’t up for the job anymore, it doesn’t go to the glue factory. Instead, it gets put out to stud, ensuring that its race-winning genes are further refined, further enhanced, and that future horses get faster and faster, making for a better and better show. Their – uh, stuff sells for millions of dollars (you can trust me, or you can type “champion horse semen cost” into Google, just like I did), and there is very little connecting these specialty machines to the poor old paints that haul tourists around.

You’re the Best and Brightest, so I don’t have to spell it all the way out for you – just remember that you saw it coming when the new 2037 Ferrari F90 bows with an absolutely bonkers internal combustion engine revving all the way to 15,000 rpm and a price tag that would make even a Sultan blush. And, if you think I’ve gotten this all wrong, I’m sure I’ll hear about it in the comments.

[Images: H_Ko/Shutterstock.com,  Siemens Energy]

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