A tie-up between petrolheads and petrodollars is more than just an exercise in ‘soft power’
For a few days each year a quiet corner of rural Northamptonshire is transformed into a snorting, roaring, 200 mile-an-hour spectacle as Formula 1 cars tear around the track at Silverstone in one of motorsport’s most iconic races.
This season saw the 97-year-old competition restyled the ‘Formula 1 Aramco British Grand Prix 2023’ to carry the name of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company—a partnership widely viewed as the latest in a $10 billion ‘sportswashing’ campaign that has seen the kingdom hoover up assets, from Cristiano Ronaldo to a stake in PGA Golf.
Since 2018, when a dissident journalist was murdered by its security agents in Turkey, the Gulf kingdom has been fighting for its image. But Saudi Arabia’s investment in Formula 1 is more than an exercise in ‘soft power’ to divert attention from human rights lapses and Aramco’s role as the world’s largest corporate carbon emitter.
Documents obtained by SourceMaterial suggest a harder edge to the relationship. They show that Formula 1 has deployed resources in Brussels to lobby politicians on issues vital to Saudi interests. Over the past year, the racing group has used closed-door meetings to urge top EU officials to backtrack on climate-friendly plans in favour of ‘e-fuels’ that will help keep the internal combustion engine alive—and an autocratic monarchy in power.
“E-fuels are a Trojan horse for continued fossil fuel use,” said Alex Keynes, manager for clean vehicles at Transport & Environment, a campaign group.
There’s no obvious motive to Formula 1’s lobbying other than echoing Saudi talking points, according to James Lynch of FairSquare, a campaign for human rights in sport. Its racing cars are not covered by the EU’s definition of ‘passenger cars’ or subject to planned emissions rules and can run on any fuel Formula 1 chooses.
“Given Formula 1 were not going to be touched by this legislation, you have to ask what their interest was in lobbying the European Commission on it,” Lynch said. “It begs the question of whether it was actually working on behalf of its commercial partner, using its status and brand power to support their aims.”
Responding to questions from SourceMaterial, Formula 1 spokesman Liam Parker called suggestions that it was lobbying on Aramco’s behalf “completely wrong”.
“We just believe we have a solution that could help to reduce current and future road car fleets emissions and have been proactively sharing this with relevant people,” he said.
Stay of execution
In 2020 Aramco signed a sponsorship deal with Formula 1, reportedly worth $40-$45 million a year plus $65 million for every race including a new Saudi Grand Prix, launched in 2021. It came with strings attached.
The agreement included stipulations on the “advancement of sustainable fuels” or ‘e-fuels’—synthetic products touted by carmakers like BMW, Renault and Mercedes-Benz as better for the climate because they burn more cleanly than conventional petrol and can be made using renewable energy.
Many experts say synthetic fuels aren’t as green as they seem: studies indicate that they can be no less polluting than conventional petrol. But the bigger issue, critics fear, is that the supposedly cleaner technology provides a justification for hanging on to old combustion engines rather than switching to electric propulsion.
“Synthetic fuels, or e-fuels, have won the internal combustion engine a stay of execution,” AutoTrader magazine reported in March.
“This isn’t just about soft power. It is also about hard power.”
Saudi Arabia has expended considerable resources funding academic studies that attack electric vehicles, calling for ‘efficient’ gasoline engines, and claiming that producing energy to power electric cars can create more emissions than driving petrol ones—a finding other scientists dispute.
Documents obtained under freedom of information laws show that Formula 1 has used its access to European politicians to echo Saudi Arabia and Aramco’s claims.
“This kind of partnership may help you launder your reputation, but it also could literally help you with lobbying for your interests,” said Lynch of FairSquare. “This isn’t just about soft power. It is also about hard power.”
London-based Formula One Management, which is owned by US company Liberty Media and posted sales of £351 million in 2022, has urged the European Union to tweak proposed legislation in favour of synthetic fuels, as well as raising doubts about electric vehicles.
In September last year Formula 1 wrote to the office of Frans Timmermans, then EU vice-president and climate action commissioner, to set out the benefits of “sustainable fuels” and oppose a plan to ban combustion engines in favour of electric vehicles by 2035, calling it a “huge one-way bet on a relatively new technology”.
“We have a number of concerns about the narrow, single-technology focus of the current proposal,” wrote the Formula 1 representative, whose name is redacted. “Nobody knows enough at this time to say that battery electric vehicles are the best or only technology for the challenges we face.”
Following the letter, Formula 1 held meetings with Timmermans’s aides and Paolo Gentiloni, an EU commissioner whose brief includes the European Green Deal, fuel tax and sustainable development goals. E-fuels are a “more impactful short-term solution” for reducing emissions and also “have the potential to be a more effective technology in the fight against climate change” than electric vehicles, Formula 1 wrote to Gentiloni.
Formula 1 also met three MEPs from the European Parliament environment committee to discuss “CO2 emissions standards for small vehicles”. These included Andreas Glück of Germany’s FDP, who with Formula 1 hosted an event in the European Parliament to promote a report on e-fuels by an academic who sits on the e-Fuel Alliance lobby group.
Following his closed-door talks with Formula 1, Glück backed an amendment to emissions regulations stating that e-fuelled cars can “continue to play a role in the transition pathway” and calling for a Europe-wide “alternative fuels infrastructure”.
Responding to questions from SourceMaterial, a spokesman for Glück said that the MEP had been a supporter of synthetic fuels for many years and that it would be “clearly wrong” to suggest he had been influenced by Formula 1.
Formula 1’s lobbying appears to have paid dividends. In March, amid FDP pressure, EU ministers made a backroom deal to allow sales of some cars running on synthetic fuels—a change that could cut electric car sales by up to 46 million and trigger the burning of 135 billion additional litres of petrol, according to one study.
And while proposed EU rules will require carmakers to install engines that shut down automatically if run on conventional petrol rather than synthetic fuels, the technology for this is years away, said Keynes of Transport & Environment.
“This loophole in the legislation essentially allows internal combustion engines to continue to be produced, so creating a market in Europe for Aramco’s oil and fuel products,” he said.
Parker, the Formula 1 spokesman, said: “We are not anti-electric.”
He added: “This has always been about us believing the electrification route is only one solution and multiple technologies is the most sensible route for the future of the automotive sector and to fast-track decarbonisation pathways on the road to net-zero.”
An Aramco representative declined to comment.
Aramco, valued at more than $2 trillion and often called the world’s most profitable company, hasn’t signed up to the EU’s lobbying register and isn’t allowed to meet commissioners like Gentiloni. Rather than seeking official access, it would make sense to exploit Formula 1’s more acceptable face, says Belén Balanyá, a researcher at the Corporate Europe Observatory.
“This is about public image,” she said. “In meetings with MEPs, Saudi Aramco sounds like a bad oil and gas company owned by a repressive regime. In contrast Formula 1 has a lot of fans, people like it, and by removing Saudi Aramco and using Formula 1, you are removing from sight who is actually benefiting from this lobbying.”
In public, Ross Brawn, Formula 1’s managing director until late last year, has called e-fuels a “wonderful opportunity”:
“The great appeal is when we find this solution, you can use it in your road car, without making any changes to the engine,” he said last year.
“There are as many fossils sitting at the top of motorsport as in the fuel”
The group plans to switch its cars to synthetic petrol by 2026 with “a lot of help from our partner Aramco”, said Formula 1’s chief technical officer, Pat Symonds.
Symonds has claimed that e-fuels do not “add any new carbon to the atmosphere”. Synthetic petrol tested by the French Institute of Petroleum and New Energies emitted even more carbon monoxide than conventional fuel, and just as much nitrous oxide.
It would make more sense for the sport to go fully electric, and Formula 1 could easily change its rules to allow this, says Hazel Southwell, a motorsports journalist.
“The regulations say the cars must have a combustion engine,” she said. “The truth is there are as many fossils sitting at the top of motorsport as in the fuel.”
Although synthetic fuels can be made with renewable power, it can take five times as much energy overall to drive an e-fueled car the same distance as an electric one, said Keynes.
Cars in Formula E, a new electric version of the sport, already travel almost as fast as their e-fueled counterparts—though some aficionados say it’s the deafening roar of combustion engines that brings much of the excitement.
Meanwhile, Aramco has taken its push for synthetic petrol beyond Formula 1, with plans for a production plant in Spain and joint ventures with Hyundai, Renault and Aston Martin to develop combustion engine technology and “high-performance sustainable fuels”.
There is also an agreement with Formula Motorsport, which runs the lower-tier Formula 2 and 3 championships, “to introduce the use of sustainable fuels” supplied by Aramco.
The e-fuels lobby is about more than shaping the vehicle market in decades to come, says Jim Krane, fellow for energy studies at Rice University’s Baker Institute in Texas: it goes to the very heart of the Saudi monarchy’s survival.
“Aramco is incredibly important to the Saudi royal family remaining in power and the Saudi state being viable,” he said. “The internal combustion engine and jet turbine are the enabling technology that keeps the Saudi regime in power.”
Headline picture: An Aramco-branded Formula 1 car in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone (Zuma Press/Alamy)