The 62-year-old specializes in sustainable drives. Before that he built engines for the sports departments of Peugeot and Ferrari. F1-Insider.com spoke to him.
Monsieur Simon, sustainability is also becoming increasingly important in the world of motorsport. But why aren’t the current hybrid engines so bad after all?
Gilles Simon: Because they are highly efficient. They have higher thermal energy than any research engine I know. However, it still runs on fossil, albeit very special, petrol. That is why the FIA began its research on biofuel about a year and a half ago.
Why did you opt for sustainable fuel and against purely electric motors or hydrogen for the future of Formula 1?
Because we already have electric racing in Formula E and are currently working on a concept for an electric GT series. Hydrogen and pure electric drives are still too heavy for Formula 1 today. That is why we believe that the combustion engine with sustainable fuel is still justified. We will also continue to see internal combustion engines on the road for around 15 years. In hybrids but also in normal models. So the fuel has to get clean. For the more distant future, I expect there will be competition there between electric rapid charging systems and hydrogen. In the meantime, we need sustainable fuel.
What’s your schedule?
We have already had a prototype fuel, which is 100 percent sustainable, produced by various laboratories and delivered 200 liters each to the manufacturers. So they are already testing the fuel with their current engines. The gasoline does not yet have the same performance as conventional Formula 1 fuel, but that was not the goal either. The aim was to show that bio-fuel is possible. Now we are discussing with the gasoline manufacturers which fuel is the right one – because there are different variants and different manufacturing processes. What is certain, however, is that with the change to the new engine regulations (2025; d. Ed.) We will also switch to CO2-neutral fuel. There will be no intermediate steps because they would not be representative of the series. And because every further development in the search for the last horsepower would also require an adaptation of the engine or the combustion chambers. That would all be very costly, so we decided against it.
Which possible variants of sustainable fuel do you differentiate?
E-fuel generally means: You have a source of carbon – carbon monoxide or dioxide and a source of hydrogen. This is combined to form hydro-coal. Some researchers use biomass to produce CO2, while others extract it from the air. Even so, the process is the same. Because if you let plants grow, they too bind CO2 from the air. It is important not to burn trees that have grown for 200 years. That would not be sustainable. Then the technology of transformation comes into play, because the raw product has to be refined. These processes still need to be improved, because the quality of the basic fuels is rather average. To do this, we work with various companies that are working on new technologies. It is also a matter of filtering out economically sensible variants. The important point for Formula 1: We want to push the technology. As in the past, we want to become a research laboratory for the automotive industry again. Many technologies have been adopted from motorsport, but many have also been discarded. We now want to offer this field of research for gasoline – progress can also mean failure if you can demonstrate why another way is better.
Most recently, there was also talk of microalgae as a basis.
I know there is research into this technology, but it is not yet available. In the end, we need manufacturing processes that can be implemented pragmatically. You can’t imagine how difficult it was to get the first 1,000 liters of the prototype gasoline. We would need a million liters for a season including test drives. In terms of Formula 1’s carbon footprint, that’s relatively little. But it should be a demonstrator of what is possible in research. I see two advantages: Processes are developed that can then also be used in series production. That is why it is also important that each fuel manufacturer can go his own way. Formula 1 can thus accelerate the research process. Second, it’s important to show people that these fuels exist and work. Because if they work in a Formula 1 engine, then they will also work in a series engine. So that would be a positive message that Formula 1 could send out.
The counterpart to biofuel are the new drive units from 2025. What should their architecture look like?
We want to upgrade the electrical part. Probably up to 50 percent. That is the goal – and much more than it is today. What we also know: The new combustion engine has to be even more efficient than the current one – also because of the sustainable fuel. We believe that we can find another ten percent there. And our goal is also to control emissions. So we want to introduce engines with very clean combustion that are a long way from what we have known so far.
Would this technology then also be transferable to the road?
A Formula 1 engine works 70 percent at full load. On public roads, you drive perhaps seven percent at full throttle – and only if you are an aggressive driver. The developers of series engines are looking for high efficiency with low loads. The goals are different, but the technology can be the same.
For you as a former engine specialist, all of these developments must be a dream.
It’s an interesting time. My challenge is to bring the technologies of the future into racing. And as far as biofuel is concerned, when I talked to fuel manufacturers about it two years ago, they said I was crazy. Today they are all on our side. Because evolution is happening so quickly right now. I’m not saying that technology solves all problems, but it is part of every answer. People will travel further, keep moving. So we have to find better ways to be mobile. That can only be done through technology.
The quality of the sound depends on the number of revolutions of the combustion engine. We will certainly leave the speed at its current level because we want to retain the characteristics of the high-revving engines. We respect that Formula 1 needs a special sound signature.