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Is an F1 car more energy efficient than an electric vehicle?

Clive Mason/Getty Images

Thanks to efficiency gains made under the current set of engine regulations, Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes W07 Hybrid is arguably more energy efficient than the average electric road car.

News last week that Tesla has received more than 276,000 pre-orders for its new family-sized electric car underlines the shift in thinking in the automotive industry towards electric vehicles. Yet in a county like the U.S.A., where at least 66 percent of electricity comes from coal- and oil-fired energy stations and just 13 percent from renewables, an F1 car is arguably greener.

The thermal efficiency of Mercedes' class-leading hybrid F1 engine has now exceeded 45 percent, with 50 percent thermal efficiency a very real target in the next couple of seasons. By contrast, coal and oil power stations achieve thermal efficiency of around 33 percent, meaning the power used to drive an electric car is likely to come from a less efficient source than an F1 engine.

Mercedes technical director Paddy Lowe believes F1 technology could offer a more efficient future for the automotive industry, but says the message is not being spread widely enough.

"Electric cars are seen as green and the solution to all carbon emissions, but they are absolutely not," Lowe told ESPN. "It all depends where you get the electricity from and in a typical country with a regular profile of electricity generation, a Formula One car is massively more efficient than any electric car being charged from a power plant which is burning hydrocarbons. It is incredible that we've done that, but nobody is really talking about it that much."

The key to F1's drive for efficiency is that it is the only way to gain more performance. By limiting the amount of fuel and its flow rate to the internal combustion engine, the only way to have a more powerful engine is by making better use of the fuel available.

"The really exciting point is that because the regulations drive us to get more efficiency, the only way to get more performance is to be more efficient," Lowe explains. "And while we have already achieved 45 percent, we are not even stopping and so we will probably in two or three years' time achieve 50 percent efficiency. When you bear in mind that road cars have been stuck around 30 percent for the last 50 years that is just mind blowing."

Lowe believes the biggest failing of the current engine regulations, which are still talked down by F1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone, is the sport's inability to convey its successes to the outside world.

"The 2014 changes were all geared around efficiency, an environmental message and a road-relevance message. I think they've been very successful and one of the least successful aspects is how we talk about that and what has been achieved and leverage that as a success story and how that may influence the public and the automotive industry, as it was intended to do.

"We set out with that objective, we achieved it technically, but we haven't gone and harvested the intent, which is a bit strange for me. The technical stories in there are absolutely amazing. We have hybrid engines now that are more than 45% efficient."

Although the latest F1 technology has yet to filter into road cars, the potential for it to do so is realistic, as explained by Mercedes engine boss Andy Cowell.