Formula One fuel and oil - F1s top secret tuning aids 13 Sep 2011
With glitz, glamour and a paddock filled with personalities, Formula One racing is no wall flower. In fact, from motorhomes to lap times, aerodynamic innovations to team kit, this sport is all about one-upmanship - and not the quiet type of one-upmanship either. Its the brash sort, bandied about with a flourish and a swagger.
But F1 has another, quieter side, with armies of unsung technical brains working in the background, making the subtlest changes to seek out performance wherever they can. Beneath the sleek, shiny and sponsorship-littered outer skin of F1 cars there is a surprising amount of development going on, even in one area where you wouldnt expect it - the engine.
Yes, the design and construction of the engine is essentially frozen due to homologation requirements, but there is one important area beneath the bonnet where teams, stymied by greater regulation stringency elsewhere, can discover extra performance. That is in the field of race fuel and oil lubricants.
One team intent on making the most of any untapped performance in this area is McLaren, and their long-standing technology partner ExxonMobil. Like their F1 rivals, they are only too aware that fuel and oil are not simply sundries required to power and lubricate the engine - the quality of their composition actually has a critical influence on a cars pace.
Often people confuse the terms efficiency and reliability, explains McLaren managing director Jonathan Neale. They think its about housekeeping to keep the car alive. But in actual fact what I hope people are beginning to realise is that we are talking about real lap-time performance.
And whenever you use the term efficiency, synonymous with that is high performance. If you look at what happened on the homologation of engines and the drive for fuel efficiency then engines have become increasingly more and more fuel efficient.
The basic equation is simple. A more fuel efficient engine requires less fuel to go a set distance whilst producing a given power output than a less fuel efficient one producing the same power. Less fuel means less weight - and a lighter car is a faster car.
And a recent regulation change - the ban on refuelling introduced last season - has seen oil and fuel suppliers take on an even more essential role in boosting the pace of cars up and down the pit lane.
Now we have to carry with us enough fuel to race until the end. If we can get greater fuel efficiency from the engine there should be a greater bang for our buck, as youre carrying less weight of fuel around, continues Neale. Ten kilos less fuel in the car at the beginning of the race is three and half tenths of lap time every lap of the race. Its a huge amount when you consider the difference between cars on the grid is often hundredths of a second.
Although the composition of fuel is tightly bound by the FIAs technical regulations, fuel companies can push the boundaries as far as they can, producing a number of blends throughout the season, sometimes tuned for the demands of specific circuits or even specific weather conditions, and sometimes to simply improve overall fuel efficiency.
Fuel is very heavily regulated, admits Neale, but typically we would see one or two fuel steps per year - and thats down to continued innovation. Formula One and its partners have fantastic innovation and execution, so there is constant innovation and search for performance improvements."
But Mobil 1s involvement with McLaren goes much further than fuel. Engine and gearbox oil play a critical role too. Not only can these lubricants help improve power and fuel efficiency - any reduction of friction in the engine or gearbox boosts pace - they also perform an important diagnostic role, allowing technicians to keep tabs on engine wear rates by monitoring the levels of metal traces present in the oil.
Formula One engines are incredibly powerful, often pulling in excess of a 750 brake horsepower for a 2.4 litre V8 engine, Neale explains. And what we are trying to do is to get all of that brake horsepower in a controlled way to the driver. All of that power is delivered through the engine up through the gearbox.
Recent rule changes have sharpened the focus on engine and gearbox oil all the more, with engines now expected to last for eight races and gearboxes for five. Durability has become the new mantra, and with engine lubricants expected to withstand forces up to 8,500 times greater than gravity, as well as performing in temperatures of more than 300 degrees Celsius, oil suppliers have a big task on their hands.
But its worth the effort. As little as a couple of seasons ago, engine wear was such that an engine nearing the end of its multi-race cycle would be significantly less powerful than one at the start of its life. That is no longer the case, in large part thanks to advancements in lubricant technology. Drivers no longer fear dramatic performance losses in older engines - and teams dont fear failures as they used to.
Over the last few years weve been working on the products we have and the oil chemistry, says Neale. And thats given us a phenomenal efficiency improvement, like an 80 percent reduction in wear of metals. That means theres more power available for the driver for longer. With engines and gearboxes needed to last for multiple races, it means that the power lasts.
So when a driver picks up his engine for the next race he knows that hes not got a historical loss of power that would have come previously. The engines have high power, high performance and low loss, as does the gearbox - right from the start of a programme to the end of it.
McLaren have enjoyed excellent engine and gearbox reliability in recent years - Lewis Hamilton suffered their last gearbox failure at the 2010 Hungarian Grand Prix, and Heikki Kovalainen endured their last engine failure at the 2008 Chinese round - and the team believe much of this can be attributed to their long-standing relationship with their oil supplier.
Formula One teams have to be good at everything, says Neale. They simultaneously have to be experts in operational strategy, manufacturing processes, tyre technology, oils, fuels, carbon fibre, machined metals, you name it. Its not possible to have that without longevity.
Mobil 1 have phenomenal resources. They have kept all of their research and development programmes in house, so they have all the tribologists, who are the guys that work on the oil and lubricants. They really are some of the unsung heroes of F1. Your manufacturing people, people in the research labs and tribologists are vital and its a great thing to recognise some of the hard work that theyve done. Its good to shine a bit of light on the working of a car.
At 17 years and counting, McLarens alliance with its supplier is already one of the longest between a team and oil company in F1. And with a new, five-year contract signed at the start of the year, the relationship is clearly going from strength to strength.
Its a relationship that could become even more valuable to McLaren in the future as Formula One prepares to move to a new, more efficient engine formula - a move that should allow them to utilise past as well as future developments in fuel and lubricant technology.
If I look at the change over the last three years, then theres no doubt in my mind that rate of change will be just as intense in five years time, concludes Neale. As we look towards 2014, with the sport - correctly in my view - moving to being more energy conscious and a V6 engine, it offers us the next real step to getting alongside the engine manufacturers to look into the chemistry within the oil and the fuel and also the chemistry of the metal in the engine.
We are working to a homologated engine, but theres an awful lot more that weve learnt that we havent been able yet to deploy, and we look forward to doing that when we have the next engine with Mercedes.
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