The first thing that strikes you about the liquid in the tiny jar is that it’s totally clear. Ordinary pump fuel has the faintest tinge of yellow, but Formula 1 fuel, while closely related to what you buy at the pump, is what’s known in the trade as “water white”.
At the back of the Ferrari garage at every grand prix, in the upper deck of one of the race trucks, a team of three Shell scientists regularly monitors the integrity of the V-Power race fuel and Helix lubricants that circulate within Ferrari’s type 056 V8 engines. Of the other teams, only McLaren operates a similar facility.
Besides ensuring that the fuel stays legal – sloppy handling can contaminate it enough to fail the FIA’s checks – the lab plays an important role in monitoring the health of the engine. Its equipment can detect metal fragments in tiny concentrations – equivalent to a cupful of sugar in a body of liquid the size of Loch Ness.
Various elements of the engine, particularly the piston rings, have had to evolve in the no-refuelling era. The pistons can reach temperatures over 300C, and where once they may have received an enriched blast of fuel to help cool them between combustion strokes, the oil now has to bear most of the burden. Shell’s Gareth Lowe explains how they monitor its effectiveness:
There are fewer rules and regulations governing the lubricants [than the fuel], which is great for our scientists because they have more freedom to try new components. Whenever we test an oil sample from the engine we’re looking for tiny pieces of metal. We’re not talking about huge chunks of metal here: it’s a natural process and it happens in any engine.
We can produce a report which details exactly what metals are in the oil – iron, titanium, copper, magnesium, all of which form the fabric of the engine. Because we’ve been working with Ferrari for so long we’ve been able to develop software that predicts the concentration of metal we can expect to see during all the stages of an engine’s service life. We can give them an insight into what’s happening inside the engine without them having to take it apart. It’s like doing a blood test.
For several decades, octane boosters were used routinely in Formula 1 to squeeze more power out of less fuel. It was the subject of both speculation (for instance the now-discredited ‘Nazi rocket fuel’ theory about the 1983 Brabham) and espionage (after Ivan Capelli almost won the 1990 French GP in the hitherto uncompetitive Leyton House, a drum of the team’s fuel was stolen). Now the rules are so tight that even leaving the cap off a drum for too long can make the fuel inside illegal.
Cara Tredget, Shell Technology Manager, explains the precautions:
Fuel can have around 200 components and some of those have low boiling points. What you can find, especially in hot countries and if the drums aren’t treated properly, is that you can lose some of your light ends [the more volatile components] and that will skew the FIA fuel test. We call it ‘weathering’ and a certain amount is allowed under the FIA regulations, because they understand that it’s very difficult to keep fuel 100 per cent the same as the original sample. But if there’s an excessive amount then you’ll be penalised. In the very hot races we’ll arrange to refrigerate the fuel.
Contaminants can enter the system very easily. There’s a lot of pipework in the fuel system and if, say, a team doesn’t flush out the fuel completely between races, that can have an effect even if it doesn’t suffer much weathering. We do have a number of slightly different fuel formulations available to Ferrari, and although the rules allow for a certain percentage of a previously approved fuel to be present in the sample, it’s not something you want to risk. External contaminants usually come from the handling – if a drum is damaged in transit, for instance. The main risk comes from the vessels that are used to store the fuel before it’s put in the car; they’re assembled at the beginning of the race weekend and one of the mechanics has to put their hand inside to do up one of the nuts. Any grease or dirt will show up on the gas chromatograph reading and could attract a penalty. That’s why the mechanics are extremely careful and – touch wood – we’ve never had a problem.
The gas chromatography test takes half an hour and the team will repeat it around 20 times during a race weekend, including every time the fuel is moved. The FIA may only come knocking once but the chemical ‘fingerprint’ of the fuel in the car must match that of the sample previously lodged with the FIA.
But Shell have more than one fuel formulation homologated for use in the car. At Spa it introduced a new performance step. Says Tredget:
You can affect the fuel performance through two different handles. You can either change the ratio of the base components of the fuel or you can use additives. We use both of those mechanisms to give increased performance, depending on what Ferrari needs – sometimes the priority may be for out-and-out power, at other times they may want a specific level of gravimetric or volumetric efficiency.
Volumetric efficiency is when a fuel, for a given volume, has more power, and gravimetric efficiency is a factor of the fuel’s weight. So if Ferrari are really trying to minimise the weight of the car then they will want a fuel with high gravimetric efficiency. If they want to keep the fuel tank as small as possible then volumetric efficiency is more important. Very subtle changes in the fuel can have quite a big impact. They’re very complex mixtures and the way that the different elements interact with one another can be quite significant.
While some fans bemoan the transition to turbocharged 1.6-litre V6 engines with a rev ceiling of 15,000rpm from 2014 onwards, the F1 industry recognises the need to downsize. In his keynote speech at the World Motorsport Symposium earlier this year, McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh pointed out that the sport has to do more to engage with the priorities of the road car industry. Race fuels will also change to accommodate that vision, says Tredget:
Fuel developments tend to be iterations – step changes from one to the next. But for 2014, with the new engine regulations, the fuel will be significantly different to what’s currently being used. The 2014 engine will have a different fuel appetite and so from that point of view we’re in a very strong position because we’re starting from a blank sheet of paper. Working with Ferrari to co-develop the engine is quite a luxurious position to be in.
We like to think that the V-Power race fuel is just a couple of generations ahead of the one you can buy at the pump. In conventional road car technology there’s a trend towards downsizing and turbocharging the engines, so this is a fantastic opportunity to try some new ideas that will feed through and be relevant to the next generation of road car engines. The building blocks will be the same, and the chemistry very similar, but the ratios will change.