x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Formula 1 fuel is a precise science tested at every turn

A team of 50 Shell scientists work tirelessly, including in a portable lab on race weekends, to constantly improve the fuel for Ferrari's F1 cars.

Shell's Lucy Taylor gets to work on fuel samples ahead of the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in March this year. Getty Images
Shell's Lucy Taylor gets to work on fuel samples ahead of the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne in March this year. Getty Images

The V-Power fuel that powers the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa this weekend at the German Grand Prix is very similar to what normal, everyday drivers top up their cars with when the fuel light comes on.

In fact, Ferrari once carried out a public-relations exercise to show that an F1 car can run on fuel straight from the forecourt while a road car was similarly able to run quite comfortably on F1 fuel.

The two fuel types are obviously different, with the F1 variety required to run at much higher temperatures and to be more efficient at the same time. But interestingly, oil company Shell uses its long-term F1 relationship with Ferrari, which spans the duration of the sport's 61-year existence, to fine-tune everyday petrol.

Shell has 50 scientists dedicated to working on Ferrari's F1 fuel and oil and, between them, they spend something in the region of 21,000 man hours a year on the project, blending 200,000L of fuel in any given year - enough to power a road car for 50 years.

Much of that work is done away from the races at Shell bases in the UK and Germany as well as at Ferrari's Maranello headquarters in Italy.

But a lot of the work is carried out at the race weekends. Inside one of the enormous Ferrari lorries you can find parked in the paddock at any given race day is a Shell laboratory. It takes up just 25 per cent of one of the lorries and is home to two members of Shell staff each weekend.

During one particular visit to the Turkish Grand Prix earlier this year, the pair in question were British duo Lucy Taylor and Alan Wardle, who call themselves trackside analysts. Taylor joined the F1 team in 2007 for the French Grand Prix weekend but, away from the races, she is also responsible for organising and carrying out the servicing of the analytical equipment and facilities at Maranello. Wardle, meanwhile, joined the team a year later and carries out a similar role.

The partnership between Shell and Ferrari is unique and no other team on the grid boasts a separate laboratory solely for their fuel/oil supplier.

"We're unique in the paddock," says Taylor. "We have a dedicated team of two at every race and that alternates at race weekends. But the fact that Ferrari has made space for us in one of their trucks shows how much they value us being here."

The laboratory itself is pristine white, with two worktops and two separate desks where the analysts can work on their laptops.

The centrepiece of the lab is a gas chromatography instrument where tests are run on the fuel and lubricants. The noise is not quite as deafening as an F1 car but it is loud enough to halt any possible conversation.

Each noisy test lasts no more than a minute and, during the course of an F1 race weekend, something in the region of 40 tests are carried out and about 1,000 over the course of a season.

The machine uses a rotating disc electrode oil analyser, using a technique called optical emission spectroscopy, which detects an increased selection of wear metals in the oil and warns Ferrari if there are issues of excessive wear with the car.

The aim of those checks is two-fold: to help Ferrari understand how the car is running in the varying conditions but also to ensure there are no irregularities, which could incur the wrath of F1's governing body, the FIA.

"There are stringent rules and regulations with fuel and our job is to make sure that nothing goes wrong as the FIA can check our fuels at any time," explains Taylor.

The device used for the tests is so precise it can detect contamination equivalent to finding a cup of sugar in Loch Ness.

In all, the Shell fuels contain about 200 components that face a rigorous assault in race trim. High temperature is one of the major concerns with fuel, as cars run on fuel at temperatures equivalent to that of a hot cup of coffee.

Under those "stresses and strains", as Taylor describes them, the Shell V-Power fuel aims to provide optimum efficiency protection while maintaining maximum power and driveability.

There are few, if any, partnerships that have lasted longer in F1 than the Shell-Ferrari tie-in, although the pressure of F1 means relations can, at times, be strained.

Overseeing the analysts is project manager Ian Albiston, who joined Shell in 1997 and has been part of the F1 programme since 2001. He is effectively the go-between for the two companies.

"The pressures of the job can be high," Albiston explains. "The DNA of both companies is the same in that we want to win. And they push us hard. There's a Ferrari motto of 'push, push, push' but, equally, I like to think we push them too so that we can all move forwards."

So stringent are the rules regarding fuel that Shell's team of scientists have little opportunity to be truly creative. But that is not the same with the lubricants.

"You tell the scientists they have a pretty free rein on that and they get pretty excited," says Albiston.

The oil has five tasks: to lubricate, clean, absorb heat, minimise power loss through friction and to combat engine wear. With pistons working at temperatures exceeding 300°C, the oil sprays the underside of the pistons to keep them cool. And all in a speedy process, with the oil flowing faster than an F1 car travels.

Lubricants have to be more effective than ever in F1 now, with drivers allowed just eight engines in a season, which means each has to last about 2,500km. So there is a fine balancing act of maximising performance while protecting the Ferrari engine as much as possible.

For Shell's trackside employees, work at a race weekend begins on Wednesday, when the lorries and containers are unloaded at the track. On that day, they run tests on all their instruments to ensure they are working properly. By Thursday, the analysts start taking samples from the car to ensure there is no contamination, a procedure repeated each day of the race weekend.

Saturday is arguably the most crucial point in that process as the fuel loads have to be finalised to ensure they last the full race distance on the Sunday, while oil analysis is key here so Ferrari's drivers know how much they can push the engine during the race. Also, the fuel has to be submitted to the FIA, which needs to approve it for racing.

Even after the race, Shell's work is not done. Further samples are taken, in part to ensure the state of the engine but also to ensure their samples are consistent with any taken by the FIA. Those samples are then sent back to the UK for full analysis and are then shared with Ferrari in a full post-race debrief.

Shell continually has to adapt to the changes in F1. There was a change to the composition of the fuel at the beginning of last season with the ban on refuelling, and more changes are afoot for 2013, when cars will have to use 35 per cent less fuel under new regulations.

"There are pressures for ecological reasons and we have to react to that," says Taylor, "and it's important we get it right because, as always, this is a test bed for the commercial market as well, and for what goes on in the forecourt."

Just remember that the next time you're filling up your tank.