Engineering new fuel and oil to help win Formula One races
Image credit: Rudy Carezzevoli
E&T spoke to trackside analysts at Shell during the British Grand Prix about developing fuels and oils for Formula One (F1) team Scuderia Ferrari and the importance of analysing these to meet regulations put in place by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA).
With the British Grand Prix at Silverstone come and gone and the next leg of the competition – the German Grand Prix at Hockenheimring – just around the corner (28 July), the Shell Trackside Laboratory team has been on the road with Scuderia Ferrari this season, in a partnership that started back in 2015.
However, Shell’s involvement in motorsport goes back a lot further than that, dating back to the early 1900s and its relationship with team founder Enzo Ferrari, which blossomed as they began to be the fuel and lubricants partner of Alfa Corse whilst he was a promising young driver with Alfa Romeo in 1924. Since then, the oil company has co-engineered fuel with Ferrari and used motorsport as the foundation for innovation, in order to develop more advanced road fuels for all motorists.
According to Shell, many recent changes in Formula One, outlined by the FIA, have been put in place to keep racing relevant to real-life motoring. In fact, Shell’s V-Power race fuel used by Scuderia Ferrari in its Ferrari SF90 racing cars contains 99 per cent of the same types of compounds as Shell's V-Power road fuels.
The extra one per cent, however, is a special formulation developed by the scientists and this is where the innovation comes into play to give the team marginal gains against other teams and a competitive edge. Each specially made formulation of Shell V-Power race fuel blended for Scuderia Ferrari can contain over 200 different compounds.
Formula One continues to improve on the cars’ greater efficiency on the track. In 2014, regulations put in place by the FIA introduced down-sized V6 turbocharged power units. These power units must work much harder than their predecessors and reflect a universal trend across the world of motorsport and motoring alike, where smaller and more advanced engines are having to produce increased performance and fuel efficiency. This is where optimum fuel can be a crucial advantage for the teams.
Around 50 scientists and engineers from Shell work alongside the Scuderia Ferrari team in Maranello, Italy to develop fuels and oils designed to maximise performance and efficiency for the best results on the track.
This season, Shell has been continuously adapting to the latest regulation changes put forward by the FIA, the governing body for world motorsport. In fact, one of the most significant changes made by the association saw the maximum race fuel allowance increase to 110kg, a 5kg increase from previous years.
Nonetheless, despite these changes, the teams in Formula One have to ensure that the fuels and oils they use in their vehicles comply with these regulatory standards outlined by the FIA. Hence it is essential that teams such as Ferrari have collaborations with experts in the field.
At least two Shell scientists support Scuderia Ferrari at every Grand Prix, working from the Shell Trackside Laboratory located in the team’s garage in the Paddock. This laboratory is where the scientists provide full analytical support by testing the race fuel and oil used by the team throughout a race weekend.
“When we arrive at a Grand Prix, we take a reference sample and submit that sample to the FIA,” says Drew Stinton, one of the trackside analysts at Shell. “They look at the quality of the samples and they can come to the site at any time and scrutinise with us to make sure that it complies with its regulations.”
He adds: “Along with the full supply chain of the lubricants, and also the fuel, we take sub samples to make sure we comply with the regulations.”
With regard to the analysis of the fuels, the technique the trackside analysts use is gas chromatography, which breaks the fuel down into its individual components. They use industry standard instruments for both the fuel and oil analysis, which is accompanied by a software package – which builds a statistical set of data from the samples tested – developed by Shell.
Stinton highlights how they see contaminants in fuels when taking sub samples and comparing the results from these sub samples against the reference samples. Such anomalies are likely to be caused by human input into these systems.
For example, according to Stinton, in the event that mechanics need to work within the system, as the fuel is contained within a closed system, they would have to physically put their hands inside the tank. “Grease on the gloves is enough to mix with the fuel,” Stinton says, “and this could change the fuels’ properties.”
He also explains how if these fuels were used for racing and the FIA came on site to scrutinise the car after the race - or even before the race - the driver would be disqualified.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s going to have a positive or negative effect on the outcome of the race,” he adds. “The fact that a sub sample could be different to a reference sample would lead to the FIA coming by and saying this is illegal.”
Showcasing an official FIA sample retained from the car of driver Charles Leclerc during the Austrian Grand Prix, Stinton says: “We are confident that as soon as we get samples like this, we are perfectly legal.”
As part of regulations introduced for the 2018 season, each driver in Formula One (F1) can use three engines a season before penalties are applied, compared to four in previous seasons. This change means that protection of the engine is important to ensure each SF90 power unit can go around 40 per cent further than before.
Inside an F1 engine, race lubricants are under huge pressure and must withstand peak temperatures in excess of 1,000oC. To adapt to this feature in the cars, Shell designed Shell Helix Ultra 0W low-viscosity oil to withstand the toughest environments when on the track, while delivering maximum performance and efficiency. The oil also ensures that the turbocharger is protected whilst minimising friction in other parts of the engine.
Thus, as well as helping the team’s engines run harder for longer, they also assist in monitoring the engine's health. Led by Shell Motorsport Technology manager Guy Lovett, Stinton and his colleague Paul Johnson have been accompanying the F1 Scuderia Ferrari team this season doing exactly that.
“In this lab, at any given time, there are two trackside analysts and one team lead and as Paul and I are both fully trained in both areas, we can work on either side of the lab,” Stinton says. “Whenever there are busy periods we swap chairs, so either one of us would look after the fuel and the other with lubricant analysis.”
According to Shell, this viscosity oil incorporates a gas-to-liquid process that converts natural gas into a crystal-clear base oil with virtually none of the impurities found in crude oil.
Base oil is one of the main foundations of the low-viscosity engine oils required by today’s most advanced engines. Such oils can help the engines deliver long-lasting performance under extreme temperatures and pressures.
“With any sort of operation in Formula One, it’s very strict in terms of standard operating procedures,” Stinton says. “No matter where we are in the world, we have strict sample routines to follow.”
“As always, things can develop out on the track and potential problems within the system [in this case, the engine] may be picked up by the engineers,” he adds. “We’re here to ensure that these issues are dealt with accordingly and spotted early, while following these standard operating procedures.”
Stinton recalls the 2017 Monaco Grand Prix, where the Shell team were able to flag an anomaly in the oil analysis. This collaborative effort between the Shell team and Scuderia Ferrari’s engineers resulted in driver Sebastian Vettel winning the race.
“All the sort of quality control, even down to condition reports of Shell products, are all developed from this laboratory and we feed all that information back to the engineers,” Stinton says.
He adds that during the Monaco Grand Prix podium celebrations for Vettel, “we got a pat on the back from the rest of the team for basically helping us secure the race win”.
“It’s so rewarding to know that we’ve added value to the team,” Stinton enthuses. “We’re part of the Ferrari family.”
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