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Formula 1 technology spotlight: Fuels development

The Malaysian Grand Prix is one of the many events we've been to courtesy of Shell, a technical partner of Ferrari for over 60 years. That means we--and you, if you read our features regularly--are pretty familiar with the following line: "The V-Power you can buy at the pumps has 99% of the compounds in the V-Power Racing used in Formula 1."

It sounds like a standard marketing spiel, but in reality, it is rooted in F1's technical regulations. The document is publicly available on the FIA website for anyone who wants a geekfest over technicalities. But the bottom line with regard to fuel, as stated in the document itself, is that the rules are "intended to ensure the use of fuels that are composed of compounds normally found in commercial fuels and to prohibit the use of specific power-boosting chemical compounds."

"Clearly, all racing fuel has to meet that specification, but there are windows of opportunity," says Ian Albiston, Shell's F1 trackside and logistics manager. You can guess how big the window is: "[The fuel] does contain 99% of the same compounds of the fuel you and I can buy, [but with] the 1%, we can make quite a big difference to the V6 power unit."

He doesn't go into detail about the math and chemistry behind the "massive change of formulation for the fuel" this year, but he provides insight on some changes.

"What quickly became apparent and obvious was that the fuel appetite of the V6 turbocharged engine with hybrid technology was completely different to [that of] the V8 we'd been used to," he notes. "Things like octane are now very important on a V6 turbo, whereas on the V8--a naturally aspirated engine--it was not really important. We didn't formulate for octane [then]. The V6 engine likes octane, so you go as high-octane as you can."

The crux of the matter, though, is that striking the best balance between performance and efficiency is more important than ever. Yet the chasm between the two has gotten bigger in this new formula especially with the rules on fuel limits and fuel-flow rates. Where before, fuel scientists would speak rather generally of "finding the perfect compromise" between power and economy, Albiston describes this year's challenge in terms of "a whole energy equation."

With regard to octane, for instance, he says, "There's [no good to] having a very high-octane [and] very powerful fuel, only to run out of fuel five laps before the end. You have to temper that with the energy value of the fuel. We need a fuel that's very high-octane, but also high in calorific value."

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"In the real world, you can't have both," he goes on. "We can find very high-octane components, but they have quite low calorific values; we can find high calorific components, but they have low octane numbers. So then you start talking octane boosters...scavengers. It's the whole balancing equation of this 1% difference we can make to the 2014 power unit."

Albiston adds that even though the fuel works directly with the internal-combustion side of the power unit, the fuel scientists still have to look at how the electric components function in order to maximize the entire package. "Yes, we've got 100kg of fuel; that's 30% less [than before]. You're not going to gain all of that back just from the fuel," he stresses. "So you've got the energy from the combustion part of the engine, you've got the energy from the ERS, and you've got the energy from the fuel. If we can give fuel with a high calorific value, that's energy for free. If [there is] x-thousand kilowatts of energy to do a certain race on, [and] if we can give a few more kilowatts of energy or calorific value from the fuel, that's free horsepower. But everything has to work in conjunction."

That's why his team has been working on this new generation of race cars with Ferrari from the very beginning. "We sat down with Ferrari back in March 2011, when the engine and car were still on a piece of paper," he recalls. "Our scientists sat down with their engineers on day one, and developed those bespoke products [from] March 2011 to where we were when we got to Melbourne."

The result so far: over 55 types of racing fuel by the time the season-opener rolled around a month ago, an additional six formulations in the two weeks between the Australia and Malaysia events, and a group of white coats averaging two hours of sleep a night. But as Albiston puts it, "we push for performance for the F1 products because, ideally, it benefits us all. Direct transfer is so easy."

The way "direct transfer" works is that "you won't see the exact fuel, but what you will have is the technology within this fuel. The building blocks are exactly the same. What the access to the V6 turbo engine gives us is access to a mechanism to get technology from track to road very quickly," Albiston explains. "We can have a hundred laboratories working 24 hours a day, but this [turbo V6] engine can give us so much data very quickly."

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Photos from Shell


Formula 1 technology spotlight: Fuels development

Formula 1 technology spotlight: Fuels development

Formula 1 technology spotlight: Fuels development

Sharleen Banzon
Contributor
An inveterate Formula 1 geek, Sharleen tips the scales at just 50kg because she starves herself to save up for F1 trips.
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