Petrol. When you've used one, you've used them all, right? Not necessarily. We recently spent some time at Shell's Trackside Laboratory at the 2015 Belgian Grand Prix to discover what goes into an F1 fuel, how it affects a team's performance, and how it compares to the stuff you put in your road car.
Is F1 fuel the same as road fuel?
For the most part, yes. The Formula 1 technical regulations insist that race fuels share a DNA with “pump fuels”, the idea being that F1 passes any research and development benefits down to ordinary cars. Because of this, the main ingredients are largely the same; a cocktail of over 150 chemicals including processed crude oil, benzene, touene, ethyl benzine and xylene, plus chemicals that act as lubricants, anti-icing, anti-rusting and anti-foam.
In Shell's case, the company uses F1 as a “high-speed, high-pressure test bed” and transfers all relevant learnings to its road products. But although road and F1 fuels are roughly 99 percent the same, that one percent makes a pretty big difference.
Can you run an F1 car on normal petrol?
Yes. In 2011, Ferrari did exactly that in a test at its Fiorano test circuit. Fernando Alonso drove an F1 car filled with Shell V-Power road fuel, then later with F1 fuel to discover potential differences. With the road fuel, his F1 car actually had a higher top speed, showing V-Power gave the car more power at the top end of the rev range.
The F1 fuel, however, gave the engine better responsiveness and 'pickup' through lower speed corners, meaning the F1 car ultimately ran a couple of seconds per lap faster on fuel specifically designed for grand prix use.
So using the right petrol makes a difference to all cars?
The petrol companies will tell you yes, and so do the drivers. Marc Gene, Ferrari's test driver, told us that it's possible for a driver to feel as little as a 5hp boost in performance, and that Shell can provide a substantially greater boost than this over a season with upgrades to its fuel alone. Sometimes those benefits are felt low in the engine's rev band, towards the redline, or throughout the entire torque curve.
What is the Shell trackside lab?
Shell's F1 fuels are developed and mixed at its Hamburg lab before being transported to race weekends for use by the teams it supplies (Ferrari and Sauber, currently). At least two Shell fuel scientists attend every race weekend, setting up shop in a small, portable air-conditioned lab crammed with testing equipment.
One key piece of equipment, a gas chromatography device, checks the molecular makeup of the fuel to ensure it hasn't been contaminated whist on its journey to the circuit, and that it is indeed legal F1 fuel, rather than, say, rocket fuel.
Oh yes. The shell lab can run a 'blood test' on a fuel sample to check the health of an F1 car's engine. Fuel scientists use a piece of technology known as RDEOES (rotating disc electrode optical imaging spectrography) to analyse a fuel sample to detect concentrations of different metal elements. If there appears to be a higher concentration of wear metal in a sample than expected, it is a good indication that that engine might be grinding itself to death, and that it shouldn't be trusted to complete a grand prix.
New regulations mean teams are restricted to just four engines per season, meaning the power units are under more stress than ever, and detecting problems is critical.
Any real world examples?
Shell once tested Michael Schumacher's fuel from an engine that looked perfectly fine after a qualifying session. But the fuel contained high concentrations of titanium, so the scientists warned Ferrari that it was a risk to run that engine during the race. Ferrari could spot no faults using its own instruments, but trusted Shell's judgement and swapped the engine. The new engine completed the race just fine. Later, the team ran the suspected damaged engine on a dyno. It duly blew up half way through a race simulation.
What about F1 engine oils?
F1 oils are quite different to road car oils. Whereas road oils have to be incredibly thick to protect engine parts from damage, F1 oils have a quite watery consistency. This lack of viscosity is essential for performance, as a thick oil would slow down the movement of the engine parts, robbing it of performance -- like swimming through treacle instead of water.
As engines get older, they require more protection, so Shell has separate, thicker, oils used for F1 engines that are nearing the end of their life. These oils rob performance, but offer more protection against total meltdown – an acceptable compromise given only four engines are permitted per season.
So can all this F1 testing really benefit road cars?
There are examples of F1 testing benefiting road cars. Shell's friction modification technology, a gooey honey-like fuel additive that helps reduce friction in an engine’s cylinders, was developed specifically for F1, but has since appeared in its V-Power Nitro+ fuel, which you can buy at any Shell fuel station today.