Behind the scenes: Making fuel for a Formula One team

Last week, at the Melbourne Formula One Grand Prix, we spoke to Lisa Lilley, Shell's technology manager for Ferrari, about how Shell formulates the fuel and lubricants that it supplies to the Ferrari F1 race team.

Last week, at the Melbourne Formula One Grand Prix, we spoke to Dr Lisa Lilley, Shell's technology manager for Ferrari, about how Shell formulates the fuel and lubricants that it supplies to the Ferrari F1 race team.

The fuel hose is so heavy it requires two men to operate(Credit: Shell)

How many Shell people work with the Ferrari race team?
Every race weekend three technical Shell staff travel and work with the Ferrari team. There's myself, one person each for lubricant and oil analysis. Overall, the fuel and lubricants team consists of 50 tech guys and gals spread across Germany and the UK, although quite a few of them are part time. In the course of a race year, some 18,000 hours of research and development are dedicated to formulating, testing and refining fuels and lubricants for the Formula One team.

So what do you guys do?
We develop fuel and lubricants to the specifications laid out by the FIA*. Most of the team's work is taken up trying to meet regulation changes (and there's been a few of those this year), as well as Ferrari's fuel strategy.

For instance, in previous seasons Ferrari wanted its fuel and lubricants optimised for hot conditions but now we're favouring power and reliability. This is primarily because engines now need to last for three race weekends, or about 2500km.

* The Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, or International Automobile Federation, is the world governing body for a range of international motor racing events, such as the World Rally Championship, World Touring Car Championship and, of course, Formula One.

Well once you've met those specifications, it doesn't sound like there's much to do...
Well if you think of the FIA's fuel spec as a space, we want to be on the edge of that space. We know that we're doing our jobs when we get a few warnings.

Has your fuel ever been rejected by the FIA?
No, touch wood. Our rigorous in-house testing means we've never been rejected by the FIA. Plus, whenever we consider a fuel slightly off spec, it can be brought back on spec by a process called trimming.

How often does the FIA check a race team's fuel and lubricants against its specs?
Prior to each race, we send the fuel and lubes that we're going to use off to the FIA for approval. Also, at any time during a race weekend the FIA can check, come in take fuel and lubes away for verification — up to 30 times during a single race, in fact.

You mentioned adapting the fuel to Ferrari's race strategy, does that entail formulating a different mix of fuel for each race?
We try to keep fuel formulation changes to a minimum because the process involves completely flushing out the old fuel. That's because it's possible that if the old and new fuels mix, the combined entity could be off spec.

Also there's now a ban on track testing once the race season has started, so race fuel alternations need to be bench tested by Ferrari.

How do you analyse fuel and lubricants?
We heat up the item we're testing to 4000 degrees Celsius and use light spectroscopy to identify and quantify certain elements by their light signatures. With lubricant analysis we're looking for metal fragments and other abnormal matter. In all, 15 elements are checked for.

Although we were given garage access, all photos taken are deemed "for personal use only". So here's Schumacher and the team discussing fuel, maybe.(Credit: Shell)

Tell us a little more about fuel used in the race cars.
Well, the fuel has detergent additives to clean the engine as it's being driven and the FIA's specs state that the fuel can be anywhere between 95 and 102 RON. As the Formula One engines can rev up to 18,000rpm, the fuel isn't necessarily 102 RON. We find that volatility and density are more important than the RON rating actually.

When we're developing a fuel, we consider mass fuel consumption is more important than volume fuel consumption, which is what's measured in road cars. Michael Schumacher won a race once with a lighter fuel as it helped his pit-stop strategy.

But in many ways, actually, race fuel is quite similar to petrol available in stores.

So can you use normal unleaded petrol in an F1 car?
Yes, but the power difference between commercially available petrol and race fuel can be felt and is significant.

Why is that?
Race fuel is tailor-made and optimised for a single car design, whereas commercially available fuels are more generic as it has to cater for a wide variety of set-ups and configurations.

Are there any plans for Formula One to use E85 fuel?
F1 uses 5.75 per cent bio-oxygenate fuel at the moment, and there are no plans for E85.

How much is a litre of race fuel worth?
It's impossible to put down a price per litre, partly because of the man hours involved, but also the cost of production and logistics. For instance, every litre of fuel has to be flown in from Europe, where it's formulated in a specialised lab at the refinery on a small scale. Although we supply about 200,000 litres of fuel to Ferrari for a race year, in the scheme of things that's pretty small scale.

Tell us a little bit about filling up the Ferrari F1 race car.
During a refuel, fuel is pumped at 12L/s. The refuelling hose weighs 50kg and requires two people to operate: one to carry the hose and one to actually operate it. The fuel itself has to be warm, but according to the regulations it has to be 10 degrees Celsius under ambient air temperature and this is rigorously monitored by the FIA.

Whereabouts do you work?
I have an office at Ferrari's HQ in Maranello, Italy for three months every year. During race weekends I'm at the track lab.

Derek Fung travelled to the Melbourne Formula One Grand Prix as a guest of Shell.

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