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Fueling the fires of Ferrari Formula One

We go behind the scenes with Ferrari Formula One, and into the team's unique Shell fuel and oil lab. How much of a difference can this liquid fire actually make in a race?

We go behind the scenes with Ferrari Formula One at the first race of the 2013 FIA F1 season in Melbourne and into the team's unique Shell fuel and oil lab. How much of a difference can this liquid fire actually make in a race?

In the lab with Guy Lovett. (Credit: Getty Images)

Fuel and oil seem boring. It sounds like battery life. You need it, it's bog standard and you only get upset about it when it runs out. Turns out, particularly in Formula One, that's a long way from the truth.

Ferrari and Shell have a unique relationship in F1. Describing it as a "true technical partnership" rather than just sponsorship (Shell has worked with Ferrari for 60 years), Ferrari is the only team in the championship to have a travelling fuel and oil lab on hand to give detailed insights in the pit every time a car comes back after hitting the track.

Guy Lovett, Shell Technical Manager with Scuderia Ferrari, is in charge of managing the travelling lab as part of the Ferrari team's trackside operations.

"We run about 30 tests throughout a race weekend, across both oil and fuel to make sure everything is exactly as it should be," said Lovett.

Lovett showed me a sample of fuel from Massa's car after an initial engine test a little earlier. It was still warm.

F1 fuel is strictly regulated. Fuel must sit within specific limits — limits the teams do their best to sit right on the edge of. Each team must submit its fuel to be approved by the FIA, and once approved, the fuel in the car can (and will) be tested to ensure it both continues to adhere to the regulations, and that it is still an exact match of the fuel the team submitted for approval.

For Lovett, a lot of the fuel management work comes down to logistics.

"Shipping fuel, oil and kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) fluid all around the world takes time," said Lovett. "We want to give the team the best and most current formulations we can deliver, but by sea, that can take months to have it arrive. Sometimes, we just accept the high costs of air freight to get what we need as close to time as possible."

While the fuel is controlled with precision, the oil is entirely up for grabs. For Lovett, that means the scientists can try their best to develop new compounds, coatings and efficiencies without any restrictions.

"With our oil tests, one thing we are looking for is wear metals within the sample," said Lovett. "We can pick up traces that show problems with the engine or gearbox before it is picked up elsewhere. This can help the team decide whether a change should be made before a larger problem occurs during the race itself."

But how much difference can the liquids actually make to raw performance? Since a freeze on engine development in 2006, the answer is everything.

According to Ferrari test driver Marc Gené, when engine design is fixed, a team needs to find improvements in many other places. Fuel and oil are one of those areas.

"Through fuel improvement, you can deliver as much as five horsepower more performance," says Gené. "We're talking about one or two tenths of a second there."

Before 2005, the relationship between the fuels and oils used in F1 and those used in consumer vehicles had very little in common at all. When an engine only had to last a single race, everything was focused on raw power and performance to thrash the hardware to its limit within a single weekend.

Since then, engines and gearboxes must run for multiple races. This shifted the focus to a balance of power and durability, which means that the different divisions at Shell are able to share knowledge in a more useful fashion. It even cuts both ways.

"There are times when a product that tests poorly for commercial use could actually provide value when used in the unique context of Ferrari," says Lovett.

This is Lovett's first Formula One. The start of what he describes as his dream job. He said that receiving his Ferrari team headset was one of the greatest moments of his life. Looking at a television screen that was showing the cars out on track during the first practice session, I asked Lovett what he thinks now when he sees the cars out on track.

"What I see now is completely different to what I saw when I looked at that screen last year," said Lovett. "Now I know that the work I do every day is having a direct impact on that cars ability to perform and deliver results on the track. That's a great feeling. I'll be fighting people off to keep this job for a very long time."