Closer look at Petronas and Mercedes F1’s winning partnership

17th Nov 2019 8:00 am

Just how much do fuel and oils contribute to making a race-winning car? The answer may surprise you. Petronas gives us a behind-the-scenes look at its partnership with the Mercedes F1 team.

As the proverb goes, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” And there’s no better example of this symmetry in practice than the Mercedes-Petronas partnership in Formula 1. If you think of the team as one giant, multiple-championship-winning machine, there are hundreds of cogs working together and contributing their bit to achieve one single goal – extract the best possible result from every race.

Now, some of these take centre stage at race weekends; the engine and aerodynamics updates teams introduce from race to race often make the headlines, for example. However, there are so many more pieces of the puzzle working behind the scenes – fuel, lubricants and other functional fluids being some of the more understated, albeit critical ones. While speaking with Autocar India at the 2019 Singapore GP, Mercedes F1 team principal Toto Wolff credited a lot of the team’s success to all the work Petronas has put in as a technical partner.

In Wolff’s own words, “They (Petronas) are contributing real lap time. A fuel upgrade or an oil upgrade can contribute a tenth or two-tenths, and it’s the easiest one because it just comes while you push the throttle. Therefore, they cannot be underestimated; on the contrary, they need to be put up on a pedestal.” But just what does all of this ‘work’ encompass and how does it translate into making a championship-winning car?

Working in harmony

Modern day F1 cars are nothing short of technological marvels. Just like how any symphony requires every musician in the orchestra to play in perfect harmony, a race-winning car requires every single part to not just function optimally, but do so in perfect harmony with all the other components.

Now, fuel is the primary source of energy for an F1 car and the main aim while developing this fuel is to extract as much energy and power as possible. But all this energy extracted would be useless without the oil and other functional fluids. If even one part of this carefully integrated system isn’t working, it’s going to restrict the true output from the combustion chamber, all the way to the wheels.

“Why these engines are so powerful and so brilliant is because the engineering science is so evolved that a lot of this energy coming out of this chemical reaction is going to the wheels,” Andrea Dolfi, head, R&D fluid technology solutions, Petronas, points out.

As technical partner to Mercedes, Petronas also offers technical support to the team and all the other customer teams that use Mercedes engines. The development of these fluids can be broken down to two basic parts. In the short term, Petronas looks into the team’s existing requirements as the power units are updated and setups are changed, to provide the best formulation within the realms of existing chemistry. However, in the long term, there’s also an R&D group looking at what novel formulations can be developed and introduced in the future.

“Fluids is where we actually put in our latest development and our R&D work into the programme so that it can benefit the team to ensure they will always win and to ensure that they get the best performance, power, mileage, durability and protection,” says Fadhli Wong, head of group research and technology, project delivery and technology at Petronas.

Dolfi and Wong also point out how none of this development can be achieved in isolation. The Petronas team essentially consists of chemists and researchers, and they work together with Mercedes’ mechanics, power unit team and other members to ensure the best results.

Aerodynamics is also aided by fluid development.

“We understand the chemistry, they understand the mechanics,” says Wong. “So it’s like fluids and metal infusing together in a very harmonious way because there’s no way we can build something for the mechanical part if we don’t understand it, and at the same time, if they don’t understand the chemical and how it’s being used, they will not be able to push it to its limits.”

Interestingly, fluid development can also significantly aid the aerodynamics of the car. It’s a fascinating domino effect – for example, if the lubricants and cooling fluids are doing their job to dissipate the heat generated, then this allows the team to use a smaller radiator, thereby resulting in a more compact car that generates minimal drag. Essentially, this enables the aerodynamics team to focus on making the car faster rather than on aiding cooling. All of this in unison could translate to several-tenths of a second shaved per lap – which, in a sport as fast-paced as F1, could be the difference between winning and losing. As Fadhli explains, “It’s all about integration and optimisation.”

Striking a balance

Sure, winning championships requires a car to be fast; but in the long haul, the car also has to be as efficient and reliable as possible. After all, you could have the fastest car on the grid but that won’t matter if you’re unable to actually finish the race. And no other team on the grid boasts a reliability track record as strong as Mercedes’.

Current F1 rules test a car’s efficiency to the maximum possible limits. While total fuel usage during a race is limited to 110kg, the FIA also has stringent limitations on how many power-unit components each driver can use per season, exceeding which incurs hefty penalties. As a result, a crucial balance needs to be struck between performance and efficiency.

Dolfi believes that in the current hybrid era, efficiency and performance work in unison. “The concept of a hybrid power unit is to do more with less,” he says. “Hybridisation by means of having a battery pack, power electronics and two electric motors which are recharging as well as using electrical energy; it’s a way to reclaim wasted energy otherwise lost in innate dissipation when you brake or slow down.”

“Whatever you take out from the fuel, it must be taken out not in a wasteful way. If you don’t waste, you last longer,” he went on to say.

A fine balance needs to be achieved in the formulation.

The primary use of lubricants is to prevent wear of all the moving parts – another important contributor to enhancing the longevity of these parts. But the function of lubricants goes beyond just that, since it also cleans, inhibits corrosion, improves sealing and aids with heat dissipation. Take, for example, the twisty Marina Bay Street Circuit in Singapore. Here, a driver makes 76 gear changes per lap on average – over 4,600 gear changes in the race. Under such intense stress, the gearbox oil has a crucial role to play.

Wong explains how the fuel and oil work hand-in-hand, in this regard, “If you want a more powerful fuel, it means that it has to combust at high pressure. So in order to take out this extra heat, the oil has to be formulated in such a way that it can actually remove heat.”

Of course, keeping that in mind, there’s a fine balance that needs to be achieved in the actual formulation as well – if the oil is too viscous, some of the energy the engine produces will be wasted to move the fluid. But if the oil is too fluid, then it’s compromising protecting the different parts from wear.

Track Lab

Tucked away inside the Mercedes garage is the Petronas Track Lab where trackside fluid engineers Ahmad Nasri Mohd Shafie and Stephanie Travers conduct tests on the fuel and oils throughout the weekend.

The Petronas Track Lab is tucked away inside the garage.

The first samples are tested as early as on the Tuesday before a race to ensure that the fluids do, in fact, comply with FIA rules and haven’t been contaminated during transport. Subsequent samples are then tested at multiple stages; the visual difference between the fresh and used samples are immediately apparent since they’re picking up wear metals – an indicator of the fact that the fuel and oils are actually cleaning the various parts, thereby aiding their efficiency. The results from these tests can be compared to that of a blood test, i.e. they give an overview of the ‘health’ of the different components. “It tells you exactly how much of every element there is and every part corresponds to a different part of the engine,” says Travers.

Samples are drawn and tested at multiple stages.

“We take a baseline and then at the end of the session we take the sample again. So it’s like a blood sample of the body, it tells you everything that’s wrong with you.”

Shafie and Travers play a pivotal role during race weekends since these tests also help predict potential reliability concerns. “If we detect a problem, the engineers may decide to change the engine or stick with the engine because in order to win the race and the championship, you have to first finish the race,” adds Shafie.

From Track to Wheels

The fuel used in F1 cars is a lot more similar to what you may pump into your car than you think. FIA rules mandate the fuel blends to be composed of compounds normally found in commercial fuels. Dolfi draws a comparison to food prepared by someone at home and that served at a Michelin Star restaurant. “Some of the components are very similar, but the way you put them together is what matters,” he says.

F1 pushes the limits of what men and machine can do to the very extreme, but this is precisely what makes it one of the best test beds for commercial formulations and technology. And that’s exactly what Petronas is doing. Describing what the company refers to as the ‘Track to Wheels’ initiative, Wong says, “Whatever technology we put on track, it’s our wishlist for it to be enjoyed by consumers around the world,

“Now, when we design and develop the cutting-edge formulation for fuel and lubricants, we test it at the pinnacle of motorsports. This is the highest level of testing you can do. Then we actually use all the lessons learned, all the experience we’ve got here, and we apply it to our commercial products,” he continues.

This year, Mercedes cemented its place in motorsport history books by clinching its sixth consecutive double F1 title win (winning both the drivers’ and constructors’constructors’ championship). This is the first time a team has achieved this feat in F1, making it a true testament to just how successful its partnership with Petronas is.

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