Fuels and Lubricants: Perfecting Winning Formulations in Motorsports

Fuels, lubricants, and motorsports go hand in hand.

F1 Grand Prix of USA - Qualifying
Clive Mason/Getty Images

Oftentimes, as motorsports enthusiasts, we don’t spend a lot of time dissecting the technical aspect of racing, but we should, especially when it benefits us in our day-to-day lives. Whether you are a fan of Formula 1, NASCAR, or IndyCar, you may find it surprising to know that the same fuels that these highly engineered machines run on around the track are what you, a regular consumer, pump at your local gas station—well, sort of.

V-Power and Shell Motorsports

Did you know that the fuel supplied to Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1 team contains at least 99 percent of the same types of compounds as those found in the Shell V-Power unleaded road fuels available to ordinary customers like you and I around the world? In fact, Shell V-Power fuel sold on Shell retail sites is 99 percent the same as that used by Ferrari at Formula 1 races. Containing 200 different compounds, Shell V-Power race fuel is analyzed and provides key data to help develop Shell V-Power fuel used in road cars.

As an Innovation Partner of Scuderia Ferrari, Shell has a team of 50 technical staff that work in laboratories, facilities and track sides around the world contributing to their Formula 1 program. One of the longest and most successful relationships in motorsports dating back to 1929, their partnership plays a critical role in showcasing their products and provides the ultimate test bed to support innovation and product development. Shell provides the race team with full analytical support at every race with two Shell scientists conducting tests on-site out of a compact lab throughout the year.

2017 Getty Images

Guy Lovett, Motorsport Innovation Manager at Shell

Shell Motorsports Formula 1 Trackside Lab

One of the cool things about covering motorsports is that I often have an opportunity to do things the average fan will never do. From riding shotgun on an autocross course with Ben “The Stig” Collins from Top Gear to doing a hot lap with Formula 1 Champion Sebastian Vettel at the Ferrari Finali Mondiali, and actually building a NASCAR engine at Hendrick Motorsports with the help of Valvoline, I’ve done some pretty amazing stuff! Some would even say impressive. Recently, I had an opportunity to add on to my long list of cool adventures in motorsports when I was invited by Shell for a unique opportunity to not only tour the Shell Technology Center in Houston, Texas, but also attend the USA Formula 1 Grand Prix where I was able to personally interact with Shell scientists in their Trackside Laboratory. Never one to waste a great opportunity, I did a brief Q&A with Guy Lovett, Shell Motorsport's Innovation Manager and here is what he had to say:

Guy Lovett Talks Oil and Protecting an F1 Engine:

[This interview was edited for clarity]

Guy Lovett: In Formula 1, it’s quite the purist as you suspect within the garage. Everything has to be important. If things in the garage don't make the car go faster, they're not in the garage. And the fact that we're given such a large amount of space is testament to the work that we do here in Formula 1 in support of Ferrari and the value that Ferrari place on our trackside support.

We take used oil samples from the gearbox and from the engine and every time the car… with the engines fired in the garage, we use this instrument to measure for wear metals. The gearbox of the engine…it's a very, very harsh environment and inevitably this is a metal-metal contact. Some of those metal...some of the parts from the surfaces will come away and accumulate within the oil and that's completely normal. What we're tracking for is any abnormal or elevated levels of wear metals within the oil because that could be an early warning sign of a potential problem in the engine. That itself is important to track because each driver gets only four engines for the whole season so we need to not only protect these engines but also maximize the performance over their total lifetime.

Both Ferrari and the customer team that Ferrari is supplying engines and gearboxes too will be running samples all the way through the weekend so we can expect like a hundred sample. And, the oil that will be used in Formula 1 is not so dissimilar to low-going oil. Obviously, it's different because we can tune the oil to maximize the performance and efficiency for one specific engine, or for four Ferrari Formula 1 engines. The technologies...the building blocks that we have available to us, in terms of base oil like PurePlus Technologies, the added packages, and modifiers, you know, all the other stuff that we use to make the oil, we use exactly the same things as we would for Pennzoil Platinum® for the road; it's just constructed differently, so same stuff...just made a bit differently, and we've been...as I said, we can just completely optimize for Formula 1 to maximize the performance and efficiency.

Over on this side of the lab, Drew is responsible this weekend for fuel analysis. Now, fuel in Formula 1 is a little bit different, slightly different conditions than the oil because the fuel is quite tightly regulated in terms of the formulations and specifications and that's very important because it means that the fuel we use in here in Formula 1 is very close, very similar to the fuel you can buy in the gas stations just outside the circuit. The race fuel contains 99 percent of the same types of compounds you could find in road fuel. They all are similar. You could take our fuel and run in your old car and during this time, it will run quite well. You can also take the fuel from the gas station here and it will run in a car like ours, this would be optimized. It would be down on performance and down on power. Because we have quite a large team of scientists and engineers, both fuel and lubricant scientists, constantly running programs to develop the fuel formulations to bring more performance to the track, typically, we bring anything from three to five new oil or new fuel formulations throughout the whole year, so we're always trying to step forward in performance and efficiency.

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Shell Motorsports Formula 1 Trackside Lab

The analysis that Drew is doing is to check for quality and legality, to the FIA, the governing body behind Formula 1, are...quite insistent. Not only do they give us very strict regulations to work towards, they'll have to test against those regulations on a frequent basis. You can liken it to drugs tests in athletics. So at any point through a race, we can let them come and take samples of the fuel from here in the lab, from the car, from the drums that are in the compound, from the fueling rigs, anywhere they like. And as soon as they take a sample, they will take it back to their own small laboratory and using the same instruments that we have here, or similar instruments, they would take a digital fingerprint of the fuel. It's a unique identifier of that fuel formulation and if it doesn't match the digital fingerprint that we have pre-approved ahead of the race. If those traces don't perfectly overlay, we've got a problem. The fuel is illegal and also, we could be disqualified from the race. And so, to protect against that, to ensure that doesn't happen, we're here...and check, and double-check every time the fuel is moved to make sure it is on spec and is legal.

As you can imagine...gather through the engine samples that we're processing on a race weekend, we gather massive amount of data intelligence from how our products perform at the track and we share all of that through live data systems with our technical facilities around the globe, really with our part of operations for motorsports in Hamburg. When that stops, that's then taken into the development program for next-generation analysis. We also share everything that we do here with our colleagues developing next-generation V-Power for the road for consumers to try and extract as much knowledge, information and technology from here at the track and apply that to our regular products—very important elements in what we do.

Q: Do you make any adjustments...do you test during the race as well? If the data shows that something is wrong, can you make adjustments accordingly, or no?

Guy Lovett: We don't do...we can't do...we have access to the telemetry...live telemetry, you know what's happening on the car...track...but what we don't do is see anything that's happening with the fuel or the oil on the track. It's just tested before and after the sessions. From the product side, we certainly will not change anything here at the track. We don't want to. We've done all the hard work through tens of thousands of hours every stage of development before the products get here so what we do take on the fuel side is quality control, and on the oil side, it's about the health of the engine. But we do bring, sometimes, different formulations of fuel and oil to the race track and then make a decision as to which of those formulations are the right ones for the condition, or for the engine specification that Ferrari is using.

Q: What if the data shows that it's not going to work...that there's going to be some issues, can you make adjustments to the engines based on that?

Guy Lovett: Yes. Usually, if we saw our problem from our wear-metal data, if we saw elevated levels of zinc, copper, for example, that can suggest issues with the battery. We'll share that information with Ferrari, they would put it together with the telemetry level and the information from that sensor, and by making all that jigsaw fit we will have a good indication of what's going on with the engine. We can't take it apart; once it's in service, it's sealed. At that point, if the perception is, "Okay, there is a problem. We've got to do something"...if it happens before the race, the right thing to do if you're concerned is to change the engine. The most critical time for us, actually, is right now because it is through practice, through qualifying...it's usually every two hours…it takes two hours to change an engine. If the teams enter qualifying with a particular engine, they have to use that for the race as well so it's the last chance now to change an engine or any of the hardware before it becomes really critical because if you do have to change an engine afterwards, it's a penalty.

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Shell Motorsports Formula 1 Trackside Lab

Q: Have you ever had approval issues, or is it always pretty smooth?

Guy Lovett: We've seen, once or twice this season, that the information that we provided to Ferrari has helped them make an informed decision to change some hardware...can't say all this, the details, but I think the fact that we are here, we are in the lab every race weekend, it's a testament to the value that Ferrari places on the work that we do with them.

Q: You said you can use the same gas in your regular car. What kind of octane gas are you running?

Guy Lovett: That is something I can't tell you. In the regulation, there is a minimum octane limit to how we measure octane in Europe, but there is no maximum limit. There are other aspects behind the regulations, which do really limit how high we can go, and also, the important thing is we're limited to 105 kilograms of fuel for each driver for the race so that they only have so much fuel to burn for the whole race.

For the formulation, what we're trying to do is, maximize the performance or tuning of the engine from octane. But, if we did just that, we wouldn't be able to put very much energy into the fuel because if the proponents are high in octane but low in energy, or vice-versa. So, for overall performance of the car, we need to balance all the different aspects of formulation--from energy, flame speed, octane, etc.--and that blend is the ultimate fuel formulation for us.

History in Motorsports

Ferrari and Shell have amassed 12 Formula 1 Driver’s Championships and 10 Constructors’ Championships. Shell V-Power Unleaded fuel and Pennzoil Platinum engine oils are a large part of the Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1 team development. Shell is the single fuel partner of the Le Mans 24H, the title sponsor of the Hyundai Shell Mobis World Rally Team and the Shell Malaysia MotoGP, and a technical partner to Ducati Corse and BMW Motorsports. Shell and Pennzoil also sponsor Team Penske in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and the Verizon IndyCar Series where they are the preferred supplier of fuels, lubricants, and related products. The Critical data unlocked during motorsports testing also aids Shell in formulating and designing customer-grade lubricants and fuels.