MONTREAL, QC – I’m finding it hard to suppress a snicker, and it finally comes out in a strangled snort. Standing in a darkened trailer, hands wrapped tightly around the rail as instructed, I’m taking part in “Destination Engine”: an immersive experience not unlike 1960’s “Fantastic Voyage” designed to illustrate the journey taken by a drop of fuel through a Formula 1 engine.
A slickly produced video, complete with ear-ringing, ground shaking audio, is part of Shell’s promotional display in the Ferrari paddock during last weekend’s Canadian Grand Prix. While I’m probably supposed to be awed by the vertigo-inducing graphics as we’re taken at high speed through the fuel lines, the injectors and, with a flash-pot-bang, through the combustion chamber before finally exiting the exhaust system – all I could think of was the “Spermatozoon” scene in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.
I doubt that Shell would be impressed by that association, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Ferrari would approve.
The two companies have formed one of the greatest partnerships in Formula 1 racing history for 70 years. But Shell fuel’s relationship with Ferrari started long before then – it predates even the very first car to roll off the Maranello production line.
It was 93 years ago that Shell first became involved with a young Alfa Romeo driver named Enzo Ferrari. By 1929, Ferrari had given up driving to launch a Shell-backed race team of his own. In 1947, the first car to bear the Ferrari name was born, fuelled and lubricated by Shell. Since then, Shell’s involvement with motorsports has grown world-wide to include a multitude of disciplines, and partnerships with a variety of automakers.
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But it’s their relationship with Scuderia Ferrari that took us to Montreal just prior to the Canadian Grand Prix. Together they’ve won 168 F1 victories, 12 Formula Driver’s Championships and 10 Formula Constructor’s Championships. On hand for a Q&A session was their star driver, four-time F1 Champion Sebastian Vettel, and some of Shell’s top experts responsible for their race fuel development.
In a sport where milliseconds can separate the champions from the also-rans, every advantage counts. Formula 1 teams are now limited to four engines per season (down from five) so it’s crucial they’re given optimum protection to perform under rigorous conditions. Like tires, fuel and lubricants are important components of racing, but just aren’t that sexy (not that kind of lubricant, anyway). That’s where partnership with a winning team comes in. While the exposure and image association are valuable promotional tools, having their fuel scientists embedded in the team gives Shell the invaluable opportunity to continuously refine their products based on collected performance data.
FIA rules require that F1 fuels be 99 percent similar to what’s used in road cars – unlike the rocket fuels used a few decades ago. It’s that one percent that Shell scientists spend up to 21,000 hours per year developing – a formula they protect like a state secret. The fuel itself is guarded from the time it leaves their factory in Germany until it reaches Shell’s trackside laboratory to prevent rivals from either sampling, or tampering with it. And just like athletes, or racehorses, the fuel is subject to rigorous testing by the FIA, the sport’s governing body, to ensure that the fuel is legal and complies with requirements. Any contamination, even a minuscule amount of grease from a mechanics glove, could result in a penalty – or even disqualification. Like Mika Häkkinen being stripped of his third place title in 1997’s Belgium Grand Prix.
“It’s not just that you want maximum performance, you also want maximum life,” said Vettel, of the fluids that keep his race car going. “(You want) maximum power, but you also want the engine to last, because if it doesn’t last, you get a penalty. It’s a tough challenge, but this year seems to be going really well.” Indeed, while Vettel didn’t win on Sunday (that honour went to Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton) he credits the fuel for an estimated 15 more horsepower in his Ferrari.
The V6 engines like high-octane fuel, but with more power comes more heat. And with only four engines per season, they need protection to make them last.
Holding a large steel ball bearing with a flat spot, Shell scientist Joseph Russo says “Imagine running an orange down a grater. Coat the same orange with oil, and it slides right over without grating.” The same concept applies to the working parts of an engine – the challenge comes with developing a lubricant thick enough to protect it, without being so heavy that it slows down the engine.
Russo, who has a PhD in organic chemistry, notes that Shell’s new V-Power Nitro+ premium gasoline contains 99 percent of the compounds in Scuderia Ferrari’s race cars. Using the technology gleaned from race data analysis to improve their road car formulas, Shell claims their new premium fuel will similarly protect customer’s engines from gunk, wear and corrosion.