Was Ethanol Behind Ferrari's China Podium?

Fernando Alonso China GP Podium

After a slow start to the 2014 Formula 1 season, Fernando Alonso put in a spectacular drive in China to put his Ferrari F14T onto the podium behind the dominant Mercedes Silver Arrows but ahead of the 4-times champion Red Bull Renaults of Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel. Alonso is one of the best drivers- if not the best driver- in the sport today, but many suspect that Ferrari’s sudden return to form might have more to do with a new blend of Shell racing fuel than Alonso’s talent.

Indeed, others in the F1 paddock- most notably the Red Bull director, Helmut Marko– have claimed that an optimized fuel blend could be worth some 3 tenths per lap, and that’s a huge difference in F1. Marko, also, pinned Alonso’s performance on a new blend of Shell fuel, saying “Ferrari made a clear leap forwards in China. They have a new fuel. And we’ll have some new fuel soon as well … maybe we will have it at the next race in Spain (this weekend).”

OK, so Ferrari has a new Shell fuel that makes more power- so, why do I think it’s a biofuel? Because Shell has been supplying its LeMans teams with biofuel since 2009, and has been blending ethanol into its regular pump fuels for years. As such, it should be allowed to use octane-boosting ethanol compounds in its fuel.

Formula 1’s own website explained the new fuel rules like this back in 2013 …

Formula One cars run on petrol, the specification of which is not that far removed from that used in regular road cars. Indeed, the FIA regulations state that the rules are “intended to ensure the use of fuels which are predominantly composed of compounds normally found in commercial fuels and to prohibit the use of specific power-boosting chemical compounds.”

… those “specific power-boosting chemical compounds” referred to by F1 were present in the old “witches’ brew” fuels from the last turbo era of F1. One fuel by Esso, designated RD1, was reported to be composed of 45% benzyl alcohol, 25% methyl alcohol, 25% high octane gasoline, 3% acetone, and 2% nitro-benzine. Those fuels were banned from the sport due, in part, to their incredible toxicity.

But, ethanol?

Ethanol compounds are present in Shell’s commercial and retail/mass-market fuels. Ethanol has a much higher equivalent octane rating than gasoline- which helps to maximize safe boost, and can deliver thermal efficiency numbers far superior to gasoline (when an engine is properly optimized for it, of course). Add the “green” angle of ethanol being a renewable fuel and the fact that a higher ethanol blend would surely meet whatever CO2 emissions standards the FIA has in place and its place in the new Ferrari F1 fuel blend becomes almost certain.

Or, you know, maybe not.

What do you think, dear readers? Is Ferrari slipping in some 130 octane biofuel under the guise of green renewability, or is someone feeding Ferrari’s power unit some Toluene while no one’s looking? Let us know what you think is going on in the comments, below. Enjoy!


Sources | Photos: Ferrari, via F1Zone, NY Times, and WorldCarFans.

Jo Borrás

I've been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, out on two wheels, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.