Formula One has gone “green” as it were, with the corporate sponsors paying most of the bills and insisting Formula One be as eco-friendly as possible. To satisfy the sponsors, each competitor is limited to 100 kg of fuel – about 20% less than last year. To make that happen, the engines had to get a lot more efficient.
Since engine designs are now frozen for the rest of 2014, the only option the other teams have is to optimize the fuel going into their engine. Although the technical regulations specify that the race fuel be similar to what an ordinary person can buy down at the Pump N Go, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. There are well over 100 hydrocarbon-based compounds that can go into what we call “gasoline”. Some have higher octane ratings, some are better at atomizing for more complete combustion, some give better fuel economy and some are best for engine longevity.
For 2014 and beyond, the V-8 engines of old have been discarded in favor of 90 degree V-6 turbocharged engines. In addition to the turbo, there is also an Energy Recovery System (ERS) that harvests kinetic energy during braking and waste heat from the engine to generate electricity. That juice is fed to an electric motor that gives the cars an additional 120 horsepower.
Mercedes seems to have come up with the best engineering solution to the challenges presented by the new technical regulations. Its team has dominated the first 5 races, finishing first in every contest. On average, the Silver Arrows are about one-second a lap quicker than their rivals. Insiders believe they enjoy as much as an 80 horsepower advantage over their rivals.
To reduce the Mercedes performance advantage, Renault and Ferrari are working overtime with their fuel suppliers to optimize engine performance. Renault thinks they have found an additional 12 horsepower by careful fuel compounding, but that still leaves Mercedes more than 65 horsepower up on its competition. It’s unlikely any amount of fuel engineering will alter that reality.
With all this emphasis on fuel compounding, it appears we have now entered the era of “designer gasoline” with fuels custom tailored to each individual race track – better low end torque for tight circuits like Monaco and greater horsepower for high speed tracks like Monza. While the focus on fuels has brightened the employment prospects for hundreds of chemical engineers around the world, whether it has improved the racing is still very much of an open question.