How improved reliability is fuelling F1’s latest development drive

Fuel and lubricants have become a key part of F1’s development war again, say JONATHAN NOBLE and STUART CODLING, as manufacturers chase performance outside the boundaries of the budget cap

How improved reliability is fuelling F1’s latest development drive

That Red Bull is on a roll at the moment is obvious – we can measure its advantage not just in terms of lap times and race results, but also in the quantity of innuendo directed at it by rivals.

Mercedes might have landed a couple of blows by lobbying for new wing flexibility tests and pitstop timing rules, but the fact remains that Red Bull’s RB16B can still outpace Merc’s W12 on pretty much any circuit – by a quarter of a second or more per lap.

Part of that margin comes from the engine bay but isn’t a factor of horsepower alone.

In Azerbaijan ExxonMobil, Red Bull’s fuel and lubricants partner, introduced what it described as a “revolutionary” new oil which incorporates components not traditionally used in lubricants. For the French Grand Prix Honda brought a greatly revised specification of the all-new power unit it introduced at the start of the season. These developments are not unrelated.

Trick fuel ‘n’ lubes are nothing new in F1. Until pump fuel became mandatory, additives to boost power and/or improve resistance to pre-ignition (or ‘knock’) were in common use. Advanced lubricants then went hand-in-hand with exotic metallurgy in the 1990s as engine manufacturers chased ever higher revs.

But as data analytics improved and the FIA clamped down on development in the 2000s, other opportunities emerged: if, for instance, a lubricant could massively reduce friction while maintaining reliability, the engine would require less cooling and therefore the sidepod apertures could be narrowed, reducing aerodynamic drag.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Motorsport Images

In the era of homologated engines from 2007 onwards, fuel and lubricants became a development focus since mechanical changes could only be justified on reliability grounds (although this didn’t stop cunning manufacturers sneaking performance upgrades through).

So while Honda insists its new PU spec isn’t more powerful than the one rolled out at the start of the season, perfectly legal changes made in the name of reliability are believed to be enabling Red Bull to run it in more aggressive modes than before. The exclusive arrangement with ExxonMobil complements and facilitates this.

One of Red Bull’s bugbears during the latter seasons of its relationship with Renault was that it was unable to secure dyno time with its lubricants supplier because Renault was focusing on optimising its engines to work with its own fuel and lubes partner, Castrol. Since both Red Bull-backed teams have been working solely with Honda – Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri since 2018, Red Bull Racing since 2019 – innovations have been able to flow in this area.

"If it ups the efficiency of the engine a little bit because we have less pumping losses through it, we bring the friction down a little bit, then those are all small steps that simply contribute to an overall gain in the car’s performance" Tomek Young

Straightline speed, previously not a Red Bull strong suit, has demonstrably improved – and the difference was especially noticeable at Paul Ricard, when the latest Honda engine came on stream. Red Bull naturally dismissed suggestions from the Mercedes camp that the new engine begat this increased speed, putting it down to improved energy management and running slimmer-profile wings than Mercedes.

But the ability to run the engine more aggressively than before is undoubtedly a contributor to Red Bull’s current pre-eminence. ExxonMobil won’t reveal specifics about the chemicals used in its new-generation Mobil 1 lubricant, but will admit it has looked to elements normally found in products from the cosmetics industry. The key to the success of any high-performance lubricant is to deposit a protective film on the internal surfaces to reduce wear and friction – while at the same time being low-viscosity to avoid drag on moving components.

ExxonMobil Global Motorsport Technology Manager Tomek Young told GP Racing’s sister website Motorsport.com: “The cosmetics industry offers many unique naturally derived components and we had to evaluate a range of similar products before selecting the best.

 

“These new components were incorporated as they were found to offer many benefits, including stronger interactions with metal surfaces and lower friction, helping deliver maximum power while offering protection and fuel efficiency.

“These benefits translate into an ability to run the engine across a wider range of conditions.”

Young says the initial idea to use such chemicals came up around eight years ago, and they have been tested in ExxonMobil’s laboratories since then. But it’s only relatively recently, during Red Bull’s partnership with Honda, that it’s been able to evaluate it while running on the dyno.

Young adds: “Some elements of the chemical composition of our new engine oil are a departure from what we would normally formulate a product with. What was a long shot a few years ago – a vision of a low-ash, high-temperature, low-friction engine oil that incorporates bio-based components became a reality this year, thanks to the efforts of our whole team, in collaboration with Honda and Red Bull. We believe this will offer us opportunities into the future.”

“If it’s improved the engine reliability a little bit,” says Red Bull chief engineer Paul Monaghan, “then it makes it easier for us to observe the three power units per year regulation. And it also gives us the ability to run it more free with the miles in its most performant mode.

“We can also learn more about the car through a race weekend rather than having potentially a restriction. In terms of outright performance, if it ups the efficiency of the engine a little bit because we have less pumping losses through it, we bring the friction down a little bit, then those are all small steps that simply contribute to an overall gain in the car’s performance.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

It’s vanishingly rare for a single component to yield a lap time improvement in the order of what Red Bull has achieved this season, but what it can do is open possibilities which lead to a virtuous cycle. In this case, fuel and lubes working in tandem with power unit supplier and chassis designers to find aerodynamic gains as well as power and reliability.

“We’re still working with Red Bull and Honda to accumulate more performance data,” says Young when asked if it’s possible to quantify the new oil formulation’s contribution to Red Bull’s lap time gains. “The team is constantly refining every aspect that can result in a benefit, so there are always multiple changes in play.

“We made this oil so unusual that the engine can run even harder down the road, so further optimisations to the aerodynamics and to the operating conditions will be possible” Tomek Young

“In the end it may be difficult to separate out at-the-track oil contribution with the contributions from fuel, engine operation parameters, and vehicle aerodynamics. But we had tested multiple formulations with Red Bull and Honda in a laboratory, before selecting the one we race with.”

What should cause Mercedes to worry is the likelihood of Honda finding further ways to exploit the new formulation before it bows out of Formula 1 at the end of the season and hands the engine over to Red Bull.

“We made this oil so unusual that the engine can run even harder down the road,” says Young. “So further optimisations to the aerodynamics and to the operating conditions will be possible.”

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB16B

Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images

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