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Why F1's sustainable fuel challenge is a "different beast"

Formula 1's fuel suppliers have faced plenty of challenges as the championship's rules have evolved over the years.

GPR AUG 21 Fuels 1

Autosport Business

Covering industry news and insight into the business of motorsport

Indeed, recent decades have highlighted some extremes - from the 1980s and 1990s when questionable super exotic blends were the only way to win, to the current turbo hybrid era where it is about getting the most energy out of a set weight of fuel.

But, as F1 eyes a carbon-zero future, attention is now shifting to the impact of the switch to fully sustainable fuels from 2026.

And, while the idea of F1 cars being powered by waste and bio produce may not be so fitting for the championship's image, for the companies at the heart of the transition, these are exhilarating times.

Indeed, after years where there have been ever-increasing restrictions on what fuel suppliers can do to tweak the chemical composition of their petrol, allied to fewer and fewer opportunities to bring updates, the pretty much blue-sky approach for 2026 is offering plenty of appeal.

As Valeria Loreti, delivery manager at Shell Motorsport who helps head the interface between her company and Ferrari, F1's 2026 overhaul is something to get very excited about.

"From a fuel perspective, we are now in a completely new space," she tells Autosport.

"We're talking about advanced sustainable components that need to be derived by special feedstocks. It could be recycled, it could be e-fuels, it could be biofuels, but they can't be on an edible food chain.

"So we have a lot of constraints, but also a lot of freedom. It means we can really explore different areas.

"Plus the volumes required with F1, it's not like the volumes required for consumer products.

"That gives us the opportunity to test things that are really innovative, that nobody has ever done before, and to work on our own expertise.

"Advanced, sustainable components are going to be a different kind of beast."

Details from Shell Formula 1 trackside laboratory

Details from Shell Formula 1 trackside laboratory

Photo by: Shell Motorsport

Changing times

While F1 has already begun the transition to sustainable fuels thanks to the E10 demand from last year, the scale of the challenge that awaits fuel manufacturers going 100% should not be underestimated.

Loreti has revealed that the current demand for there to be a 10% ethanol bio-component for 2022 seemed to be simple, but ultimately proved to be a bit more complicated.

"Blending ethanol, it may sound really easy because we have ethanol fuel on the roads, but actually how it behaves in an F1 power unit has been a very long journey of learnings," she explained.

"Ethanol is a great component. It has a good octane number, it is something that we all know how to handle, and we already know what kind of impact it might have on basic properties.

"But then how we adapt to the combustion properties required in F1 is a different matter.

"I don't want to say it was an eye-opener, as there were a lot of things we already expected, but it has been a really great accelerator for us to keep working on basic combustion chemistry, developing further our modelling approach, and really trying to understand what were the elements that we didn't recognise at the beginning or we underestimated maybe.

"That was a very successful journey in the end. It has been a lot of work. It's been very intense work, but you don't expect anything else when you work in F1."

A new mindset

The options available for fuel manufacturers when it comes down to the final choice of fuel for 2026 are extensive, and it will require a lot of brain power over the next few years to work out the right direction.

The chemistry experimentation at work, and the potential to unlock something special, is a hark back to those days in the 1980s when F1 teams were making use of what became known as 'rocket fuel'.

Nelson Piquet Brabham 1983 Canadian Grand Prix

Nelson Piquet Brabham 1983 Canadian Grand Prix

PLUS: How F1's future fuels can shape the automotive sector

However, while the challenge of coming up with the best product is the same, there is a very big difference between what went on in that and what's happening now.

Back then, chemical options were pretty extreme, and choices were entirely focused on F1 performance because there was no crossover between what was put in the grand prix cars and what the consumer bought at the petrol station.

Now, every idea and element being explored in the quest for the best fully sustainable F1 product has direct relevance to what will be put in road cars in the future.

Loreti adds: "We use motorsport as an innovation platform. We use it for testing, we use it to try out new things.

"Obviously, if we tried real rocket fuel, there is no way we can put it into our road fuels. For us, it's really the value that comes from the opportunity to discover something new and then bringing it into our road fuels."

What is different too is the tools that a company like Shell has at its disposal.

Fuel chemists are no longer mixing blends and then seeing what impact they have when engines run on dyno. Modern technology has taken over and digital simulations are now helping improve products.

"The people in the '80s, the chemists, they had more freedom," continued Loreti.

"But there was more trial and error back then, and just a lot of wet chemistry. Now we're going really up into these kinds of optimisation elements thanks to digital tools, and thanks to the knowledge that we have from years of working with Ferrari.

"We have now developed a digital model to predict fuel properties based on the components, the composition, and what is the combustion chemistry.

"[In 2021] we did more than one million simulations which is a big change compared to the past where there was a more pragmatic approach of testing things.

"Now we can really make use of this huge number of simulations and develop a cloud of opportunities."

And it is that opportunity offered by F1's move to fully sustainable fuels that is firing up the best brains in the business.

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