Jenson Button, McLaren, Albert Park, 2016

Fuel upgrades helping McLaren and Honda catch up

2016 F1 season

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Although Fernando Alonso’s violent accident destroyed McLaren’s best chances in the Australian Grand Prix, the team has already made a clear step forward from its disastrous 2015 campaign.

Both MP4-31s made it through the first phase of qualifying and Alonso was in the hunt for a points-scoring finish when his race ended following contact with Esteban Gutierrez.

There was also a clear improvement in straight-line speed as well. Having been rooted to the bottom of the speed trap, 16kph off the pace, in Melbourne last year, this year the fastest McLaren was within 10kph of the fastest car (Nico Rosberg’s Mercwedes), 5.5kph off the fastest Ferrari and 1kph off the fastest Renault.

Honda’s architectural changes to the engine go some way towards experiencing these gains. But fuel supplier Esso and lubricant manufacturer Mobil 1 also takes some of the credit for McLaren’s improved competitiveness.

F1 Fanatic spoke to Mobil 1’s global motorsport technology manager Bruce Crawley at the final pre-season test to find out more about how they managed the switch from Mercedes to Honda last year, and when the gains can be made with fuel and lubricants in 2016

Was it difficult to enter the V6-era with Mercedes engines when McLaren’s long-term plan was always Honda?
Yeah, it was quite difficult. In the last season with Mercedes engines, both parties obviously knew that the partnership was coming to an end and that there was a new engine partner coming in on the horizon. It was quite difficult from an intellectual property point of view, because neither side wanted to give away anything that the might subsequently be wanting to use.

Were you having to be actively careful about what you were communicating with Mercedes?
Yes, indeed. And it was difficult as well from their side – they didn’t want to reveal their hand. It was a tough final year, I would say. But it was professionally handled. We’re both professional companies. But it wasn’t an ideal partnership situation.

What we thrive on is full disclosure. What we’re working with is a holistic approach. We design the total package together. So the chemistry and the mechanical engineering comes together. The design is influenced by the chemistry, the chemistry is influenced by the design that we ultimately end up with. So that actually requires quite an intimate relationship to achieve the end result.

Has the fact that Honda are based in Japan provided any challenges for you?
It’s slightly more challenging, because of the logistics. We’re doing quite a bit of testing work in Sakura – Honda’s R&D facility in Japan. So from a logistics point of view, moving products across the other side of the world… that takes a little bit more time than the UK base. But I don’t think that’s really affected us too much at all. And we are doing testing at Milton Keynes at Honda’s test facility there. So we’ve managed to deal with that situation. So I don’t think it really has harmed us particularly.

The challenging thing really, with any new relationship, is getting to know people for the first time – understanding how to work together. So the first year, we spent a lot of time building personal relationships. I spent a lot of time in Japan. We do a lot of video-conferencing, so you’re actually able to recognise the person in the video link and you learn their body language and expressions and mannerisms. So we spent a lot of time doing that. And we have a very good working relationship now, actually. Very happy with it.

Is there ever such a thing as a trade-off between reliability and performance when it comes to developing new fuel and lubricants for McLaren?
There has been in the past. So if you go back into the V8 era. When we moved from refuelling to no refuelling in the V8 era, that put slightly more emphasis on fuel efficiency than previously. So at that point we then started to look at fuel efficiency more than just pure power output. At the moment, where we are, because the fuel quantity is fixed to 100kg and 100kg-per-hour fuel flow rate, it really is all about trying to get as much power out of the fuel as you possibly can.

We do look at secondary effects like density of the fuel – so the amount of volume. We do look at that. Currently, the trade-off is insignificant in terms of overall performance of the car, but we do look at those things. In terms of reliability, the most important thing for us is power degradation. So what we’re looking to do is to minimise any degradation effects. What you’re looking for is the power you get out of an engine at zero kilometres is the same as the power you get at the end of the engine life.

Is there much horsepower loss from an engine fresh off the dyno to the end of four races?
You will lose some horsepower, but we look at that very carefully. So where is that power being lost and can you prevent that happening. From a Mobil 1 engine oil and fuel point of view, fuel and oil can affect the degradation of the engine. Not only are we looking at power out of a fresh engine but we’re also looking at keeping that power. Again, that’s something we’ve been working on for many years so we’re well aware of the effects that can occur. And we’re not trading that off.

You said earlier the new fuel being used provides a ‘double digit’ improvement in horsepower, could you give us more of a specific figure on that?
I could do, but we’re not going to do that! [laughs] It’s a decent improvement, but we’re not going to tell you that.

Is that the kind of improvement you expect to see year to year?
Right now we’re in a very interesting time, because we have a new power unit regulation and we have a new engine manufacturer to work with. So we’re in our second year of development, really, with Honda. So it’s very interesting from that point of view. So the gains that are available at the beginning of any era than at the end of an era. For example, at the end of the V8 era, it was very difficult to find gains. We were still making gains on fuel, even right up to the end. It is just continuous improvement. We never stop. There’s always something to be discovered. If there wasn’t I wouldn’t be sitting here in front of you, I wouldn’t have a job. Our objective is finding ways of making the car go faster, and if we can’t do that, we’re done. So there’s a lot of gains to be made at the moment and my crystal ball says that there’d be quite a few monre.

We’d expect to make at least two or three more fuel upgrades and we’re expecting to make a Mobil 1 oil upgrade this season as well. We’ve already identified the performance improvement. Right now we’re working on the next fuel upgrade, we’ve already identified the next one for oil as well. That will come in as we progress through the season. So it never stops.

2016 F1 season

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Author information

Will Wood
Will has been a RaceFans contributor since 2012 during which time he has covered F1 test sessions, launch events and interviewed drivers. He mainly...

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  • 33 comments on “Fuel upgrades helping McLaren and Honda catch up”

    1. Richard Cantelo
      25th March 2016, 12:44

      Probably another couple of years to move up from mid-field.

      1. I agree. 2 years till a podium. I was nice though, to see a McLaren moving forwards relative to the cars around it rather than backwards. The issue used to be that the McLaren team never seemed to understand their own car, hopefully this isn’t as big of a problem now.

      2. “this year the fastest McLaren was within 10kph of the fastest car (Nico Rosberg’s Mercwedes)”

    2. Great interview Keith! It’s nice to focus on a bit of tech. Good job

      1. Authoring law of F1Fanatic: Where an article is not written by Keith, a comment praising Keith will appear.

      2. @fletch Couldn’t agree more!

        Thanks Keith, you highlighted the work of some of the unsung heroes of F1 and car- and motorsports in general!

        1. Yea, a good one.

      3. ColdFly F1 (@)
        25th March 2016, 15:24

        I think it was @WillWood this time.
        But I agree with @fletch/@krizz/@satchelcharge, great interview and great technical articles this year.

    3. Also, high rake design McLaren and RBR are guilty of, does tend to create more drag… and downforce.

      This makes Honda and TAG power units look worse than they are.

      1. Renault you mean. TAG does not build engines (yet)

        1. I guess @jureo is right in calling them ”TAG power units”.
          Isn’t that what branding is all about?
          Renault clearly wanted the power units currently being run by RedBull called a different name hence they allowed them to be branded whatever RedBull chose.
          So the name in essence is Tag Heuer power unit or something similar.

          1. Does TATA owning Jaguar make it a Indian company?

            1. Not when the company in question is head-quartered in the UK, where most of the engineering and construction is done.

        2. Well its a Renault made power unit called TAG Heuer… Sooo.. Also I dont want to give Renault bad rep in case of poor top speed originating from downforce producing high drag design…

    4. Where was Alonso likely to finish in Aus if he didn’t crash, and no red flag…

      1. ColdFly F1 (@)
        25th March 2016, 15:29

        My guess among the top 21, @sato113.

        Seriously; difficult to say with the different tyre/race strategies and will be based on many ifs/buts.

      2. He hit Gutierrez’s car with a lot of force, so the engine does have a lot of power. As Crawley said, the engine design is related to the fuel, and the design of the fuel is related to the engine. I think we heard similar comments from chemists at Petronas and Shell.

      3. Probably eight/ninth

    5. Nice interview.

      I wonder if the FIA got this wrong though and missed an opportunity. Maybe it would have been better to introduce a standard fuel when the V6 PU’s were introduced. Fuel is obviously a very important factor to the performance of the PU. It’s an performance differentiator. But do we really want that? The impact of the driver is low enough as it is. Do we really need another factor deciding which car wins? I think a standard fuel wouldn’t have allowed for the performance gap between power units to be as big as it is, or has been in 2014/2015.
      One could argue that the efficiency of the PU’s wouldn’t have been as high as they are today, but reaching such efficiently isn’t worth anything if these super special fuels are used. It has little relevance on commercial vehicles, as such fuels aren’t publicly available.

      1. It still has relevance because there is a rule which states that the components of the fuel that they would use should be almost the same as the regular fuel we have

      2. I guess one could argue that way, but F1 isn’t just a car race, it is a technology race as well. If there was one standard supply of fuel then it would simply hinder the technology race, and maybe prolong the differences between different engines because the engine designers wouldn’t have the chemists to discuss possible design options.
        As Crawley said, we are currently in the phase where the biggest gains are being made because the engine format is new, which means some fuel suppliers are slightly below average and others are slightly above average, and the fuel is improving across a season.
        If F1 retained the current V6 format for say 10 years, then by the end of that most of the teams would be running very similar fuels with very similar Joules per litre, and there would be very little difference in fuel design between the start and the end of a season (other than changes related to climate).
        This would also apply to the engines and MGU-Hs as well, if the current format was retained for 10 years then all suppliers would be very close in performance output as well. It is only because the format is new that we are seeing such big differences.

        1. @drycrust, Yes F1 is also a technology race, but the question is which technologies should be included, and were do we draw the limit for the technology to decide the outcome of a race.

          One example is tyres. Currently all teams use Pirelli tyres. If tyre-competition was allowed and say half the grid used Michelins and the other half Pirellis, there is a great chance that one of the tyres manufacturers would perform slightly better. That would render half the grid noncompetitive. We obviously don’t want that. I feel the same principle can be applied to fuel. The current “fuel war” doesn’t improve racing what so ever. It rather creates a performance gap between well established partnerships (Merc-Petronas and Ferrari-Shell) and partnerships still in early stages of development (Honda-Mobil1).
          Yes eventually over time all will converge to similar levels of performance. But why allow it to take such time.

          1. Well @me4me, just today (or was it yesterday?) we could read about the changes to the new Ferrari engine, where together with Shell they made it a lot more competitive to be much stronger, allowing us to hope for a much closer fought WDC and WCC this year.
            At the same time, Renault and Total too have started to improve their results together, and here Honda and Mobil1 show the same – as you say, you can see the PU+fuel/lubricants as a package, and one that’s clearly improved over the winter for everyone, but also a component where the performance has grown closer since last year.

            Since all Mercedes customers also use Petronas, and I think all Ferrari customers use Shell, those customers are all also much closer in engine power, with the difference made by aero (well, budget, and experience for Haas too). Look at Manor and Sauber compared to Red Bull and Torro Rosso: engine isn’t everything. I’m not convinced that effect of budget should be increased at all.

          2. @me4me The only sure way to draw a line in technology is the barrier created by uninvented new technology, and that is completely fair to all the teams. Once a new technology appears, and especially a technology that is clearly superior to whatever the existing technology is, then banning it is doomed to failure. The other way to stop a technology being used is by superseding it with something better.
            So yes, there is unfairness in the application of technology across the teams, but then there is unfairness in the distribution of finances across the teams, and there is unfairness in the amount of TV Air time teams get during a race, which affects the amount they can charge for advertising, and there is also unfairness in the influence some teams have on the rules.
            The important point about the Melbourne GP is it looks like the comparative gains made by Ferrari are greater than those made by Mercedes during the off-season, and that was more or less expected. The gains made by both teams were entirely because of better technology, so it looks like Ferrari used more better technology than Mercedes did.
            Renault are still lagging a bit, and how much of that is related to the Renault – Red Bull infighting and how much is because they haven’t applied better technology is unknown.
            If one takes note of what Crawley said, it could be part of the lagging performance is because the fuel isn’t designed for the current engine, and the current engine isn’t designed for the fuel, meaning the engine is producing less than the optimum amount of power per litre of fuel.
            Tyres are a bit of an oddity because they aren’t supposed to be high performance devices, they are supposed to be a hindrance, and that goes against the grain of motor racing, which is why there is a single supplier. If tyres were left up to teams then I wouldn’t be surprised to see them last an entire race.

    6. If Mclaren can improve enough to encourage Fernando to stay for 2017, i’ll say job well done.

      1. I agree but hope he doesn’t act like a spoiled rich kid if they don’t improve a lot. .. I hope no matter what that he goes out gracious and fighting hard no matter how good the rocket he is driving.

        1. he has already said he will finish his career at McLaren. people seem to WANT him to leave McLaren, and then make comments like “i hope he sits out his McLaren contractfor his own sake” as a way to try to find error in his character if he doesn’t sit out his contract. just let him do what he wants. hes got nothing to prove, he just wants to win like the rest of the drivers.

    7. This is a very interesting article. Thank you

    8. Thanks for the interesting and informative interview @WillWood, F1fanatic remains a great site thanks to writers like you, and all the efforts of @keithcollantine; At the moment there’s a lot to grumble about the governance of F1, but this site also helps us see and enjoy the racing and technology that are luckily still an important part of the sport.

    9. F1 is not a spec series, so different fuel, chassis, engines etc… yet 1 tire.
      What i like to see have multiple tire brands come in and pick the best one to supply the field in the future.

    10. Very good point, outlined above me.

      Isnt fuel suppose to be 99% regular petrol, 100 octane premium one, something like that, or did that regulation change?

    11. A correction to the above – I had accidentally changed the name of the person interviewed when putting Will’s article up. This has now been revised.

    12. Is Mclaren actually better in comparison to it’s rivals? Sure they were much better than Melbourne 2015 especially during the race, but I think there’s a reason for the sombre outlook of the team, their qualifying and race pace looks to be the same or even worse than by the end of 2015. I’m sure Honda have fixed their issues but the field has made a gigantic step. Button feels they can go for performance now, but it’s probably too late for Honda anyway.

    Comments are closed.