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Bring the noise: ExxonMobil's view on the 2017 F1 season

More power, more revs, more noise: the proposed changes for the 2017 Formula 1 season could spell big changes for engine designers – and for the fuels and lubricants suppliers. Adam Gavine spoke to Bruce Crawley, global motorsport technology manager at ExxonMobil about how the proposals would influence his work with technology partner McLaren over the coming year.

Adam Gavine

 

PMW: Howling engines with higher revs and 1,000hp sounds great for pleasing crowds, but what are the implications for fuels and lubricants development?
Crawley: “We actually like regulation changes because they give us more opportunities to innovate, and we like to think we’re quick at innovating and bringing performance improvements to a car. So there’s a race within a race – a race going on behind the race weekend to get new product into the car as soon as we possibly can.

“The first thing that comes to mind with the 2017 proposals is that increasing power density will mean squeezing more power out of the same size of engine, so forces, loads and heat will become even more severe, and even more difficult to manage. From a lubricants point of view these factors are potentially more of a challenge – but more of an opportunity as well.

“From the fuels side, it’s not such a challenge, although if you use a higher boost pressure and fuel rate to get higher output, you could be creating a more knock-prone environment. From a severity point of view it would make that area of performance more challenging.”

So is there enough time before 2017 to respond properly and research new fuels and lubricants?
Crawley: “Our lifecycle on product development for fuels is about eight weeks from the time we make a discovery to the earliest opportunity to get it into a car. It’s a fairly short lifecycle.

“On the lubricants side the lifecycle tends to be a little longer because there is more sensitivity to reliability and engine protection. The lubricant touches every part of the engine, so you have to do more proving-out of changes than with fuels. Lubricants take months rather than weeks to develop.

“As a general comment, for us, particularly on lubricants side with Mobil1, we still have headroom before we reach the ceiling of our product's capabilities. So when the operational environment starts to get more challenging, the benefit of that technology starts to become more visible and more obvious. That headroom of performance could potentially give us more of an advantage than other suppliers.”

Will the refuelling proposals affect your work?
Crawley: “Refuelling will not really mean any changes for us. If you refuel it puts less emphasis on fuel efficiency because it doesn’t matter so much, but fuel flow is controlled anyway. To be honest, refuelling is just mixing the race up, bringing cars in to neutralize the field and giving more action in the pits – it is not really a technology factor at all.”

Will your F1 fuels and lubricants work also benefit road car products?
Crawley: “I have a few objectives to meet in terms of our technology partnership with Mclaren. The first objective is to make the car go faster: that’s a key part of the program and it is why I am given money by the marketing department to develop the technology. If we don’t do that then I face lots of questions, so that’s first and foremost in my mind.

“Another key objective is to take the technology, understanding and learnings from our motorsport activity and to transfer it into our commercial products. We do that in several ways. We bring people from commercial development into our motorsport activity, and after a while they then go back into commercial development to generate that exchange of knowledge and information. Our motorsport work creates a lot of intellectual property, so we patent a lot of those ideas and use that knowledge to develop and improve commercial products.

“We also use our motorsport program as a benchmark. It sets a high benchmark for performance, and if you look at our fuels and lubricants, the performance benchmark we have established in motorsport is generally – though not always – where we are with our commercial products. So we say to the commercial team, 'this is what you can achieve, and this is where you are at the moment.' And we can then give them a real route of how to get from there to here. We show what is possible.

“For example, we can achieve almost 100% efficiency in a McLaren F1 gearbox with our bespoke lubricant technology, and we are now telling the commercial team how they can bridge that gap, and how they an bring that technology into a commercial framework. That challenges you: you know you can do it, but how do you make it into a commercial opportunity?”

So what are the key differences between motorsport and commercial products?
Crawley: “It can be several things. Some motorsport products are prototypes, so they are not scaled, and if they are not scaled, you don’t have the economics. There are some areas of performance which restrict you in terms of everyday application; for example, you don’t have to cold start an F1 car at -40°C. There may also be practical constraints of compatibility, mixing, etc – all sorts of things you have to consider in the real world but not in racing. The public sometimes do things they shouldn’t and you have to cover that eventuality, whereas in a more controlled environment you don’t have to worry about somebody mixing products they shouldn’t or about contamination.

“There can be a bunch of things, but fundamentally we are using motorsport as a technology platform to improve the performance of our fuels and lubricants, and we’ve had a lot of success over the years in introducing new ingredients. We work on a lot of conceptual stuff too, and the way we develop fuels and lubricants and put formulations together can give quite considerable benefits.

“Those learnings have come from our F1 and motorsport activity and we have transferred that knowledge across into our commercial products. We wouldn’t be involved in motorsport if there weren’t benefits beyond marketing. That’s part of the rationale for us working in motorsport – it is a key driver and cost benefit.”

How does ExxonMobil work with race teams?
Crawley: “It varies depending on the technology partnership, but if you look at our F1 partnership with McLaren over the last 20 years, we are pretty much embedded in their team. We’re involved at the design stage, and involved in terms of evolution of design.

“As I was saying about headroom of performance, if you look at our Mobil SHC220 wheel bearing grease, it is an off-the-shelf product. Anyone can go out and buy it, and that’s what’s in the wheel bearings of the McLaren F1 cars. Wheel bearing designs and materials have evolved in order to extract performance out of that grease – that’s how closely we’re involved.

“It’s very much an interactive process, so if you came up with a new design of wheel bearing, we might tailor a grease for that design. Conversely the designers might say the performance of the grease is so good that they can downsize, lighten and evolve the design in order to extract the headroom of performance of that product. It’s a very close relationship in terms of understanding the detail of how our designs work and function.

"We are embedded in every race weekend and test session, with one of our lab engineers in the garage running tests and feeding back information from the product. Every race weekend is a new lab test for us and we get a lot of data from every race weekend. The car is our lab.”

 

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