Their job title is boring, but the actual work is anything but.
We recently had the opportunity to take a look behind the scenes at Mercedes-Benz's Formula 1 team, the people who do all the grunt work so Lewis Hamilton's car performs reliably in every race. It was an eye-opening experience, realizing that these people never really get a break. Their week starts on a Tuesday, and it's a neverending rush until Sunday night.
As you can imagine, the team is quite big. There are a lot of cogs in the machine, but we were privileged enough to sit down with the fluid engineers. It sounds boring, but it isn't. Changing the oil in a Honda Accord is banal. Being in charge of the fluids in a car with an estimated $12 million value (excluding research costs) is a science.
First, it's worthwhile to understand how complex an F1 engine is. If you're old enough, you'll remember there was a time when F1 cars were allowed to refuel during the race. A modern F1 car can complete an entire race using just 220 pounds of fuel. How is this even possible? We're talking about a machine that has the ability to carry 180 mph through Copse Corner at Silverstone with ease.
F1 cars are currently powered by turbocharged 1.6-liter V6 hybrid engines, or power units. We make that differentiation because there are rules regulating how many different engine components you're allowed to use over a season.
The simplest to understand is the internal combustion engine. It's the 1.6-liter turbocharged V6 part of the powertrain. The second part is the Energy Recovery System, which is the hybrid part. It collects heat and kinetic energy and redeploys it via an electric motor for an additional 160 horsepower.
The most impressive figure is the maximum rpm, which is around 15,000.
That's the main reason why Mercedes had such a tough time getting its new AMG One hypercar to work. This new hypercar is famously powered by the same engine used in Merc's 2016 F1 car. Can you guess why Mercedes-AMG struggled to make it work? The car had trouble idling. An F1 car ticks over at 5,000 rpm, and the engineers must have had several long nights trying to figure out how to get that figure down to around 1,200 rpm.
But we digress. What we're trying to say is that this isn't your average internal combustion engine. It's a magnificent feat of engineering, considering how long it has to last. And if you think it's for only one race, you're wrong. Each team only gets three of every major power unit part per season, including the ICE.
How do you keep an eye on such a finely tuned engine? By the time Rodney makes a knock-knock joke and sends a piston to view Neil Armstrong's footprints, it's way too late. So you have to look at degradation on a microscopic level. That's where the fluid boffins come in. At the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 team, there are two: En De Liow and Stephanie Travers. En De Liow also doubles as Bottas' pit board guy. They are part of the trackside team and travel along with the entire F1 circus.
They are responsible for every fluid in the car, including fuel, gearbox oil, and hydraulic fluid. But it's not a case of simply checking the levels and giving the head mechanic permission to release the car. No sir, these engineers also designed the fluids and have to submit a sample of every single one to the FIA before the season starts. That gives them and the FIA a baseline, which is constantly monitored.
The second and most important part of the job is to track wear. The fluid team will know about it even before the driver notices a 5% drop in efficiency. In short, these are the first two people who know when Hamilton or Bottas will need an engine replacement. Imagine how tough it must be to go to Toto Wolff, telling him one of the drivers will be penalized with grid penalties because the last of the three ICE units is on its last legs.
They travel with a mobile lab to do their job, and it's not just a tent with a microscope. As you can see in the images, it's a full-on lab with sliding glass doors and loads of intimidating-looking equipment.
Travers walks us through the equipment: "For fuel, we use gas chromatography." We're not ashamed to say that we had to Google that. "It essentially gives us a fingerprint of the fuel. You get a trace of all the peaks."
A small sample of the fuel is placed on one side of a column and put in an oven to help split it into all its various components. As the fuel travels along the column, it starts splitting. The lighter particles travel faster than the heavier ones and they can see that trace. This is then compared to the "golden sample" submitted to the FIA.
To check engine oil, they have two pieces of equipment. There are viscometers to check the viscosity and density. "It's essential that we are within a specific viscosity range before the cars go out on track to ensure the lubrication is efficient," said Travers. The main reason for this is longevity. With the FIA clamping down on the number of parts, the team wants to get as much life out of an engine as possible.
Finally, there's the spectrometer, which is the fun one. It's used for engine and gear oils. It gives the fluid team a look at every single element within the oil samples. The spectrometer uses a high-speed camera and two milliliters of either the engine or gearbox oil. It burns the sample and the high-speed camera records the burn. They can then look back at the footage for different colors. "Copper burns a bright green color, for example," said Travers.
It's even more complex than that. The camera has the ability to measure the intensity of the green color and will translate it into a percentage. Once it's finished, you'll have a full rundown and concentration level of every element in that small sample.
The results of the tests are then compared with data from the engine manufacturers. Let's say all of the above deliver a result that's similar to the result from a power unit used in the 2019 Monaco Grand Prix. The team then knows how much life it has left, as determined by research and looking at previous engines' wear.
The combination of elements will also point the team in the right direction with regard to possible problems. If the green is more intense than usual, there's a problem with something made of copper within the ICE. This is just an example, by the way. We have no idea what goes on inside the engine. With Hamilton's recent power bump, it's a closely guarded secret.
The cars currently run on fuel containing 5.75% bio components. It's all part of F1's mission to go green. In 2022, the golden standard will be 10% biofuel. The ethanol must be a second-generation biofuel made sustainably. The current engine parameters will continue until 2025, when new regulations come in. Until then, the teams will use the basic engines they currently have, but the fluid engineers' jobs become all the more critical as the fuel becomes more advanced.
Still think being a fluids expert is boring. We certainly don't, and we tip our hats to all the men and women who devote their lives to the science of performan