A formula one car can use the normal petrol we all use to fill up our cars with, but it just won't have the performance levels required.
The other day I was reading an article about the fuel used in the Formula One cars and the strict regulations imposed on the teams. Gone are the days of fuel being pumped into the car during a pit stop as I can recall some terrible accidents with hoses and cars pulling away too early. Fire is always a fear and a risk. Who can forget what happened to Nikki Lauda and the horrendous burn injuries he sustained.
Thankfully that has all changed and the teams have strict rules that they need to adhere to. Each racing team has their own fuel supplier in house with a laboratory set up inside their pit garage. The sponsored fuel/lubricants play a crucial role in the cars performance as constant testing can warn them of imminent engine failure. Metal filings found in the oil will be noticed and in the past have forced teams to change out the engine before the race when such things have been noticed.
The mobile laboratory at the race track.
Every season each team has to supply 5 different samples of the fuel they will be using during the season. The fuel will change depending on the upgrades to the power unit during the season. The petrol/fuel is not the same you might find at your local filling station but has been modified to work with that specific power unit. Changing the blend against set criteria will increase the horse power maximising any advantage they can find. The fuel has to be made up of compounds found in commercial fuel like what we all use with no funny exotic additives to help increase performance.
Testing the fuel is something that has to happen every time before and after racing.
In 2014 when the Hybrid power units were introduced each car was allowed a maximum of 100 kg's of fuel. Fuel is in Kg's and not liters as the viscosity changes in different climates so it may be less or more than 100 liters so weight is used to make it more precise. The simple explanation is volume will change but the mass wont in various temperatures. Today in 2020 that fuel limit has increased to 110 kg's as there have been some changes to the car since then. The safety Halo has added more weight and the use of bigger tyres.
The 1110 kg's limit though is never adhered to as teams short fill their cars now and most will have less than the 100 kg's for the race. The turning up of engine modes has disappeared recently in the last few months and teams know exactly what they now need. The use of safety cars or virtual safety cars plus the slip streaming behind other cars on the straight has allowed teams to come in with far less fuel than planned. So much so we saw a few weeks ago when the race was stopped or paused (red flagged) teams kept their engines running burning off excess fuel to help lighten the car.
Fuel is sent by the teams to the various race tracks by ship or by road in 200 liter drums. Teams are allowed up to 2 variants of their 5 sampled fuels at the race. Enough is sent to each race for the testing ,qualifying and the race itself. Every racing circuit has a fuel dump and supplies the teams with the amount they require the evening before each day. Nothing is stored in the pits as it is a safety risk and fuel is kept to a minimum.
This is where the fuel technicians who have a laboratory in hose come into action. They test the fuel for contaminants before it goes anywhere near the car. Sometimes evaporation has occurred whilst in storage so it needs to be made back to the original spec so it matches the samples on file with the FIA. A fuel that has had changes could impact on the car losing performance which probably would be minimal to you and I, but very noticeable at this high level.
A formula One car does not have a fuel gauge as that is added weight not required. The teams know exactly how much weight of fuel is needed to run the car around every track. Now the mode settings cannot be adjusted during the race this job has become a lot easier to manage. Teams in the past have been disqualified in qualifying sessions as every team needs to hand a 1liter sample to the stewards after each session.
Doesn't look like much but every bladder is handmade ensuring the highest quality for safety reasons.
The fuel tank is not like what we have and is a rubberised Kevlar bladder that has different holding cells inside it. Similar to what is used by the military as it is puncture proof or very close to it anyway. This is placed directly behind the drivers seat in the middle of the car. Stability and safety is the reason behind this as the bladder empties it compresses keeping the weight down to the floor level and no fuel is moving around. It has one way valves inside so the fuel is forced down to the lowest level at all times. With the G-Forces exerted on the car the last thing you need is a half tank of fuel sloshing around behind the driver making everything less stable.
It makes sense that teams strive for the best performance from their fuels and lubricants as they spend fortunes on the car. This also helps the fuel companies find better performance levels which we should ultimately benefit from at the end of the day. Over the next decade fuel consumption should drop as thermal power is harvested even more than the 50 percent they are achieving currently.