Fill your tank with the fuels from Formula 1

Formula One cars are subject to even more scrutiny than Olympic athletes. And the results are supposed to help us, says Timandra Harkness

We are familiar with the random testing of athletes, who have to give samples of their bodily fluids to prove that their extreme performance is not the result of chemical additives. It's more surprising to think that Formula One teams may also be asked for a sample at any time. In this case, the liquid in the little vial is petrol.

Like the design of the cars themselves, the fuel used in Formula One racing is tightly controlled. The intended fuel has to be submitted in advance to the FIA for approval against a rigorous table of allowed constituents. If the sample taken on race day doesn't match this approved profile, it can't be used.

Forbidding the use of rocket fuel on the track is good for safety, but it also has advantages for the oil companies involved. "From a pure research standpoint, we're always looking to find ways of stressing the materials we are making," says Mike Noorman, technical team leader of McLaren Fuels and Lubes Development at ExxonMobil. "Formula One provides that opportunity because it's a very tough environment, and the stresses that it places on our fuels and lubricants allow us to keep improving them."

All the major oil company sponsors take oil and fuel samples throughout a race weekend and analyse them on site, but Shell claims to be the only oil company with a full laboratory within the paddock. Stepping into the little room within the Ferrari transporter feels like entering the secret headquarters of a Bond villain. There's even a couple of yellow radioactivity warning lights for sinister effect.

Fuel samples are checked here using the same gas chromatography equipment that the FIA will use. Margins for error are so tight that an impurity "equivalent to putting a cup of sugar in Loch Ness" can disqualify a fuel, says Mike Copton of Shell, who works with Ferrari all year round, designing fuels and lubricants for the Formula One team.

"This fuel is virtually identical to what you put in your own car: 99 per cent the same. You can put Shell racing fuel into a road car and it will run - and vice versa." In fact, 99 per cent of what goes into the fuel must come from commercial refinery streams, so obtaining the optimum performance is more about blending than adding.

Mixing the 200-250 components is compared to "mixing a good drink. The difference between a good G&T and a bad G&T ain't a lot," says Mike. But there is enough variation in different refinery streams to produce fuels with different characteristics: Brazil's use of bio-fuels gives a high ethanol content, for example, bringing more oxygen to the mix and hence a higher octane number and more power. Formula One fuel is tailored not only to the engine but to the circuit. Monza rewards maximum horsepower, but other tracks demand fuel economy, or driveability in bad weather.

On the second bench, oil drained from Michael Schumacher's car after the last practice round is being analysed with an x-ray fluorescence spectrometer. Lubricant regulations are "pretty free", according to Mike, so the oil is "a unique cocktail". They may call it Shell Helix but "if you put it in your road car, it probably wouldn't get you to the end of the street".

The demands of a Formula One engine are very different, of course. It never has to start from cold, and each engine is designed to run only for 800km - 500 miles - before being replaced. That's one engine per race weekend. "Our F1 oil has to perform all the normal functions of an oil but in harsher conditions," says Castrol Motorsport engineer Adrian Bell.

Williams technical director Patrick Head appreciates the difference that tailor-made lubricants have made to the BMW Williams F1 team. "Even between the sort of oils that were available 10 years ago and the sort of oils that are available now, there's a huge difference. There are a number of areas - lubrication, cooling and minimising power losses with the oil circulation - that are significant. There's probably been a 20bhp reduction in losses simply due to oil development, while engine speeds have gone from 14,000rpm to 19,000rpm."

The analysis going on at the trackside is not only aimed at improving the blend for next season's races. By analysing the reflected x-ray radiation, the Shell team is getting a profile of the metallic particles suspended in the used oil. Any unusual patterns can flag up potential problems.

They remember detecting unusually high levels of iron after Eddie Irvine's Sunday morning warm-up in 1999. The engine was changed and found to be well on the way to a failure. With new rules that impose penalties for an engine change during the weekend, it is now even more crucial to know if there's good reason to do so.

Getting the oil still warm from the car gives quick results, but what the fuel and lubricant teams really want is to add their real-time sensors to the 500 already on the car. That would allow online real-time analysis, knowing what's happening to oil and petrol while the car is driving. "That's the holy grail," says Mike Copton. And with that we are ushered firmly out of the lab so the team can resume work on their secret plans for world domination.