Formula One vehicles function through an intricate balance of mechanisms. They work in perfect union to provide the driver and their team with a winning combination. Often overlooked, one of the key elements within this complex structure is the fuel. While it certainly may not be as exciting as the aerodynamics or tyres, its function is instrumental to the overall quality of the car.
Curiously, F1 vehicles use a similar type of fuel that is found in ordinary petrol cars. While it is much more controlled, many of the compounds used are found in commercially available alternatives. The special blend ultimately forms a powerful force that operates in various weather and track conditions. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that Formula One cars are designed for the specific purpose or racing on a limited range of tracks and therefore all of their parts are engineered to best suit that function.
While the fuel may resemble that which is found in our modern petrol stations, it was not always the case. In the early days of the Grand Prix, the cars actually ran on a much more complex mixture of chemicals and additives. Specialists in the area note that key features of this initial fuel was benzene, alcohol as well as aviation fuel. Interestingly, the fuel was so powerful that on occasion the vehicles engine had to be disassembled and washed because the mixture could have corroded it very quickly.
Over the years the regulations have become stricter and the introduction of composition fuels. In the modern period the fuel is only allowed small quantities of “non-hydrocarbon” compounds within them. The FIA, or Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, regulations stipulate that the rules are “intended to ensure the use of fuels which are predominantly composed of compounds normally found in commercial fuels and to prohibit the use of specific power-boosting chemical compounds.” All of the teams must comply with the requirements prior to each race, requiring companies like Mobil, Shell, Elf, and Petronas to provide the FIA with samples of the fuel at various stages. These rules are taken so seriously that if they are broken, as was the case in 1997 with Mike Hakkienen, they can strip the racer of his winning title.
Rather interestingly, when teams are placed under strict conditions regarding the volume of fuel capabilities, they find rather ingenious methods to provide their cars with the edge they need. It has been noted that more exotic heavier blends are used in these types of circumstances to vary the cars weight. Furthermore, this system has an alternative advantage as the energy content of fuel is intimately tied in with its mass density.
Representatives of Formula One noted that during the entire season a single team may use up to 200,000 litres of the fuel when testing and actually racing their cars. Experimenting with various formulas, the blends may actually vary from track to track. Like in any other aspect of the car, each system is maliciously engineered to provide the drive and the team with the fastest lap time.