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The Return of the Silver Arrows - A Formula of Champions

Daniel Wong March 9, 2015 17:02

This weekend, the Formula One circus will emerge from their highly-secretive winter hiding holes with brand new cars, and the greatest annual motorsports spectacle in the world will begin anew. 20 drivers from 10 teams, over 20 weekends from now till the end of November, will battle it out for Formula One supremacy. The big question that every Formula One fan's mind would be whether the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One team can defend their title, or even repeat their dominance of the sport. Come race day on March 15th, all eyes will be trained on defending world champion Lewis Hamilton and his teammate Nico Rosberg, in their silver Mercedes Formula One cars. Can they repeat the team’s stellar performance of 2014? Or was it nothing more than a beginner’s fluke?  

Veterans of the sport can tell you that Formula One is an alluring and yet harsh mistress. Behind the glamour and popularity showered onto the sport’s participants, success is hard to earn and as often it is the case, short-lived. Today you can be the man of the moment in a defining race, tomorrow vilified as an underperformer in another race. Mercedes-Benz for one, know all too well of the peaks and troughs of the sport. 

Long before the global motorsport franchise that is known as Formula One came to be, there was Grand Prix racing, and between the 1930s and the 1950s, during the era from which the legend of the German ‘Silver Arrows’ was born, Mercedes-Benz was the force to be reckoned with. Back in then, the quickest and most technologically advanced cars were the shining Silver Arrows of Mercedes-Benz, and the best drivers of their era, names like Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, drove for Mercedes-Benz. 

All that changed in 1955 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, where a freak accident caused the Mercedes-Benz 300SLR of Pierre Levegh to somersault into the packed grandstands of the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. The tragic incident caused the deaths of 79 spectators, the worst accident in motorsports history. Though the accident was no fault of their own, Mercedes-Benz put a halt to their motorsports activities and placed a self-imposed ban on circuit racing, a ban that would last for nearly 30 years. Mercedes-Benz would only make a return to Formula One in 1994, but only in the capacity of an engine supplier. But as they say in the automotive business, nothing is certain until it is done, and in 2009 Mercedes-Benz decided to end their hiatus and return to Grand Prix racing. 

Stepping Back Into the Ring

Rather ironically, just as the 2014 Formula One season saw a huge change in Formula One regulations, the 2009 season was rocked with the introduction of a new regulation, which stipulated the reduction of aerodynamic aid. This regulation forced teams to ditch their car’s complicated melange of wings and winglets in exchange of a clean body that was reminiscent of Formula One cars of the 1980s. With less aerodynamic and downforce, these technical changes were enough to overturn the established pecking order in the 2009 season. Old stalwarts on the grid were found losing out to teams which weren’t quite as successful in previous years.

Emerging from the chaos was the newly-formed Brawn GP Formula One team, who incidentally, were using engines supplied from Mercedes-Benz. Thanks to their unique interpretation of FIA’s technical regulations, the Brawn GP cars ran a blown double diffuser design that gave them such an aerodynamic advantage that they were able to dominate the first eight races of the year. So dominant in fact, that Jenson Button was able to walk away with the Driver’s title, even while putting through a mediocre performance in the latter half of the season.

At the other end of the scale, BMW-Sauber emerged bruised and battered from a dismal season without a race win. Their F1.09 Formula One car was barely mounting a viable challenge in neither the Drivers’ nor the Constructors’ championship.  BMW, who were clearly disappointed by the results and cautious about the outlook of the global economy following the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, announced their withdrawal from the sport. In effect, BMW was pulling the plug on the Sauber Formula One team, which they acquired in 2005. With BMW’s imminent withdrawal at the end of the season, Petronas’ future in Formula One was left in doubt. It would have been easy to call it quits when BMW pulled the plug, but Petronas, fuelled by a passion for motorsports, and seeing the value of their continual involvement in Formula One in raising Malaysian talent, as well as uplifting Malaysia’s profile on the international stage, they stuck with the sport and looked out for avenues in the paddock to continue their involvement beyond their long-time racing partner, Sauber. 

By the end of the 2009 season the Brawn GP team made its mark in history by becoming the first team in the sport’s 60-year history to ever win both world championships in their maiden season, and achieve a 100 per cent championship success rate. In the Brackley-based team, Mercedes-Benz saw an opportunity to start fresh and mould a new era for the brand in Formula One racing, and quickly moved to sell off their stake in McLaren and buy a controlling stake in the team. Recognising Petronas’ accumulated experience from nearly 15 years in Formula One, Mercedes then found a viable partnership in the Malaysian-based oil and gas company, and quickly signed a long-term agreement with Petronas as their title sponsor and the team’s Fluid Technology Solutions Partner, thus forming the Mercedes GP Petronas Formula One team.

Mercedes then formed the dream team of the Formula One paddock. Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, was convinced to make a comeback from retirement after a three-year absence, who would be paired with a promising young driver, Nico Rosberg, son of the 1982 Formula One champion, Keke Rosberg, to head what was said to be, an all-German effort. The team roster would also include Ross Brawn, the man who engineered Schumacher’s racing successes in the early 2000s, and Nick Fry, an experienced figure in the motorsports arena. From the outset the Mercedes GP Petronas team had nothing but the best and most experienced people on board to cover all aspects of the team, from the technical know-how to winning races; topped with championship-winning talent. On the eve of the 2010 season, the new team manage to achieve convincing lap times over the season’s pre-season testing. Everyone at Mercedes GP Petronas seemed optimistic that championship glory wouldn’t be too far away.

Dreams of a triumphant return of the Silver Arrows however never materialised in the team’s first season in 2010, while the team struggled in the mid-field through 2011 and 2012. Championship glory seemed to draw ever distant from the team’s grasp. Despite having world-class talent in their ranks, Mercedes couldn’t deliver a car that could win races. And to further complicate things, a storm of changes was brewing over the horizon as 2014 would see the biggest technical regulation change; possibly in the sport’s entire history.

The Challenge of the Times

In the interest of keeping the sport zeitgeist, FIA’s new regulations required teams to drop their big and relatively simple 2.4-litre naturally-aspirated V8 engines, in favour of downsized 1.6-litre turbocharged direct-injection V6 power plants, which are coupled to energy recovery systems. This of course meant new engines and new technologies would have to be developed from the ground up. And that wasn’t all.  To further press home the point on environment sustainability, the FIA imposed limitations on the amount of fuel each driver could use at the start of each race, reducing it from 150kg to 100kg. Drivers were also limited to five power units per season, as compared to eight engines allocated in previous years.

Understandably the stakes were high as drivetrain engineers were heading into unknown territory. Though turbocharging in Formula One isn’t new, the turbocharged era of the 1980s was primarily focused on outright pace and performance. 2014 and onwards engineers would have to find a way to temper pace, reliability, and fuel efficiency. Unbeknownst to people outside the now renamed Mercedes AMG Petronas team’s headquarters in Brackley, work on the 2014 contender started as early as 2011. It was suggested by the Brackley chassis group to separate the turbocharger’s compressor and turbine, and place them on either end of the V6 engine, to reduce the size and complexity of the drivetrain. Mercedes High Performance Powertrains in Brixworth, who were responsible for building Mercedes-Benz’s Formula One engines, validated their engine concept and went about designing a powertrain package. The engine that resulted, the PU106A Hybrid was a technical masterpiece.

With the two turbocharger components separated and placed on the front and back of the engine, there wasn’t a need for a large intercooler and extensive lengths of piping to cool down the air being fed into the engine. With the exhaust piping shortened on the other hand, there would be less turbocharger lag, thus less dependency on the electric boost from the hybrid unit, which is used to compensate for the turbo lag. As a result of which, the driver could put the electrical charge to better use elsewhere. It was a work of sheer engineering brilliance that rewrote the rulebook on engine design.

A Partnership of Synergies

As remarkable as the PU106A Hybrid was, it wouldn’t be of any good if the car from Brackley was poorly designed. And this is where Mercedes AMG Petronas got it right. Ever since the start of the engine development, both teams in Brackley and Mercedes High Performance Powertrains in Brixworth, worked closely in designing a car that would make full use of the technical advantage that the PU106A Hybrid offered. The car they came up with, the Mercedes F1 W05 Hybrid, was built around the new engine to be aerodynamically efficient and better balanced on the circuit.

Since the engine used smaller intercoolers, designers of the F1 W05 Hybrid were able to reduce the size of the car’s side pods, where the intercoolers are usually located, in effect reducing its surface and cutting drag. Furthermore, since there is less heat behind the engine from the exhaust system, engineers were able to bring the gearbox closer to the rear of the engine, and bring the car’s centre of gravity closer to the centre, which in turns bring improvements in handling.

A Formula For Success 

Designing a race-winning engine is one thing, ensuring that it makes it to the end of every race, is another more daunting challenge. Furthermore with the engine count for each season reduced, the margin for error is made ever tighter. The change big naturally-aspirated engines to smaller turbocharged units will also bring about its own unique challenges for Petronas, who is the team’s Fluid Technology Solutions Partner and tasked with delivering a fluids package that could stand the rigours of competition.

With its smaller displacement and increased power per litre output, the V6 turbocharged engine would be running at hotter temperatures than what its naturally-aspirated predecessors were running at. What’s more, with the turbochargers constantly feeding air into the engine, the engine would be running at its peak power output regardless of external factors such as ambient temperature and humidity, thus putting more strain on the internals. This is the crux of the engine’s reliability for Petronas’ lubricant experts. If fuel is the food of an engine, oil is its lifeblood. Without oil, an engine would literally grind to a halt, and as it turns out, formulating the right oil is just as difficult as taming the elements.

Oil thins at higher temperatures, so the hotter and engine gets, the less effective the oil inside becomes at reducing the engine’s internal friction. To counter the thinning of the oil at higher temperatures, engineers have to use a thicker and more viscous oil to maintain its protective layer and prevent the engine’s metal components from rubbing against one another, generating more heat, further compounding energy losses, and potentially resulting in catastrophic engine failure. However, on the flipside of the coin, restoring to thicker engine oil limits the engine’s responsiveness and in effect, blunts its competitive edge.

Not only that, the smaller displacement of the engine also meant that it would be carrying less lubricant fluids. According to Mercedes, the new V6 engine uses just three litres of oil, a minute quantity as compared to the seven litres of oil used in the old V8 engine. With less fluids coursing through each engine, every bit of lubricant inside has to contribute more to the cooling and efficiency of the engine, which in turn requires thinner and faster flowing oil. In addition to that, the reduction in the quantity of fuel that can be consumed per race also puts added responsibility on the part of the lubricants to minimise as much friction as possible in order to maximise the engine’s efficiency. This of course can be achieved through the use of thinner and less viscous oil, but as mentioned earlier, this is not without its technical challenges.

Just as how the team’s engineers took a holistic approach to designing the body of their 2014’s challenger around the compact new engine, Mercedes AMG Petronas knew that a similar approach had to be taken when it came to formulating the total Fluid Technology Solution from Petronas. The result of which is that never before in the history of Formula One have a power unit and its lifeblood been developed so closely.

In order to meet these seemingly contradicting and complex requirements, Petronas drew on their 19 years of experience in the highly competitive field of Formula One to formulate a new engine lubricant that would be perfectly suited for the new engine of Formula One. The lubricant is a precisely balanced mixture of advanced, thinner synthetic base oils to help in cooling and polymer viscosity boosters. These boosters are meant to come into effect at higher engine temperatures to thicken the oil. In order to improve overall fuel efficiency, Petronas also formulated friction-reducing oil components into the lubricant to make it easier for the engine’s metal surfaces to slide past each other. To prevent the oil from breaking down at higher engine temperatures and ensure that it retains its properties, high performance additives have also been included into its formulation.

But the task of finding aspects of the powertrain to further improve efficiency doesn’t stop at just the engine. Energy losses in the gearbox can also have a significant impact on the car’s fuel efficiency and performance. After all, being the relay of mechanical energy from the engine to the rear wheels, the gearbox plays an equally important role in efficiency as the engine. Furthermore, the regulations also limit drivers to using no more than one gearbox for six consecutive events. To address this, Petronas has formulated a precision gearbox lubricant for the car’s all-new eight-speed gearbox, which ensures internal friction is kept to a minimum, whilst its internal components are protected from failure.

To tackle the heat issue, Petronas formulated the Syntium lubricant to ensure that it won’t degrade over the course of the race, even in the extreme heat of the engine’s operation. Next, Petronas’ fuel engineers specifically honed their Primax fuel, molecule-by-molecule for turbocharging and direct-injection systems, with a higher fuel energy density to get the most out of the limitations on fuel. By increasing the energy content of the fuel, the drivers would be able to get the most power out of their engines without having to worry too much about conserving fuel to get to the end of the race.

Breaking New Records

With a comprehensive and complete fluid package powering the cars and keeping them running race after race, Hamilton and Rosberg dominated the 2014 championship in convincing style, as the Mercedes AMG Petronas team finished the season with at least one of their drivers standing on the podium at the end of every single race. Theirs was a domination not seen since the heydays of Aryton Senna and Alain Prost in their red and white McLarens of the 1988 Formula One season. Statistically, the Mercedes F1 W05 Hybrid ended 2014 as being the most dominant car in the sport’s history, taking 16 race victories out of the season’s 19 races, usurping the McLaren MP4/4’s record of 15 race victories in 1988. A record-breaking effort and a well-deserved achievement for both Mercedes-Benz and Petronas, who pulled through the thick and the thin to emerge from the doldrums and take the lead in a brave new era of Formula One. 

Of course, it is a given that 2015 will bring about its own unique set of challenges for both team and driver as the season kicks off with the opening race in Melbourne this weekend. While some teams may have the best driver or the quickest car on the grid, winning a race comes down to a combination of talent, technology, and people working together to bring out the best in them. If anything, 2014 was a demonstration that the Mercedes AMG Petronas team has nailed the formula to win in the competitive world of Formula One. 

In similar fashion, Petronas’ presence in Formula One is far from being a lofty exercise of pride. The technological strides that Petronas has achieved and the knowledge gained from their ever growing involvement in the sport, is applied to their Petronas Syntium range of lubricants and fed back into Petronas Primax fuels. This involvement enables Petronas technicians to put their new formulations to the test in the harsh and competitive environment Formula One cars are being subjected to. With a running laboratory like a Formula One car, Petronas is able to fast- track any developments in fluid technology, which would have otherwise taken months to achieve through standard laboratory testing. At the end of the day, you can be certain that the same race-winning formula that was used in the ensuring both Lewis Hamilton’s and Nico Rosberg’s cars made it from the start to the finish at every race, can also be found in every Syntium bottle on the shelf and every drop of Primax fuel at the pumps. 

Being at the pinnacle of motorsports, Formula One is often defined by big numbers and incredible figures, all of which describes the kind of performance these cars are capable of doing and the cutting-edge technologies that go into the car. Check out our big and shiny infographic on the stats behind the car, people, and races that made 2014 one of the most exciting season in Formula One history.    

About Daniel Wong

Born with a sizable cranium that is only humbled by Rubens Barrichello's, Daniel doesn't care much for numbers or figures but the immediate sensations and experiences one gets from a drive. To him a measure of a good car is one that does what it was set out to do well. A great car is one that draws a smile on your face with a quality that isn't quantifiable and keeps it there.


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