Analysis: Will F1's 2017 fuel shuffle impact title battle?

In an era where fuel has become a key battleground in the fight between engine manufacturers in F1, Red Bull’s switch to ExxonMobil has added a fresh layer of intrigue about its hopes of pulling together a full-on title assault in 2017.

Analysis: Will F1's 2017 fuel shuffle impact title battle?
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB12 leads Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Oil tests
The 2015 Renault Energy F1 engine
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing at the ExxonMobil headquarters
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing passes the ExxonMobil headquarters
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB12
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing at the ExxonMobil headquarters
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB12
Oil tests
Oil tests
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid, Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB12
Oil tests
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB12
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB12, Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid, Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB12
The podium (L to R): Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1, second; Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1, race winner; Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing, third
Race winner Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid celebrates at the end of the race as he passed by Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB12
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB12
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB12, Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid and Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB12
Winner Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid, third place Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing in parc ferme
Start action: Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB12 leads Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid
Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull Racing RB12
Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 W07 and Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing RB12
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W07 Hybrid

For with Mercedes and Petronas remaining the benchmark in F1, hopes of closing their advantage very much rests on its new fuel and oil partner quickly getting up to speed and sorting out the best products needed.

But instead of there being talk of growing pains and a period of consolidation before their efforts pay off, the suggestion is that progress is coming quickly – and there is plenty more to come once track testing gets underway later this month.

Does this mean it is game on for properly close fight in 2017?

December switch

Red Bull only announced in December that it was switching to ExxonMobil, after luring the American company away from a long partnership it had had with McLaren.

Although the relationship is still in its infancy, ExxonMobil's global motorsport technology manager Bruce Crawley says the initial feedback has been positive, which bodes well for further gains once the two companies get to know each other better.

"We believe we have got off to a really good start," says Crawley. "Our fuel and engine package has a decent competitive advantage, so we are quite pleased with the initial outcome to the programme – and we are pushing now for further improvements."

ExxonMobil had been with McLaren for more than 20 years (having originally got involved in F1 in the 1960s), but it was lured away by the prospect of Red Bull's ambitious competitive hopes for 2017.

Crawley believes that things have gelled so quickly because ExxonMobil has had such a breadth of experience working with different power units at McLaren, having supplied products for both Mercedes and Honda turbo V6 engines.

"The challenge with the new relationship with Red Bull Racing is to determine the appetite that the engine has for our engine oil and fuel. We have the flexibility to look at a whole array of different chemistries – and synergistic effects.

"It is where all the mechanical engineering design meets the chemistry, and we try to work out what the best solution is to give you maximum performance.

"Those challenges we are used to dealing with, over a period of years. We have been in F1 for 35 plus years, so we have seen a lot of engine architectures come and go. And also across our other global motorsport programmes we have had to deal with many types of engine, so working with a new partner is not new for us."

While Red Bull and ExxonMobil opened up their dialogue on technical plans last year, commercial confidentiality and practical limits because of Renault's engine revamp meant proper dyno testing has been restricted to the past few weeks.

Crawley added: "Ideally we would like to have months of development time to play with. If we had six months we would love it, but our development programme has been squeezed into a very short period, so that is a big challenge because day one we start off with zero data.

"We are very data driven, so at the start of a new programme we rely heavily on our experience and how good our initial theoretical assessments are on day one, to try to work out where we start and map the direction we need to go in."

New products

Although the first batch of fuel and lubricants has already left as sea freight for the Australian Grand Prix, Crawley says that the pre-season test spell will be pretty intense in fine-tuning what is needed for the rest of the season.

He also reveals that the demands for the Renault power unit are very different to what previous partner Honda required.

Asked how much change ExxonMobil's products had gone through, Crawley said: "They are different – quite different. The appetite of this new engine we are playing with is different to what we have been used with Honda – and the Honda engine was different to the Mercedes engine.

"This is our third engine in the V6 hybrid era, and it is not too surprising to us that they are all different, because they all employ different solutions, different mechanical design, and different materials in the engine.

"All of these factors have quite a significant influence on the engine oil and the fuel composition. In fact I would have been surprised if they were the same."

Internal competition

One of the interesting aspects of the situation at Renault is that the French car manufacturer will be working with two different fuel/oil partners this year.

For as well as the two Red Bull teams using ExxonMobil, the works outfit has switched to BP/Castrol – which means that Viry-Chatillon will have to homologate two types of fuel for 2017.

While there are downsides to the situation – because engine developments may well suit one company's products better – Crawley thinks there will be advantages too.

"It does add a level of complexity if you have two different programmes running, and I think there are advantages and disadvantages.

"There is a technical race involved here, because we have got a competitor who is doing work as well. Total were the incumbent, so we came in with our eyes wide open that there was another supplier in there.

"But Red Bull were interested in working with us because they recognise that we have a proven track record in bringing performance gains."

2017 impact

But if there are uncertainty about the competitive order for the season, there are also huge question marks over the impact that the 2017 new car regulations are going to have on the sport.

For one of the unintended consequences of faster cars – with more corners flat out – is that there could well be more reliability dramas as components are pushed to the limit for longer periods.

Crawley confesses that while performance remains a key issue, a much bigger focus will take place this year on ensuring that engine life is not compromised.

"The duty cycle will be tougher because there will be more stress," he said. "You will be on throttle for longer and so the duty cycle is going to go up. In terms of what we are looking at – we will be keeping a keener eye on durability effects this year with the new regulations.

"It is always a trade off between performance and durability, so it is getting that balance right. So what the regulations do for sure, if you look at the moving parts on the car, is that the stresses on the corners will go up – so wheel bearings, drive shafts joints, lubrication of wheel bearings and drive shaft joints is going to be a bit more challenging.

"We are already seeing some signs of that, so that can drive some changes in terms of the product and the product development from a lubrication point of view.

"Obviously we are trying to chase more power – and we are looking at combustion from the fuel side, and friction losses from the engine lubricant side.

"But we have got a keen eye on all sorts of other things, like thermal properties, weight, and volume of products from a packaging and a cooling point of view.

"As power goes up, thermal stresses increase – so there are other trade offs to consider.

"It is an interesting time as it focuses your mind on maybe things that you hadn't been so concerned about in the last few years."

But while so much is new for this year, one thing is constant: the end target is simply to win.

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