“I was giving it absolutely everything. I don’t really know where they were gaining all the speed but I think it was everywhere in general but particularly on the straights as far as I’m aware, so they’ve definitely made some big steps over the last couple of races and we’ve not really got an answer for it.”
Damning words from defending Formula 1 world champion; Lewis Hamilton, to Formula1.com on his struggle to keep pace with the revitalised Red Bull RB16B at the Styrian Grand Prix on the Red Bull Ring in Austria last weekend.
Red Bull have won four on the trot this year, meaning Mercedes have not won in four; a first for the once-dominant team in the turbo-hybrid era.
What exactly brought about this paradigm shift that’s tilted the championship very much in Red Bull’s favour?
Surprisingly, it comes down to chemicals commonly used in the cosmetics industry that’s given the bull an edge.
FIA regulations ban any performance (hardware) upgrades to the power units. So, the team and its technical partners have found that extra kick everywhere else.
ExxonMobil is the fuel and lubricant supplier for the team, and it introduced a revolutionary new engine oil at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix that’s allowed the team to run its engines differently and extract more performance.
The lube giant has been tinkering with unconventional chemicals in the formulation of lubricants and the key behind this are components commonly used in the cosmetics industry.
It improves the oil’s protective layer of film on metal parts that reduces damage from heat and wear. This in turn allows the engines to be run closer to peak performance for longer durations; cardinal in current regulations as teams are limited to just three power units each season.
“The cosmetics industry offers many unique naturally-derived components and we had to evaluate a range of similar products before selecting the best. These benefits also translate into an ability to run the engine across a wider range of operating conditions,” explained ExxonMobil Global Motorsport Technology Manager Tomek Young to Motorsport.com.
“Some elements of the chemical composition of our new engine oil are a departure from what we would normally formulate a product with. What was a long shot a few years ago; a vision of a low ash, high temperature, low friction engine oil that incorporates bio-based components became a reality this year,” he added.
Understandably, ExxonMobil isn’t going to kiss and tell.
While lubricants themselves may seem negligible to a vehicle’s performance, the limit on performance upgrades has shifter teams’ focus on eking out every modicum of performance elsewhere.
With the oil improving friction levels and subsequently reliability, Red Bull can run their power units at its most performant mode for longer durations instead of having to balance that with lifespan.
“In terms of outright performance if it ups the efficiency of the engine a little bit because we have less pumping losses through it, we bring the friction down a little bit, then those are all small steps that simply contribute to an overall gain in the car’s performance,” said Red Bull chief engineer Paul Monaghan.
In fact, the revolutionary engine oil is only the first step in Red Bull further optimising every permissible aspect to maximise performance.
With the added reliability courtesy of the engine oil allowing the engine to run harder and hotter, the team can adopt a more aggressive aerodynamic package that sacrifices some cooling without drawbacks.
Cosmetically speaking, it’ll be difficult to spot the aero changes Red Bull makes but you must be blind if you miss their charge to a drivers championship this year.