Oils, innovation and faster cars: How Petronas fuels Mercedes’s relentless pursuit of Formula 1 excellence
Speak to Andrea Dolfi for a few minutes, and chances are you’ll never watch another Formula 1 race in the same way again.
For a start, you’ll know just what the Petronas part in reigning constructors world champions Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team really stands for.
Dolfi is the head of R&D fluid technology solutions for motorsports at Malaysian oil and gas firm Petronas Lubricants International. Every time Lewis Hamilton crosses the finish line first, chances are Dolfi and his team have played an important part in the victory.
The 2021 is already promising to be one of the most exciting in recent years, and Mercedes-AMG Petronas team principal, Toto Wolff, said before the recent Italian Grand Prix that Red Bull’s car arguably has the edge over his own team’s.
Dolfi shrugs off the suggestion.
“I’m not that convinced that we have such a huge gap to be closed,” he said. “I’ve seen this kind of statement from Toto many times in the past, and he does it to keep the team motivated. Overall, this is an opportunity for us to do even better, to be even more motivated.”
In fact, he welcomes the competition.
“It’s good for the sport to be honest with you, that somebody is behind our back,” Dolfi said. “I find it a very healthy situation to be in. It’s very good, we have a good season ahead.”
In the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, Hamilton held off the relentless pursuit of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen to win his record-extending 96th F1 race. In Imola, the seven-time champion somehow recovered to finish second after his race looked to be over when he spun into the gravel and hit the barrier. That he leads the drivers’ standing in a supposedly lesser car is, according to Dolfi, testament to his genius.
“The guy’s so motivated, he’s not second to any of his much, much younger colleagues,” he told Arab News ahead of Sunday’s Portuguese Grand Prix. “In terms of hunger, and willingness to strive for the best, he’s really an amazing performer. He’s able to compensate the gap with his talent.”
Credit too goes to Hamilton’s team, Dolfi says, particularly to his strategist James Vowles.
“Vowles and Lewis are quite a well-established type of mini-team, they’ve known each other for a long time,” the Turin-based Italian said. “(Vowles) is bright chap, he knows his stuff. He’s shy, you don’t see much of him in the spotlight, but he’s a bright mind, strategy wise.
Dolfi has a background in chemistry and a Phd in biophysics, and his expertise goes beyond ensuring Formula 1 cars run smoothly, and very, very fast.
“Strangely enough my first career step was in a major pharmaceutical company dealing with vaccines, which are very much in fashion these days,” he said.
After working for a chemical company and living in the UK for six years, he joined Petronas in 2011. In 2018 he became head of research and development of fluid technology.
“I’ve gone through different roles but always had the responsibility of the motorsport activities as far as fluids are concerned,” Dolfi said. “We deliver five functional fluids to the Formula 1 car. The fuel, the engine lubricant, gearbox lubricant, the hydraulic lubricant which used to activate the gear shift. Last but not least is the coolant, which is a specialized coolant for batteries.”
The 2021 Formula 1 season has seen the reigning champions introduce an all-new Power Unit, the Mercedes-AMG F1 M12 E Performance; it is the work of a three-party team of engine manufacturer High Performance Powertrains (HPP), Mercedes (MGP) and Petronas.
“You have to bear in mind that the fuel is the primary source of energy. And the lubricant’s task is to deliver reliability because there is no point in running faster unless you cross the finish line,” Dolfi said. “That’s what scores the points. You have to be faster but you have to reach the end of the race and that’s what the lubricant has to deliver along with the performances.”
Most casual racing fans will be unaware of the inner workings of a Formula 1 car, and Dolfi highlights the pivotal role that oil plays in how the engine performs and what the car itself even looks like.
“It is strange, but when you think about it, how can oil impact the shape and the whole aerodynamic development of the car?” he said. “You would think those two are quite (separate), but in reality one of the key challenges for the lubricant is of course to protect the moving parts from wearing off, but it also serves as a coolant.”
Delivering a higher performance means a reduction in the surface area of the radiator; a narrower car, with less drag, leads, down the line, to more Hamilton podiums.
“So all we do is basically chase performances from our fluids without compromising reliability,” Dolfi said. “We think and rethink, Apollo 13-style, to sort out issues. It’s always going on.”
Bigger challenges lay ahead for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team, and indeed Formula 1, from 2022. New regulation will require all F1 engines to be powered using E10 fuels, with the aim of reducing the CO2 footprint by 50 percent compared to 2018.
Will performance be compromised?
“I don’t think so,” Dolfi said. “Let’s put it this way, whatever you lose in terms of performance, and I’m not so sure you lose (much), you can compensate because the power unit is a very sophisticated, dynamic piece of equipment, it’s so complicated. And there’s lot that can be done to adjust.”
“The 2022 step, I don’t see any issue in terms of performance as far as we are concerned right now.”
Dolfi says that he and his team are constantly interacting with the Mercedes management team, including Wolff himself. There are monthly and quarterly meetings, and work continues throughout the winter break.
“Formula 1 is always on,” he said. “In-season, off-season, there’s no rest for us.”
And as for being dragged into the whole Formula 1 lifestyle, he is very candid, saying that race events don’t often require his presence.
“I must be honest, I don’t watch every race,” Dolfi said. “However my wife does, so I hope that counts.”
For now, the target for Dolfi and his team remains to ensure Mercedes and Hamilton retain their respective titles in 2021.
“For us it’s really a matter of pride, Dolfi said. “Petronas has been in motorsports for more than 25 years, and it is really a coronation of a journey that not so many can claim, even the established major oil and gas competitors which have been around the block for more than 100 years. Petronas is my age, from 1974. We’ve gone through a very, very good journey. We started to partner with Mercedes in 2010, moving forward from BMW who had quit Formula 1, a big renowned player. But the good thing is we are a bunch of guys who are up to the challenge.”
“It’s a good combination of motivated people, a company willing to invest, unbiased views, cross-integration and inclusiveness,” he said. “It’s a good story.”