Oils, innovation and faster cars: How Petronas fuels Mercedes’ relentless pursuit of Formula 1 excellence
Talk to Andrea Dolfi for a few minutes, and there’s a good chance you’ll never watch another Formula 1 race the same way again.
For starters, you’ll find out exactly what Petronas stands for in the reigning constructors’ squad, world champions Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1.
Dolfi is head of R&D on automotive fluid technology solutions at Petronas Lubricants International, a Malaysian oil and gas company. Whenever Lewis Hamilton crosses the finish line first, there is a good chance that Dolfi and his team played a big part in the victory.
The 2021 already promises to be one of the most exciting of recent years, and Mercedes-AMG Petronas team manager Toto Wolff said ahead of the recent Italian Grand Prix that Red Bull’s car had undoubtedly the advantage over that of his own team.
Dolfi ignores the suggestion.
“I am not convinced that we have such a huge gap to fill,” he said. “I’ve seen this kind of statement from Toto a few 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 is hosting the competition.
“It’s good for the sport to be honest with you, to have someone behind your back,” said Dolfi. “I think it’s a very healthy situation. It’s great, we have a good season ahead.”
In the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, Hamilton resisted the relentless pursuit of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen to win his 96th F1 race, which extended the record. At Imola, the seven-time champion somehow recovered to finish second after his race seemed over when he sped through the gravel and hit the barrier. The fact that he leads the drivers’ position in a supposedly smaller car is, according to Dolfi, a testament to his genius.
“The guy is so motivated, he’s not second to any of his much younger colleagues,” he told Arab News ahead of Sunday’s Portuguese Grand Prix. “In terms of hunger and the desire to aim for the best, he is truly an incredible artist. He is able to compensate for the gap with his talent. “
Credit also goes to Hamilton’s side, says Dolfi, especially his strategist James Vowles.
“Vowles and Lewis are kind of a well-established mini-team, they’ve known each other for a long time,” said the Turin-based Italian. “(Vowles) is a brilliant guy, he knows his stuff. He’s shy, you don’t see him much in the spotlight, but he’s a brilliant mind, in terms of strategy.
Dolfi has a background in chemistry and a doctorate in biophysics, and his expertise goes beyond making Formula 1 cars run smoothly, and very, very fast.
“Oddly enough, my first career step was with a big pharmaceutical company specializing in vaccines, which are very popular these days,” he said.
After working for a chemicals company and living in the UK for six years, he joined Petronas in 2011. In 2018 he became responsible for research and development of fluid technology.
“I have played different roles, but I have always had responsibility for motorsport activities when it comes to fluids,” said Dolfi. “We deliver five functional fluids to the Formula 1 car. The fuel, the engine lubricant, the gearbox lubricant, the hydraulic lubricant that operated the gear shift. Last but not least is coolant, which is a specialized coolant for batteries. “
The 2021 Formula 1 season saw the reigning champions present an all-new power unit, the Mercedes-AMG F1 M12 E Performance; it is the work of a tripartite team made up of High Performance Powertrains (HPP), Mercedes (MGP) and Petronas engines.
“You have to keep in mind that fuel is the main source of energy. And the job of the lubricant is to ensure reliability, because there is no point in running faster unless you cross the finish line, ”said Dolfi. “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 offer with performance. “
Most casual racing fans won’t be aware of the inner workings of a Formula 1 car, and Dolfi points out the central role oil plays in how the engine runs and what the car itself looks like.
“It’s strange, but when you think about it, how can oil impact the shape and all the aerodynamic development of the car?” he said. “You would think these two are quite (separate), but in reality one of the main challenges for the lubricant is of course to protect the moving parts from wear and tear, but it also serves as a coolant.”
Providing higher performance means less radiator surface area; a narrower car, with less drag, leads down the line to more podiums in Hamilton.
“So basically all we do is research the performance of our fluids without compromising reliability,” said Dolfi. “We’re thinking and rethinking, like Apollo 13, to solve the problems. It still goes on. “
Bigger challenges await the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team, and even Formula 1, from 2022. The new regulations will require all F1 engines to be powered with E10 fuels, with the aim of reducing the CO2 footprint by 50% compared to 2018.
Will performance be compromised?
“I don’t think so,” said Dolfi. “Let’s put it this way, whatever you lose in performance, and I’m not sure you lose (a lot) you can compensate because the powertrain is a very sophisticated and dynamic piece of equipment, it’s so complicated. And there is a lot to do to adjust. “
“Stage 2022, I don’t see any performance issues as far as we are concerned at the moment.”
Dolfi says he and his team are constantly interacting with the Mercedes management team, including Wolff himself. There are monthly and quarterly meetings and work continues during the winter break.
“Formula 1 is still active,” he said. “In season, out of season, there is no rest for us.”
And as for being drawn into the entire Formula 1 lifestyle, he’s very outspoken, saying racing events don’t often require his presence.
“I have to be honest, I don’t watch all the races,” said Dolfi. “However my wife does, so I hope it counts.”
For now, Dolfi and his team’s goal remains to ensure Mercedes and Hamilton retain their respective titles in 2021.
“For us it’s really a matter of pride,” said Dolfi. “Petronas has been in motorsport for over 25 years, and it truly is the crowning glory of a journey few can claim, even major oil and gas competitors established for over 100 years. Petronas has been my age since 1974. We had a very, very good trip. We started partnering with Mercedes in 2010, moving from BMW, which had left Formula 1, to a big, well-known player. But the good thing is we’re a bunch of guys who are up to the challenge. “
“It’s a good mix of motivated people, a company ready to invest, unbiased perspectives, cross-integration and inclusiveness,” he said. “It’s a good story.”