Burning Oil in F1. Why do it, what does it achieve, and how to do it?


What is the argument?

At the end of the summer back in 1997, I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly single.  Sleeping on a sofa and driving an F Registration Sierra Sapphire 1.6 that was slow, smelly and very smoky.  Had I blacked out at the car auctions?  Were the chips drugged?  Who knows?  But boy, did that car use oil.  I could barely drive a 12-mile route to work without it needing a top up.  It honestly cost me more in oil than petrol.

I have always associated since that burning oil is bad.  The thing is this car was burning oil because it was knackered, however, in a healthy engine it can actually be beneficial.

Later that year I purchased a new car, a 2.0 5-cylinder turbo engine which at that moment was the fastest front wheel drive production car in the world.  The engine was designed to use 1litre of oil per 1000 miles.  This is classed as “normal usage” in the manual.  100,000 miles and 20 years later it is still producing 227bhp and running better than ever.  So there are benefits.

In Formula One burning oil as part of combustion is banned because of these perceived benefits, but it is claimed some teams have found a way to circumnavigate the rules.

Red Bull was the first to blow a whistle and point to Mercedes accusing them of using this method to get a power boost over the rest of the pack, specifically in the closing stages of qualifying or when they needed an extra little boost on the final laps last year.  Mercedes shook their heads in amazement and it is believed that this year has pointed to Ferrari.  The Italians naturally have denied it and have accredited their gains to mapping… which may be true.

In recent weeks the FIA have been looking into the situation and have reiterated the rules to all teams, although many pundits believe that the reminder was more for Ferraris benefit than anyone else.

This week Renault’s F1 engine chief Remi Taffin has suggested that there is no smoke without fire (excuse the pun), and simply the length of time the authority have spent on it shows they have a reason for suspicion or the speculation would have died down by now.

F1 engines and new ignition systems

nozzle1Mahle Jet Ignition.  So the latest variants of F1 engines are not quite as simple as you might think. Yes, there is a spark plug, but that is to ignite a small amount of a rich mixture of fuel vapour  in a small chamber at the top of the main cylinder. When combusted  about five bolts of lightning travel through small holes at the bottom of the nozzle.  This is then used to ignite the leaner mix in the main cylinder far more effectively.  A tradition spark plug alone is far less effective.


These lightning bolts effectively cause chaos in the cylinder and cause more droplets of fuel to be burnt (at the same time from the outside in), in one big bang than anything has before.  Result?  More power from less fuel and that is everything in an engine that needs as much power as possible from a regulated fuel flow from a limited supply.

This is tricky to manage.  It requires huge amounts of mapping data.  Instructions from the ECU that dictates that when Air is x and fuel is y, and crank position is z then ignite at a.  The issue comes when you’re running at 15,000 RPM.  If the charge is released too early then the explosion that is supposed to push the piston back down might go off at the wrong time and cause “knock” and the sound of a misfire while the ECU franticly tries to compensate from its lookup tables.  The point is that conditions vary wildly from track to track and minute to minute with air pressure, temperature etc.

Get this mapping right and its great – ask Mercedes.  Get it wrong engines and gearboxes die – ask Honda,  Getting the mapping right takes many hours track trial an error.  Mercedes had this luxury, Honda didn’t. You can’t replicate real track conditions on any dyno, and track testing is heavily limited.

As a bandage (and further aid) there are many additives that you could use in fuel that help stabilise this process.  The best solution is to use additives that make sure the fuel droplets are all the same size and go pop at the same time.  This is maximising volumetric efficiency.

Volumetric Efficiency

This is simple.  The cylinder is only so big.  The trick is to get as much air and fuel in as you can but in a way that most of it can be converted to energy.  Too much and it chokes, too little and your losing power.  There is a curved line and you aim for the top.  Most power from least fuel.  If you stabilise the fuel through additives, you delay the combustion enough so everything goes bang when you want it to.  They can also artificially increase the effective octane rating of the fuel.  The FIA do not like this either.

What gains can be anticipated by such additives?

This can be itemised relatively quickly with a few bullet points

  • Enlarged capacity (effective) by being able to efficiently produce more power from less fuel, you are effectively replicating a bigger (standard) engine.
  • Volumetric efficiency, you could create the same power with less fuel when needed
  • Stabilised control, would give you less “knock” and more reliable and smooth power through improved combustion.

Unfortunately for the teams,  fuel is heavily regulated and most of the polymers that can effect these benefits are banned.


Fuel Regulation

Fuel blends are very heavily guarded and regulated.  The rules also change as teams with clever boffins in dark rooms find ways of “entering into the spirit” of the FIA law.  Regulations have also changed on fuel for 2018 (most notably diolefins that likely reduce combustion temperature and so be more predictable)

These additives ARE however in the Oil the cars use.

Oil is far less regulated.  Simple.  99% of the composition is very similar to the product you can buy on the shelves.  Its that 1% that makes all the difference and closely guarded. However, going back to that 99%… Guess what.?  Most of the major players in automotive lubricants worldwide like BP Castrol, Shell, Elf Auto, BPCL, HPCL, IOCL, Lubrizol, Infineum, EXXON rely mostly on such polymers because of how they serve “the consistency in quality.”

So all we have to do is find a way of letting a tiny percentage through into the cylinders.  Government documents state clearly the benefit can be seen when these polymers account for as little as .001% of the combustible material. But…

Burning Oil is not allowed

The FIA regulations tells us this.

How might we get passed this?

(Without ending up with a horse’s head in my bed)

Actually on a turbo engine, it’s not that hard and could easily be designed into its specification. The easiest way (not that I am making any accusations) is to have a “controlled” leaky turbo bearing on the compressor side.  Shafts have bearings and shafts that need to be cooled.  Engine oil is used to cool it.  If they are a bit “leaky” (not in a Ford Sierra way) then oil ends up in the plenum as a mist, which continues into the cylinders.

If say in “Qualy Mode” the mapping allowed spikes of boost and increased oil pressures (sensors also changed for next year and have to meet FIA criteria), then there is a chance that some might get through…  The FIA have to allow for SOME “incidental leakage” It makes it very hard to govern.

Obviously we should not too much oil to get through, and of course not all the while (perhaps when you need an extra squirt at the end of qualifying 3 or last few laps of the race?), or else when the lubricant gets inspected after the race it might have used a bit too much to be “incidental”.  But we don’t need much of these polymers to make a difference.  Oh did we explain that such things can also clean up smoke products, and only eject carbon dioxide and water as by products?

Why have the FIA been so soft in its investigations?

Plausible deniability. Teams such as Torro Rosso and Force India are supplied complete power units from the manufacturer.  Accusations aimed at works teams date back to last year.  Evidence erased.  This year’s data could probably be argued by expensive lawyers to be “incidental”

Sahara Force India’s COO Otmar Szarfnauer, who run Mercedes customer engines, told Autosport that he regrets the oil burn matter has dragged on for so long.  He said:

“The FIA had an opportunity to fix it a long time ago and didn’t take it. It is one of those things – my neighbour once told me if you put your time in early with your child, once they are an adult you are done.”

Even so, assume you could prove it, how would you quantify the gains and what penalties would be made?  Would you punish the manufacturer or the purchasing team, or both? Stripping titles, changing positions.  There would be huge and complicated legal and financial implications when dealing with this in retrospect.

Easiest thing is to change the regulations for next year and reiterate the regulations to all teams this year.  Which is what they did on 23rd June when the FIA sent a reminder to teams ahead of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix about potentially burning oil to provide a pace boost, especially in qualifying.

If TJ13 was a F1 team , it might decide to avoid any further unwanted FIA investigations or penalties and launch a preemptive strike.  We might wait until we are starting to focus on next year’s engine and reluctantly retire our engine designer as a sacrifice to the gods and look at some fresh meat with fresh ideas based on new regulations for 2018.

Or am I getting too sceptical in my old age?


22 responses to “Burning Oil in F1. Why do it, what does it achieve, and how to do it?

  1. An interesting article and an interesting subject. One of the interesting aspects you didn’t touch on was that injecting oil into the cylinder actually reduces the octane rating. It would be interesting to know the trade-off you get by injecting oil which allows you to burn the fuel more efficiently while at the same time lowering the octane which will cause the fuel to burn earlier and increase knock.

    • Cav injecting oil into a cylinder “may” decrease octane rating because it takes the place of fuel and has different burn and chemical energy characteristics. It depends on what additives are used when such additives are not able to be used in fuels…..
      However these polymerized additives – the ones we are hearing about – do, when included on their own or in tandem with others (there are 20 I know of) not only raise the Octane (not a very scientific term to be honest) rating but increase the ignition point significantly – ie, they increase the temperature at which fuel the mixture ignites. This means MUCH higher compression ratios can be used before pre-ignition occurs…ie explosive detonation.

      The normally copied material in this article from the ‘net is fine but the rest of the article is simply nuts. I can hardly contain my anger at the way this guy is filling readers minds with tripe.

  2. Volumetric Efficience increased by adding an effective amount of a high-molecular weight polymer to the fuel. This has the same effect as a larger capacity engine

    The effectiveness of the present invention is believed to be related to a suppression in the formation of sub-50-micron diameter droplets as the fuel is sprayed. Standard research octane number tests have shown an increase in octane number with a low concentration of high molecular weight Polymers such as polyisobutylene. Also believed to be in road issue oil by these companies.

    • Steve, this is such utter rubbish you should wash your mouth out. Volumetric Efficiency has nothing to do with this! VE is simply: Theoretic swept volume of a cylinder/ actual volume ingested. In non turbo engines it is almost always less than 100% and usually around 80% in an engine of decent overall performance. In a turb it is always greater than 100% and depending on boost pressure can be as high as 400% eg with boost over 4 bar.

      Seriously Steve, you can plagiarize material from the internet free of charge that’s fine its a free world; just don’t add your own material because you don’t have a clue.

  3. Why not randomly confiscate new engines with mapping software and measure fuel and oil usage.
    Compare customer to works.
    Of course teams would need to be compensated.

    • All engines, parts and mapping data has to be submitted to the FIA anyway. Maps I think before each event. I wont show anything. We are talking mechanical tolerances here.

      • “I won’t show anything”. Steve: are you suggesting that the difference in power levels between the works and customer teams comes down to their respective maps? It would seem almost criminal to give your customer team an inferior ‘base’ map but also I understand each team runs their engines differently for their config and their fluids. Still, if we compared it to old days, it would be like handing over a carbureted engine to your customer without a set of appropriate jets to tune it with.

        Also, are you suggesting that there is evidence of the oil injection/combustion effects in the maps? Certainly the different maps between Q3 and race mode would show this.

  4. Wait a second, didn’t we just see on TJ13 that Mercedes is using compression ignition instead of the jet like Ferrari? This again raises my question of “how is Mercedes controlling the ignition timing?” The only thing I can think is that they are using the turbo’s pressure to vary the charge pressure to control cylinder filling.

    Burning oil can be beneficial for sure. Lots of turbo cars do it, so do rotary engine cars. The rotary injects oil from the oil metering pump intentionally to lube the surfaces like side and apex seals. Of course here we are talking about extracting energy from the oil and or controlling the combustion process and enhancing it with special oil additives.

    • I don’t know we have seen from a reliable source what ICE technology is being used by the top teams. Mahle’s TJI has been well described in Mahle presentations for many years, and claims up to 30% improved efficiency. It makes sense that this would be easy to deploy by Mercedes. Ferrari has Mahle sponsorship. HCI was written about in recent TJ13 article. Wikipedia HCI article says oil is one method used to stabilise the ignition. It makes sense that Mercedes could be using HCI and using the oil to stabilise the ignition, since their reported oil consumption is high. Hopefully more details will leak in future to clarify.

    • With respect this article is total junk. Steve talks about Volumetric Efficiency. The whole point of forced induction is to overcome any deficit in VE. With a boost pressure of 4 bar the VE% will be close to 380% which is a bit more than the 80% or so that NA engines had. This is why we turbocharge….
      Steve then indicates that “oil” is introduced into the plenum chamber and, presumably, atomised there for ingestion. Sounds like a 2 stroke rather than a TJI.
      Actually if any additive is introduced it will be in the injector as this has 2 inlets.
      Steve talks in mysterious terms about “polymers”. Well yes. to be a bit more specific there exists lubricant compositions for reducing the propensity of end gas knock in an IC engine. The substances ( one or more additives includes at least one of cyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl, methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl, etc) can raise the auto ignition point of the charge significantly thereby reducing the likelihood of pre-ignition (detonation) and enabling a significant increase in compression ratio. They comprise about 0.01% of the base oil.
      As readers might appreciate, in a TJI engine the plasma jets could in theory make a very good mechanism for distributing the additives and achieving the objectives of slow burn with high compression. Just “burning oil” can’t work and won’t work and even if it did would be very easy to identify.

    • No that is called HCCI and its not permitted in the regs. But ignore this article: it has some solid bits around Mahle TJI the rest is absolute rubbish.

  5. short of either capping the amount of engine oil or the level of oil oil consumption I dont see tha the FIA can do a lot as all engines consume some oil. They should just let this one go as the last thing needed is more regulation. Seriously would the FIA really want disqualify a driver whose engine used a bit more oil than a commpetitor? Maybe they should just say 105kg fuel and 8 litres (or whatever) of oil and say do whatever you like with it.

  6. Interesting article..I had this happen on a diesel engine I rebuilt. The oil in the sump was being used as a fuel and caused a runaway motor. It’s not a new idea and I have toyed with this myself, Renault had the oil bomb system not long ago and with the higher compression of these motors its an area that was always going to be exploited. If you look at this year’s notes, the top teams cars have had a second oil cooler and storage (removed from last race) which enabled an injection of oil into the mix. The system is already there but can’t be monitored.

      • Not allowed but One way that this could be used to enhance performance is via the crankcase pressure solonid.
        To control the crank pressure, teams are allowed a breather from the crankcase into the airbox, the bypass is controlled by a solenoid valve under ECU control

    • I had read about diesel runaway and seen examples on Youtube but last year I saw one in action on the local high street. The noise, smoke and smell were something to behold! The van driver and his mate seemed to have no idea what to do (blocking the air flow might have helped) and were watching it. I got there with a couple of minuites worth of oil left and it soon ground itself to a smokey and steamy halt. We haven’t seen a Ferrari go quite that far yet!

      • Taking away the air is the best way to stop the motor lol. These modern F1 engines burn fuel so efficient that even a large amount of oil won’t show with the eye. I have been watching the front wings of following cars from the Merc and Ferrari and the only time I witnessed anything odd was on the Williams wing. After the full race, the white was covered in a very fine film. What was really telling for myself was the oil usage from the teams. This year the cars are using nearly 2lt extra per race of lubrication oil…so where does it go???? Lol

  7. Just wanted to say that this has been one of the most interesting articles I’ve read on an F1 site for long time. Informative and well explained. Thank you.

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