Commentary

The science behind the scenes

Updated: November 15, 2013, 6:25 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Throughout the weekend of the second United States Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, television images beamed around the planet will show the faces and helmets of countless Formula One drivers, team bosses, and crew members.

Some are global superstars. Others are nameless, tireless mechanics, anxious to grab a victory in the next-to-last F1 race of the season.

Bruce Crawley is not one of those faces.

"Yes, I'm afraid I don't spend a lot of time out here during race weekend," the Brit explained, standing along the sparkling still-new pit road at the Circuit of the Americas. As he spoke, a chrome-colored McLaren F1 machine fired up its eight cylinders to a fine whine and hammered out of its pit stall and uphill into COTA's signature Turn 1. "If you are looking for me during a Grand Prix, I'm usually in the back there, being an engineer."

[+] EnlargeJenson Button
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty ImagesThe goal of the Mobil 1 group behind the scenes is to keep Jenson Button running strong and their names out of the limelight.

Crawley is the global motorsport technology manager for ExxonMobil, a longtime partner of McLaren F1, the legendary team now known as Vodafone McLaren Mercedes. During race weekends, Crawley and his team are tasked with keeping tabs on the fluids rushing through the race cars of drivers Jenson Button and Sergio Perez.

As F1 officials continue to place more restrictions on engines and their use during the season, teams are relying more and more on their fuel and lubricant partners to help them find an edge. For McLaren, that's Crawley and Mobil 1. In their business, anonymity is a good thing. Like being a sports referee or an international spy, the public doesn't typically know the name of their favorite racer's engineers unless something has gone horribly wrong.

"No, I don't hear from those guys much. But that's a credit to them," Button admitted in the days leading up to the USGP. The 2009 world champion added with a laugh: "If I don't see or hear from them, then that means what they're doing is working."

In the name of safety, F1 governing body FIA has banned in-race refueling. In other words, when a car fills up prior to the race, that's all it's getting until the checkered flag. Gone are the days of simply burning as much fuel as possible in the search for speed knowing you can just fill 'er up at the next stop.

"It sent us back to the drawing board to find a mixture that was more efficient," Crawley explained, speaking of the Mobil 1's England-based laboratories. That mixture investigation goes all the way down to the molecular level, trying out varying recipes of density and additives via both computer models and seemingly endless engine dyno testing. As he continued his explanation, Crawley motioned toward McLaren test driver Oliver Turvey, who had just climbed out of the cockpit. "Of course, these guys don't want to lose any power because of efficiency, so it's a real challenge to find that balance."

When the Mobil 1 lab hits on the formula it wants to run, it submits a sample and its chemical breakdown to the FIA for approval. Once approved, that's the fuel a team is required to run all season long. And to ensure there's no tinkering with the formula, FIA inspectors will regularly pop in during race weekends to take a sample and test it against the original preseason baseline.

"There would certainly be some performance benefit if we were allowed to do whatever we wanted to the fuel depending on where we are racing, factoring in conditions, altitude, weather, things like that," Crawley said, admitting some curiosity about what that kind of F1 world might be like for a man such as him. "But the costs of something like that would just be astronomical. And I would never get to sleep."

However, the other half of Crawley's job, lubricants, is still a bit of a chemical wild, wild west, where scientists are allowed to go down practically any avenue of synthetic slickness. In the name of keeping down costs, the FIA has put big limitations on drive train usage. In the past, F1 teams would go through engines like tissue paper. Now they are limited to eight engines per car per season. Likewise, gearboxes have to be used for five races. For cars that are constantly shifting, leaping back and forth between near-zero speeds and 200 mph, and engines that operate at 18,000 rpm, it's a lot to ask.

So, those lubricants … they had better be slippery … right?

"Well, it's a little more complicated than that," Crawley replied with a laugh. "They must also manage extreme heat and run clean. That's about reliability, about lasting, but in the case of gearbox oil it's also about not wasting power inside that gearbox. We want it to run as effortlessly as possible so that energy is transferred to the engine. To horsepower."

Also air power. Today's F1 machines are like the skin of Iron Man, with perpetually moving parts everywhere, big and small, from gear shifts and axles to steering parts and throttles to the clutch, brakes, and even the buttons on the steering wheel. That cool rear wing on the back of every F1 car? It too is a machine, a drag reduction system (DRS) top shelf that raises or lowers at certain speeds.

They all live off hydraulics. And all of those hydraulics live off of specially formulated grease … er, hydraulic oil.

"If I give you one dot of this from the top of a pinhead, you'd be shocked at everything it could handle," Crawley said as he handed over said spot of Mobil 1 SHC and turned to the race car behind him. "It doesn't take much of this to do all of that."

So, where will Crawley's team be during this weekend's events in Austin?

Back behind the garage stall with their centrifuges, microscopes and computers, constantly examining and testing fuel and lubricant samples that are taken from the McLaren MP428.

In the short term, they are looking for the tiniest indications of potential issues. Impurities in the samples, especially the gearbox oil, can be an early warning sign of bigger problems, such as engine wear. Each fluid comes with its own color, and some contain dyes, like a cardiologist might use to check a patient's veins and arteries. A wave of an infrared wand and the Mobil 1 team can instantly tell McLaren engineers if everything is OK, or if trouble is brewing.

But these days, with winter looming, Crawley and company are already thinking about next year's opener in Australia, on March 16.

In 2014, the FIA will bring back turbochargers for the first time since 1988. They are also reducing engine size to a V6, restricting fuel flow, cutting rpm's back to 15,000, and mandating energy recovery systems, all in an effort to be more environmentally friendly. Oh, and in 2015, McLaren will be taking on a new engine partner, replacing Mercedes with Honda.

For McLaren, so much change all at once might be what the doctor ordered. Button has yet to score a podium finish this season and Perez was just released, to be replaced by Kevin Magnussen. Crawley is happy to do his part to try and lighten the mental load for team principal Martin Whitmarsh and his crew.

"There is certainly a lot to think about for everyone," Crawley said, looking exhausted just addressing his pre-2014 to-do list. "But we do what we do so that the race team doesn't have to worry about that. They can be concerned with winning this United States Grand Prix while we're concerned with giving them the best chance to win now and in 2014 and beyond. It's a challenge, but it's a great challenge."

Just don't expect to see it on TV.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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