In modern motor racing, the fuel used by race teams is subject to regulation, monitoring and testing. In Formula 1, for example, each fuel blend that a team intends to use has to be submitted in advance, for testing, analysis and approval. The fuel has its “fingerprint” stored, and a mobile testing lab compares the sample to the actual fuel being used at race time.
Formula 1 still uses petrol as its fuel despite the fact that today, motor racing is increasingly turning to methanol and methanol mixes as the preferred fuels. Ironically, in the pre-war days of Grand Prix racing, methanol was frequently used as a fuel, so to some extent, the wheel has turned full circle.
Methanol is safer but can it give the ultimate performance?
Sometimes a motor racing body insists that methanol alone is used – for example US motorcycle speedway uses methanol only. It has a major advantage in the event of an accident, that it doesn’t create huge clouds of black smoke, which blinds the other drivers in the race, and can hamper rescue efforts. What’s more, methanol is slower to ignite, burns more slowly and when alight, can be extinguished with ordinary water, unlike petroleum. So it has a much better safety profile than petrol.
But what really counts in motor racing is the performance of motorsport fuels – so how does methanol do there? Methanol has a lower energy content than petroleum. This means that a car only gets about half the mpg out of methanol. However, while that might not be great for the school run, racing car engines are designed to get more power out of the methanol by altering the ratio of air to fuel. And while methanol has a lower energy content, it has a higher octane.
Methanol helps achieve higher horsepower
The US Indy Racing League (IRL) shifted to using methanol as its fuel in 2007, before switching again to ethanol E85, partly because of a sponsorship deal with a Brazilian ethanol group. However, in the Indycar design teams, the race is on to develop an engine that can deliver up to 900hp, and that means motorsport fuels that are methanol-based. So there’s a big push now to get methanol reinstated as the fuel for Indy racing.
It’s not just the possible horsepower. There’s also the advantage that whereas ethanol requires anti-knock technology and additives, this isn’t such a problem with methanol. What’s more, methanol can deliver significant benefits in cooling the combustion chamber, which is great for turbo engines. In UK drag racing, pro modified cars run either on petrol or if they are turbo-charged, on methanol.
Racing teams, engine designers and fuel suppliers, are all interested in testing how additives affect methanol performance, and whether specific mixes can increase horsepower. Racing methanol has to be pure so that it doesn’t contaminate the fuel delivery system, so testing for purity is an important part of the fuel development work for motor racing teams.