Fueling McLaren: Behind the scenes with Mobil 1

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BARCELONA – Since making the switch to Honda power units for the 2015 Formula 1 season, McLaren has been going through a prolonged period of rebuilding and revival.

With Honda arriving into the turbo V6 engine era one year after rival manufacturers Ferrari, Renault and Mercedes, it has been an uphill struggle to close the gap.

However, the early signs in 2016 have been positive for McLaren. Debutant teammate Stoffel Vandoorne charged into the points in his one-off appearance for the team, while Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso followed with top 10s of their own last time out in Russia.

All hands have been on deck to rekindle McLaren’s glory years – and the same goes for its fuel and lubricant supplier, Exxon Mobil, which owns the Mobil 1 and Esso brands.

We were given the chance to go behind the scenes with Mobil 1 and McLaren during pre-season testing in Barcelona, and with this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix on the horizon, both parties will be seeing how things have developed in the past couple of months.

WHERE EVERY TENTH COUNTS

Fuel and lubricants form one of the fiercest battlegrounds in F1. While it may seem like a simple addendum to the ongoing fight between teams in areas such as aerodynamics and engine design, it is in fact worth a significant amount of time. In a sport where every tenth counts, the role of the fuel and lubricant supplier becomes all the more important.

“We speak about the best drivers, the best cars, the best engine, but also the best fuel and the best lubricants and the best partners, let’s say technically involved in the performance of the car,” McLaren racing director Eric Boullier explains.

“We need everything to be the best of the best. And you cannot move one without the other one. If I take the example of the engine, the combustion model designed by Honda needs to fit with a fuel that is developed by Esso.

“We have talked to Mobil 1 to say we need now to run the gearbox at this temperature, because that means they have to design a special oil which is capable of keeping the same quality for friction at higher levels.

“Everywhere you have to speak to all the partners and make sure they reach and achieve the targets you impose on yourself.”

The targets may be ambitious, but they are being met by Mobil 1 and Esso. When we arrived in Barcelona, there was a hive of excitement around the team. A new fuel was debuting on the car that weekend following a major breakthrough, with significant gains being made over the winter.

“A lot of hard work goes into this so when you do make a breakthrough which we have done and make a significant step forward, it’s really exciting,” Mobil 1 global motorsport technology manager Bruce Crawley says.

“For me, to bring a new product to the track, it doesn’t get better than that and to know the performance benefit you’ve delivered. So yes, it’s an exciting time.

“The results, the car performance wasn’t up to it last year. However, we were working away really hard. We brought quite a few improvements in last year, and we’ve got more to come this year as well. It’s great to be involved at the front end of a new engineering challenge. That gets me out of bed in the morning.”

In light of its barren run of form, McLaren has faced the challenge of overhauling its car and making widespread changes to its management.

Jost Capito is set to join later this year from Volkswagen, following in Boullier’s footsteps. Meanwhile the likes of driver Kevin Magnussen, team principal Martin Whitmarsh and ex-Honda motorsport boss Yasuhisa Arai have all left in the past couple of years.

For Mobil 1, the push for improvement is never-ending – particularly in the early stages of a new set of technical regulations, with the next set due to arrive in 2017.

“There’s some adaptation going on and fine tuning in certain ares of performance, but there’s some fundamental stuff going on as well which is a serious change in the chemistry of the products that you’re developing,” Crawley says.

“I think at the early stage of any new regulation change, there’s more low hanging fruit generally than there is as you progress through. So we actually quite like regulation changes because it gives us more opportunity to find performance gains and it’s a race, it’s a development race to find those quicker than other people are doing it. It’s quite exciting from that point of view.

“Last year, we have several development fuels which we took to the track which were superseded before we ran them. We’ve got six components in this car of several thousands, so if you just look at our prototyping, it’s a moving target.

“That’s what’s so exciting about it as well, it never stands still. You’re always thinking ‘this has changed, now what can I do?’ Somebody was asking about the influence of the super-soft tires. You’re always looking to see what influence that has. Is that going to put more load through the gearbox? What will happen? It keeps you thinking all the time, have I missed something? It never stops.”

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

KEY TEAM MEMBERS

While McLaren and Mobil 1 may be separate companies, 20 years of partnership means that they are very much integrated when it comes to racing on-track.

The McLaren garage is, much like the team’s corporate image, spick and span. Monitors cover the garage providing up-to-date information on the car in which Jenson Button sits as mechanics set to work around him. Everyone has a job to do: and the same goes for the Mobil 1 technicians that travel with the team to each race.

Tucked away at the back of the garage is a small alcove featuring more monitors and a fuel analysis machine. At every possible opportunity, a small sample of fuel is taken from the car which is then placed into a small cylinder and put into the machine. A few moments of whirring later, and the computer next to it comes alive with data. Every possible element is measured, offering live information that can be crucial to the team.

An example came in the first week of testing in Barcelona. After the driver reported a problem, McLaren called him in and set to work to find the issue. Before its mechanics could, the Mobil 1 team had taken a fuel sample and found an unusually high level of zinc in the readings, signifying that there had been a water leak and allowing the team to take appropriate steps to remedy it. The help offered by the traveling Mobil 1 office is invaluable.

But just as efforts are made in the short-term to flag up any issues on-track and bring new designs to the table, an eye remains on the future. 2017 is set to herald a sizeable overhaul of F1’s technical regulations, unsurprisingly making it a significant focus even at this early stage.

“We’ve already got the plan for the 2017 engine under discussion, so that’s kicking off fairly soon and we’re doing our pre-planning for that,” Crawley explains.

“We’re already doing our modelling for 2017 engine. The collaboration actually that we have got going with Honda is at a level in terms of combustion development that I think is really going to push us through into a new era actually.

“From a fuel and from an oil point of view, so Esso synergy and Mobil 1, I think 2017 we’re going to have a stand-out engine. I think we’ve got a pretty good engine this year as well, but 2017 there’s more to come.”

Working with Honda was a big shift for Mobil 1 to make after 20 years working with Mercedes. The famed McLaren-Mercedes partnership hit murky water when the German marque returned to the sport with its own works team that has since enjoyed considerable success – something Crawley interestingly believes his team indirectly contributed to.

“I would argue that we have helped Mercedes develop the engine that they have got in their car today, because we worked for them for such a long period of time, if you look at the transfer of technology and ideas that go forward,” Crawley says.

“So in some respects we’ve done an own goal, we’ve been working with a company for that length of time and they’ve developed a very strong package. What happened in 2014… I’d rather not say anything more about that. We ran through the program in 2014 with them.”

Given Mercedes’ work with Malaysian supplier Petronas, it was inevitable that putting a rival’s products into the same power unit would not yield the same kind of results. Given that Honda supplies McLaren and McLaren alone, it gives Mobil 1 and Esso greater control and more of a chance to refine its products.

“Much better to [be Honda’s only supplier] because if you’ve got two suppliers, then potentially there might be a difference between one product and another,” Crawley coyly says.

“Potentially there might be… There may be other things that might be going on there that might make you think that it is the product, but there’s something else going on. I’ll say no more!!”

MONTMELO, SPAIN - MARCH 01: Members of the McLaren Honda team run out to Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda's car in the pit lane during day one of F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 1, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

FROM TRACK TO ROAD AND BACK AGAIN

Road relevance is a battle that motorsport has always and will always be fighting. The old mantra of ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ is becoming increasingly outdated, particularly in F1. With series such as the FIA World Endurance Championship and Formula E pushing more tech that can be found in road cars both now and in the future, is F1 no longer road relevant?

When it comes to fuel and lubricants, the answer is an emphatic no. As Crawley explains, many of the products – three of the six supplied to McLaren – that Mobil 1 produces are identical to what you can pick up at your local gas station and put in your own car. Others are modified for racing, but aren’t drastic deviations from the original consumer product.

“For us with our Mobil 1 racing oil we have in this Honda engine, the core technology that we’re using is exactly the same as the core technology in your cars and you’re purchasing off the shelf,” Crawley explains. “That’s very important for us, to maintain that linkage between what we’re doing in consumer products and in racing.

“Same with the fuel as well. The fuel is not something that you’re going to get when you fill up at your local petrol station at the pump. The compounds that we’re using in that fuel are the same compounds and molecules that you’ll find in that fuel. We’re tailoring the composition of the fuel to get more performance out of it.

“The way that we operate is to customize the product for the particular application. If there’s an advantage in customising a specific product for gearbox, engine, hydraulic system, wheel bearings, any of the moving parts in the car, then we’ll customise to get a performance gain.

“You’ll see in the products we’ve got in the car, they’re just commercial off the shelf products. They’re actually good enough and you can’t beat the performance of them. If we could, we would, but if you look at the engine and the gearbox for example, we’ve got bespoke products.

“That then also gives us understanding in terms of ‘if we can change the composition of the fuel in this way, we can get a performance gain’. So that’s very interesting in terms of looking at what we should be doing for a consumer product in the future. How can we improve a consumer product from the understanding, the learning that we’ve got from racing. We’ve got some interesting ideas going on right there as well right now.

“So I think the more road relevant you can make F1, I think the better. The automotivee industry and society in general is looking for cars that are more fuel efficient. That’s what we’re playing with at the moment in F1, so exciting times.”

Can F1 do more to promote its road relevance and the technology that it is advancing?

“I agree with that,” Crawley asserts. “I think it’s a bit of a balance because it is a sport, and there’s entertainment involved in it as well, but in addition to that I think the sport can actually develop technology which has road relevance and has done in the past.

“I think the regulations should encourage that, clearly there’s some sort of financial-economic issues around that as well but that needs to be managed. But F1 has a role in terms of developing efficient powertrains and you can still have good racing with efficient powertrains, so I agree with your statement.”

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Jenson Button of Great Britain driving the (22) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

THE DRIVER’S VIEW

The importance of the fuel and lubricant supplier’s role is not lost on the drivers, either. 2009 world champion Jenson Button has enjoyed significant highs and – more recently – lows with McLaren, but all the while, the partnership with Mobil 1 has continued to develop and flourish.

“Last year was very tough for us as a whole team, but the positive is that it was a new partnership, so we knew it was going to be very difficult,” Button says.

“You can see light, you can see the future is going to be bright, but there’s a lot of pain still before we get there. You’ve got two world champions in the team that are used to winning, we’re used to competing at the front, and we’re not right now, and that’s tough but also, on the positive side, we have a lot of experience. We’ve been in difficult situations before so we give as much feedback as we can to the team to develop. It’s definitely helping.

“I think the partnership with McLaren-Honda being so close, and with Mobil 1 and Esso and Honda being so close is very important to the development. One for reliability, but also because of outright power that we’re getting from the partnership of Honda and Esso.

“With Mobil 1, there’s so much analysis done at the circuit in terms of the reliability and trying to find problems with the power unit and with the gearbox, it’s really helping us improve throughout the season as well and look after reliability, because we’re limited to five engines over a race season now, which is very limited compared to what we used last year.

“So it’s all going in the right direction, but people always expect more. They want it now, and it just doesn’t happen like that when you’re racing in the most competitive motorsport in the world against some very, very experienced individuals.”

Quite how long it is until the glory days return for McLaren remains uncertain, but one thing is for sure: when they do, Mobil 1 and Esso will have played an integral part in bringing them back.

‘Baby Borgs’ bring special Indy 500 bonds, memories for Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi

Ganassi Ericsson Indy
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner
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THERMAL, Calif. – Winning the Indy 500 is a crowning achievement for driver and car owner, but for Chip Ganassi, last May’s victory by Marcus Ericsson had meaning even beyond just capturing one of the world’s greatest sporting events.

When Ganassi was 5 years old and growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his father, Floyd, attended a convention in Indianapolis in 1963. Floyd went to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to tour the track and visit the former museum that used to stand next to the main gate on 16th and Georgetown.

Ganassi’s father brought young Chip a souvenir from the gift shop. It was an 8-millimeter film of the 1963 Indy 500, a race won by the legendary Parnelli Jones.

“I must have watched it about 1,000 times,” Ganassi recalled. “More importantly than that, something you did when you were 5 years old is still with you today.

“I was 50 years old when I celebrated my Thanksgiving with Parnelli. It dawned on me that something I did when I was 5 years old took me to when I was 50 years old. That’s pretty special.”

Ericsson and Ganassi were presented with their “Baby Borgs,” the mini-replicas of the Borg-Warner Trophy, in a ceremony Feb. 2 at The Thermal Club (which played host to NTT IndyCar Series preseason testing). The win in the 106th Indy 500 marked the sixth time a Ganassi driver won the biggest race in the world.

Ganassi will turn 65 on May 24, just four days before the 107th Indianapolis 500 on May 28. The 2023 race will mark the 60th anniversary of the victory by Jones, who is now the oldest living winner of the Indianapolis 500 at 89.

Jones wanted to do something special for Ericsson and Ganassi, so each was given framed photos personally inscribed by Jones.

Parnelli Jones (Steve Shunck Photo For BorgWarner)

“Congratulations Marcus Ericsson and my good friend Chip Ganassi on winning the 2022 Indianapolis 500,” Jones said in remarks conveyed by BorgWarner publicist Steve Shunck. “There is no greater race in the whole world and winning it in 1963 was by far the biggest thrill in my life.”

Ganassi’s relationship with his racing hero began 60 years ago, but the two have shared some important moments since then.

It was Jones that signed off on Ganassi’s first Indianapolis 500 license in 1982. Jones was one of the veteran observers who worked with Ganassi and other rookie drivers that year to ensure they were capable of competing in the high-speed, high-risk Indianapolis 500.

When Ganassi turned 50, he got to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with Jones.

“We’ve been friends over the years,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “He wrote me a personal note and sent me some personal photographs. It really says what this race is all about and how important it is to win the biggest auto race in the world.”

Michelle Collins, the director of global communications and marketing for BorgWarner, presented the “Baby Borgs,” first to Ganassi and then to Ericsson.

“More special is winning the Indianapolis 500,” Ganassi said during the presentation. “It’s been a big part of my life. I want to call out my buddy, Roger Penske, and thank him for the stewardship of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what it means to us. It’s about the history, the tradition and, to me, it’s about the people that have meant so much in my life.

“Thanks for the trophy, Marcus.”

Marcus Ericsson and Chip Ganassi hold their Baby Borgs while posing with the Borg-Warner Trophy (Bruce Martin).

The Baby Borg presentation also came on the birthday of sculptor William Behrends, who has crafted the Bas-relief sterling silver face of each winner on the Borg-Warner Trophy since 1990. The “Baby Borg” presents each winner with a miniature of one of the most famous trophies in sports.

“I have to thank BorgWarner for everything that has happened since winning the Indianapolis 500, including the trip to Sweden,” said Ericsson, who took a November victory lap in his native country. “I’m very thankful for that because it’s memories that are going to be with me for the rest of my life.

“To bring the Borg-Warner Trophy to my hometown, seeing all the people there on the city square on a dark day in the middle of November. It was filled with people and that was very special.

“I’m very proud and honored to be part of Chip Ganassi Racing. To win the Indianapolis 500 with that team is quite an honor. It’s a team effort and a lot of people worked very hard to make this happen.

“Our focus now is to go back-to-back at the Indy 500.”


If Ericsson is successful in becoming the first driver to win back-to-back Indy since Helio Castroneves in 2001-02, he can collect an additional $420,000 in the Borg-Warner Rollover Bonus. With Castroneves the last driver to collect, the bonus has grown to an astronomical amount over 21 years.

Ericsson is from Kumla, Sweden, so the $420,000 would have an exchange rate of $4,447,641.67 Swedish Kronor.

“It’s a nice thing to know I could get that if I do win it again,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “But the Indianapolis 500 with its history as the biggest and greatest race in the world, it doesn’t matter with the money, with the points, with anything. Everyone is going to go out there and do everything to win that race.

“It’s great to know that, but I will race just as hard.”

Marcus Ericsson points at the newest face on the Borg-Warner Trophy (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

A popular slogan in racing is “Chip Likes Winners.” After winning the 106th Indy 500, Ganassi must really love Ericsson.

“It doesn’t get much bigger than that, does it? I’m very thankful to be driving for Chip,” Ericsson said. “He likes winners and winning the Indianapolis 500, it doesn’t get better than that.”

When Ericsson was presented with his Baby Borg, he stood off to the side and admired it the way a child looks at a special gift on Christmas morning. The wide-eyed amazement of his career-defining moment was easy to read and met with delight by executives of BorgWarner (an automotive and technology company that has sponsored the Borg-Warner Trophy since its 1935 debut).

“I noticed that immediately and I was watching him look at it wishing I had a camera to capture that,” Collins told NBC Sports. “But maybe not because we always have our phones in front of us and it’s nice to take in that moment as it is. That is what makes the moment well worth it.”

Marcus Ericsson (Bruce Martin)

Said BorgWarner executive vice president and chief strategic officer Paul Farrell: “It’s very special to have the big trophy that has been around since 1935 and to have a piece of that. Hopefully it’s something that (Ericsson) cherishes. We think it’s special, and clearly, Marcus Ericsson thinks it is very special.”

The trophy process begins shortly after the race as the winner has the famed Borg-Warner Wreath placed around his neck, and the Borg-Warner Trophy is put on the engine cover. The next morning, the winner meets with Behrends, who has been sculpting the faces on the trophy since Arie Luyendyk’s first victory in 1990. Later in the year, the winner visits Behrends’ studio in Tryon, North Carolina, for a “Live Study.”

The process takes several more steps before the face is reduced to the size of an egg and casted in sterling silver. It is attached to the permanent Borg-Warner Trophy and unveiled at a ceremony later in the year. Ericsson’s face was unveiled last October during a ceremony in Indianapolis.

That’s when it hit Ericsson, a three-time winner in IndyCar after going winless in Formula One over 97 starts from 2014-18.

“Until then, it was strange because you are so busy with your season right after the Indy 500 you don’t really get much time to sit back and think about what you had accomplished,” Ericsson said. “It was the offseason before I really realized what I had done.”

The permanent trophy remains on display at Indianapolis Motor Speedway but has been known to travel with the winning driver on special tours, such as the Nov. 3-7 trip to Sweden.

“It’s been incredible to see the amount of interest in me and the IndyCar Series and the Indy 500,” Ericsson said. “The trophy tour with the Borg-Warner Trophy we did in November really made a huge impact in Sweden. I was on every TV show, morning TV, magazines, newspapers, everywhere. People are talking about IndyCar racing. People are talking about Marcus Ericsson. It’s been huge.

“I was back in Sweden last month for the Swedish Sports Awards and I finished third in the Sports Performance of the Year. Motorsports is usually not even nominated there, and I finished third. That says a lot about the interest and support I’ve gotten back home in Sweden.”


Ericsson continued to reap the rewards of his Indianapolis 500 victory last week at the lavish Thermal Club, about a 45-minute drive from Palm Springs, California.

Earlier in the day before the Baby Borg presentation, Ericsson, and Chip Ganassi were among the 27 car-driver combinations that completed the first day of IndyCar’s “Spring Training” on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile road course. The next day, Ericsson turned the test’s fastest lap.

The 32-year-old still seems to be riding the wave, along with his girlfriend, Iris Tritsaris Jondahl, a Greece native who also lived in Sweden and now lives with Ericsson in Indianapolis.

“Today, receiving my Baby Borg, it was another thing of making it real,” Ericsson said. “It’s not a dream. It’s reality. To get the Baby Borg and bring it home. My girlfriend, Iris, and I are house hunting, looking for a house in Indianapolis. It will definitely have a very special place in our new home.”

Marcus Ericsson and girlfriend Iris Tritsaris Jondahlc share a kiss at the Baby Borg presentation (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

Ericsson told NBC Sports his most cherished trophy before getting his Baby Borg was for his first NTT IndyCar Series win in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix in 2021.

“It was such a huge win for me and such a huge breakthrough for me and my career,” he said. “After that, it catapulted me into a top driver in IndyCar.”

The Brickyard win was another level for Ericsson, who moved to Ganassi in 2020.

“Marcus kept himself in the race all day,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports. “Anybody that ran a race like Marcus ran, maybe you deserve the race win, but you don’t always get it. Marcus did everything that it took, and we are really, really proud of him.”

Ericsson also proved last year to be one of the best oval drivers in the series, a much different form of racing than he experienced until he came to the United States.

“Racing in Europe and around the world, I always liked high-speed corners,” he explained. “It was always my favorite. I always had this idea if I go to IndyCar and race on the ovals, it is something that would suit me and my driving style. I was always excited to try that. When I came to IndyCar and started to drive on ovals, I liked it straight away. It worked for me and my style.

“The first few attempts at Indy, I had good speed, but it was always some small mistakes that got me out of contention. I learned from them. I’m very proud I was able to pull it off, but it was a lot of hard work behind that.”

Michelle Collins of BorgWarner presented Baby Borgs to Marcus Ericsson and Chip Ganassi at a ceremony also attended by Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

The victory in the Indianapolis 500 is etched in history, as is Ericsson’s face on the trophy.

“It’s such a special thing,” the driver said. “The BorgWarner people and IndyCar and everyone at IMS, I get to experience so many cool things since winning the Indy 500. It’s a win that keeps on giving. It never ends. It still does.

“I can’t wait to get back to Indianapolis, the month of May, as the champion. I still have to pinch myself. It’s a dream, for sure.”

Ganassi doesn’t have to pinch himself — all he needs to do is look at his collection of Baby Borgs.

His first Indy 500 win — as a team co-owner with Pat Patrick — came in 1989 with Emerson Fittipaldi’s thrilling duel against Al Unser Jr.

In 1990, Ganassi formed Chip Ganassi Racing. Juan Pablo Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, Scott Dixon in 2008, Dario Franchitti in 2010 and 2012 and Ericsson in 2022.

“It’s a feather in the team’s cap for sure just to have our representation on the Borg-Warner Trophy with five other drivers,” Ganassi said. “It’s a testament to the team, a testament to Mike Hull that runs the team in Indianapolis. I just feel really lucky to be a part of it. It’s great to work with a great team of great people.

“Just to relive that moment again and again never gets old; never goes away. I’m really lucky to be in the position I’m in. It’s an honor to represent the team with the great people that it took to bring Marcus across the finish line. He and I get to celebrate events like this, but it’s really about the people at Chip Ganassi Racing in Indianapolis that pull this all together.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500