How Mercedes made F1’s best hybrid engine – and why it’s looking forward to 2016
Software to glue things together
Each component of the engine is heavily optimised, but it takes sophisticated software to get it all working together. “That’s the glue at the end of it all, to make sure the amazing individual bits of technology sing well together,” explains Cowell. “It’s a bit like the bandmaster bringing it all together and optimising it so that it’s a beautiful harmonious sound.”
Cars have to take on two very different tasks in Formula 1, and it’s up to the software to manage the engine in both scenarios.
Qualifying demands pure speed, so cars carry little fuel, and engines are able to use all four megajoules of battery power in one lap. To optimise lap times, teams use sophisticated software to work out the best places to unleash the car’s full potential. “On shorter straights, we won’t use the K (the electric motor connected to the rear wheels) on its full power level, or use it for the whole length of the straight – to make sure there’s enough energy left for a longer, more significant straight,” explains Cowell.
On Race day, cars have to balance endurance and speed, and the software has to account for a countless chain of unpredictable events in each race. Over half of the season’s races require energy saving, so it’s up to the software to decide when to conserve and when to use electricity. The driver still has ultimate control of the car, but it’s the software’s job to make sure they have maximum power at their disposal at any given time.”
“Sometimes you get caught in traffic; other times you get free air; sometimes there’s a safety car; sometimes the tyres degrade; sometimes you’ve got softer tyres on and you’ve got more grip, more full-throttle time. You need the software to be able to optimise around that and make sure that the energy deployed is done intelligently.”
Breaking the laws of physics in 2016
In 2015 Mercedes somehow eclipsed the success of its 2014 season, citing increased reliability as the reason for another year of dominance. But there were warnings over what 2016 might hold. Vettel’s Ferrari was faster than ever, and with the Italian marque developing their engine even more aggressively over the winter, Cowell knows it will be even harder to stay on top in 2016.
“Everybody is motivated, working hard and determined to beat Ferrari,” he says. “But then Honda’s improvement throughout the past nine months has been tremendous. Look at the analysis at what they’ve done in terms of performance improvement, very strong. And Renault as well, they can pull it all back together and improve as well.”
But Mercedes aren’t chasing their rivals at all. Leading from the front after two epic years, and with minimal rule changes for 2016, Mercedes is still chasing efficiency – and that’s where Cowell sees even more benefits for road cars.
“That’s exactly what the road car world’s doing,” he adds. “We’re out there chasing all those little technologies, tweaks and bits of optimisation.”
“There’s approximately 1,240W maximum potential in the fuel flow rate, so if we got 100% thermal efficiency we’d be breaking some of the laws of thermodynamics, but that’s theoretically the maximum that you could get out of that fuel energy,” Cowell explains. “We’re some way from this goal, but the very fact that everybody in this building focuses on that means that we are chasing every single energy conversion stage and trying to get it close as possible to 100%. Every time energy is flowing, whether it’s electricity along a cable or through a connector or a terminal, we’re focusing on that being as efficient as possible.” The result? Mercedes believes that last year’s engine produced around 45% efficiency, and this year’s engine is already hitting over 900hp.
In 2016, Mercedes’ quest for continued dominance will draw it ever closer to the goals of mainstream automotive energy. Efficiency is power, and the more carmakers such as Mercedes push for victory, the more they advance our understanding of low-emission, super-efficient powertrains. According to Cowell, technology from the 2014 hybrid engine will be in cars “in the next two or three years”, and there’s much more to come.