Formula 1: Looking inside the heart of our Championship-winning car

Whether it’s a passenger car or a Formula 1 race car – the heart of every automobile is the power unit underneath the body.

I am the Managing Director of Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains, where the power units for the company’s Formula 1 cars are developed and built. In the future, the company will also be manufacturing such units for road vehicles. I would like to explain some technical details of the Formula 1 engine and reveal my method for motivating my team to achieve top performance over and over again.

I’m one of about 500 employees in Brixworth, England, where Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains is located. This is where the engines that power Lewis’ and Valtteri’s F1 cars are created. The power units for the Williams and Force India Mercedes partner teams are also produced in Brixworth. The F1 M09 EQ Power+ is our power unit for this season. It’s a great piece of engineering and a lot of heart and soul went into developing and building it.

At first glance, 1.6 liters may not seem like much for a V6 combustion engine – but thanks to high-pressure direct injection and a turbocharger, we can develop nearly 1,000 horsepower from the engine. And that’s not all by any means, because Formula 1 made a big step in hybrid technology back in 2014. The great thing about this is that the hybrid element was added not just to the kinetic side of the car, by which I mean brake energy recovery, but also in the form of heat energy recovery, which enables us to tease even more power out of the car (known as e-boost in the road car world).

This means that when the drivers are on full throttle, our Formula 1 engine has excess energy, and we recover this energy in an electric machine called the MGU-H, which stands for motor generator unit heat. This is what makes a Formula 1 engine different from the engines in most passenger cars, where excess energy under full throttle is generally released via a waste gate.

Additional power: Hybrid technology

But to get back to our F1 M09 EQ Power+. We convert the heat captured with the MGU-H into electrical energy and then transfer this energy to a large battery that’s located in the car. This battery is also connected to the second electric machine, which is called the MGU-K, whereby the K stands for kinetic. This electric motor, which has an output limited by Formula 1 regulations to 120 kW (160 hp), is connected to the crankshaft through a gear drive. We can use this additional power when the drivers are on full throttle. When the drivers brake, the electric machine slows down the car using recuperation and transfers energy to the battery, which ensures that enough electricity will be available when the car accelerates again.

Another big benefit of hybrid technology is that it enables us to virtually eliminate turbo lag, which is the delay between the throttle demand and the delivery of that power. We use our MGU-H to drive the compressor when the drivers are going through the corner, for example. In other words, when Lewis and Valtteri go through the corner at part throttle, we use the MGU-H to maintain compressor power. As soon as the driver comes back on full throttle, we have instant power, and so the delay in torque delivery – the lag – with our engine is close to zero. When it’s used in a passenger car, this technology is known as e-boost.

That’s the theoretical side of the equation. We put a lot of work into engine and electric motor development in order to ensure everything runs smoothly in the races. My team and I are responsible for ensuring that the drivers don’t notice the interplay between the combustion engine and the electric motors when they’re out on the circuit. This is important because one of the things Formula 1 drivers hate is when power delivery turns out to be a surprise – regardless of whether it’s an early or late surprise.

Our job is to make sure that the power delivery level is reliable and consistent so that every time the driver hits the pedal after a corner, the power delivery is exactly the same as it was the previous time they came out of that corner. We do everything we can to ensure perfect harmony between the turbocharged combustion engine and the hybrid system with the two electric machines and the energy from the battery.

Pedal to the metal?

Formula 1 is something special. The driver of a normal passenger car is at full throttle less than five percent of the time. The situation is different with Formula 1 qualifying, where the driver is at full throttle up to 70 percent of the time, and because of that we optimize the engine for full power. If we do our work well, the drivers can focus on their main task, which is to maintain control of the car on the circuit. To put it another way, they need to brake in order to keep the car balanced through the corner and they need to apply the throttle in a way that doesn’t wear out the tires.

We are in constant contact with the drivers. Every time Lewis and Valtteri step out of their cars, we have a debriefing in which we run through a standard list of questions, such as: How was the handling? Was the power delivery consistent? Were the controls for the power unit always clear and understandable? We compare the answers and comments with our data and then we look to see where we can make improvements. Our goal is to do better the next time around and then win yet another victory.

We supply high-performance powertrains in order to win championships – that’s our mission statement in Brixworth. If you want to win championships, you can never be happy with what you just created. I always look at what we’ve achieved and say to myself: “Yeah, okay, but we can do better next time.” Our people all pull together and are motivated to do what it takes to get that extra kilowatt of power. Each and every one of us gets extremely motivated when we have to come up under time pressure with new solutions for complex problems. The key here is to solve problems quickly without adding weight and without adding friction and therefore losing power – that’s what really gets our people excited. It’s the real buzz.

Champions league for the road: Mercedes-AMG Project ONE

We’re now bringing a piece of Formula 1 to the streets. My team and I are also responsible for the powertrain of the Mercedes-AMG Project ONE – our street car with Formula 1 technology. The hyper car basically has the rear end of the Formula 1 car, including the 1.6-liter V6 hybrid drive system. However, unlike the Formula 1 car, it has two additional electric machines on the front axle, each with an output of 120 kW (163 hp). The battery capacity is also four times higher than is the case with the F1 M09 EQ Power+.

Still, battery size and the additional electric machines aren’t the biggest differences for us as developers. The really big challenge is that unlike in Formula 1, our future customers for this car won’t have dozens of engineers around them tapping away on their laptops – and no possibility to make last-minute radio calls to get help with calibrations. All of these activities will need to be carried out by control units in the car, no matter what the weather or temperature.

Our customers shouldn’t have to do anything more than they would with a normal passenger car – they should be able to go up to the car, open the door, get in, press the start button and take off, with everything else managed by the onboard electronics. At the same time, we need to accomplish all this without losing the spirit of the Formula 1 engine. In any case, I can’t wait to see the car on the street.

Andy Cowell is Managing Director of Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains. He is a Fellow of both the IMechE and the Royal Academy of Engineering. When asked for his motivation to start working in F1, Andy explains that it is a childhood dream come true: “I wanted to work in Formula One because of my childhood addiction to motorsport, helping my Dad compete in sprints and hillclimbs and avidly watching Formula One on the TV.”