By Stefan Kristensen
February 22, 2022

What You Need to Know About Formula 1 Fuel

The engines in the current batch of Formula 1 cars are surprisingly small considering how much power they make. Since 2014, all Formula 1 cars have used a 1.6-liter turbocharged V6, which despite its small displacement still produces over 850 horsepower.

Obviously, the design of the engine is at least partially what allows it to make so much power, but you might also be wondering if Formula 1 cars use some kind of special fuel for increased performance. In actual fact, the fuel used in Formula 1 cars isn't all that different from commercially available gasoline.

Today, we'll be talking all about the use of fuel in Formula 1. We'll be going over what fuel the cars use exactly in greater detail, and we'll also discuss some of the rules concerning fuel use in Formula 1. 

What Fuel Do Formula 1 Cars Use?

As we've mentioned, Formula 1 cars produce pretty massive power figures from relatively small engines. You might think that they're able to achieve this through the use of some kind of crazy racing fuel, like the nitromethane fuel used in Top Fuel dragsters or something like that.

In truth, the fuel that Formula 1 cars currently use is basically the same as the fuel you can get at any gas station, at least in terms of the actual chemicals used to make the fuel. The main difference between commercially available fuels and Formula 1 fuels is that the mix of these chemicals is a lot more tightly controlled in Formula 1 fuel.

The different Formula 1 teams also use slightly different engine tuning setups, so each team gets a supply of fuel specifically formulated for their setup. Several fuel companies sponsor and supply fuels to the various teams, including Shell, Petronas, Mobil, Total, PDVSA, and Cepsa. 

Up until the end of 2021, Formula 1 cars used high-octane fuel, usually with an octane rating between 95 and 102. However, for the 2022 season, the cars will switch from high-octane fuel to 87-octane fuel, which will have a 10% ethanol content. 

There are even bigger plans coming for the 2025 Formula 1 season, though. Starting then, Formula 1 cars will start using a new 100% sustainable fuel, possibly made from plant-based biomass or captured carbon. The goal is for this new fuel to be as energy-dense as the fuel currently being used, meaning the performance of the cars won't change from using it.

How Big Is the Fuel Tank in a Formula 1 Car?

Considering that Formula 1 cars are relatively small and very lightweight vehicles, you might assume that they also have small fuel tanks. As it turns out, this is definitely not the case; in fact, the fuel tank in a Formula 1 car is almost certainly bigger than the fuel tank in your car.

Currently, Formula 1 cars use a fuel tank with a capacity of 30 gallons (113.5 liters). However, most teams don't fill up their fuel tanks all the way before each race; prior to the start of the race, teams make calculations based on the track conditions and the setup of the car to determine more or less the exact amount of fuel they'll need to finish the race.

Since the fuel tank has such a large capacity, if teams were to fill it up completely then it would add a lot of extra weight to the car and have a negative effect on performance. As such, teams try to fill their cars up with the lowest amount of fuel possible to keep the weight of the car down.

If you're wondering where exactly the fuel tank in a Formula 1 car is located, it can be found between the driver and the engine. The tank in a Formula 1 can is often referred to as a "bladder" and is made from a variety of materials designed to make the tank flexible yet extremely durable.

The placement of the tank between the driver and the engine is important, as it can affect the car's center of gravity when the tank is full. Placing the tank as low as possible inside the car keeps the center of gravity low and improves handling.  

How Much Fuel Are Cars Allowed to Use During a Race?

First, one thing you need to know is that fuel in Formula 1 is measured by weight, not volume. This is because the volume of fuel changes if its temperature changes, but the weight of the fuel doesn't. Therefore, measuring fuel by weight leads to more accurate and consistent measurements.

As of 2019, the regulations state that Formula 1 cars are not allowed to use more than 110 kg (242 lbs) of fuel during a race. This is up from the old limit of 105 kg (231 lbs) in 2018; this rule was changed so that drivers didn't have to worry as much about conserving fuel.

In addition, refuelling during a race has been banned from Formula 1 since 2010, so drivers need to start each race with all the fuel that they intend to use already on board.

In previous years when refuelling was allowed, some teams would try and spin this to their advantage by starting the race with much less fuel than their rivals. This meant that the cars would weigh less and therefore be a bit faster at the start of the race, which would hopefully give them an advantage over the more heavily-fuelled cars. 

There were a couple of reasons that refuelling was banned. The first was for budgetary reasons, as the cost of transporting all of the refuelling equipment across the world each season was estimated to be about €1 million per team. For the smaller teams, this was a pretty insane expense.

Probably the biggest reason why mid-race refuelling was banned, however, was safety concerns. During a pit stop, the pit crews are obviously trying to do things as quickly as possible, which occasionally leads to mistakes. If you're working with highly flammable fuel, though, a simple mistake can quickly create a very dangerous situation.

One of the most recent examples of these situations before the refuelling ban came during the 2009 Brazilian Grand Prix. Driver Heikki Kovalainen pitted for more fuel, but then drove off too quickly before the fuel hose could be removed from the filler.

This yanked the hose out of the filling station and caused all of the fuel still in the hose to spill all over the track behind Kovalainen. As driver Kimi Raikkonen followed Kovalainen on his way out of the pit lane, the spilled fuel came into contact with Raikonnen's hot exhaust and the puddle of fuel almost immediately ignited in a fireball.

Luckily, Rainkonnen was able to drive himself out of the flames and escaped unscathed, but this incident certainly demonstrated how hazardous it was to allow mid-race refuelling to happen.  

What's the Fuel Mileage of a Formula 1 Car?

Formula 1 teams don't generally make these sorts of figures public, as it helps them maintain a competitive edge against the other teams. That being said, we can make an estimate based on the amount of fuel the cars usually carry and how far they're able to travel with this amount of fuel onboard.

As we know, the maximum amount of fuel a Formula 1 car can use during a race is 110 kg or about 28 gallons. Races are usually around 305 km (190 miles) long, so assuming that most teams are not filling their cars up with may more fuel than they need, we can divide 190 by 28 to get an approximate measure of fuel economy.

If we do this, we get an average fuel economy of about 6-7 miles per gallon. Considering the size of the engine, it may come as a surprise that fuel economy is so poor compared to basically any commuter car, but you have to remember that Formula 1 engines are highly specialized performance units that can rev up to 15,000 rpm.

Can You Put Normal Fuel in a Formula 1 Car?

This is a little bit of a tough question to answer. In theory, you probably could put regular pump gas in a Formula 1 engine and have it run, but you would probably need a special engine map to run it halfway decently. The engine's condition might also suffer because Formula 1 gas usually has some extra compounds added to it for increased lubrication and such.

However, in 2009 the Ferrari race team did a little experiment/publicity stunt where they filled their car's tank with regular Shell gasoline and drove around the Fiorano circuit eight times. The car used race fuel for the first four laps, and regular fuel for the final four.

Ferrari then measured the lap times set using the race fuel and the regular fuel, and they found that when using regular fuel, the car was only 9/10ths of a second slower around the track than it was with race fuel. So at the very least, you can certainly put regular fuel in a Formula 1 car if you're just doing a few hot laps.  

Written by Stefan Kristensen
I have been passionate about motorsports ever since I was a little boy. Back then, I cheered on the racing cars simply based on their colors. Later I fell in love with the many technical features, strategic plays, humans and their stories that all together drives this amazing sport to make it as interesting as it is.
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