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FORMULA ONE IS SERIOUS about its racing fuels. Ask Sebastian Vettel, whose Aston Martin-Mercedes got disqualified from second at last month’s Hungarian GP for not having the required 1.0 liter of fuel remaining in the tank. This regulation, note, is more than simply to encourage prudence. In a sense, it’s a reaction to Formula One “rocket fuels” of 1989–1991. Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits on fuels of Formula One. 

Background. Grand prix cars of the Thirties were fueled by bizarre mixtures indeed. Laurence Pomeroy called them “Petrol-Alcohol.” Karl Ludvigsen added details: One fuel cited for the Auto Union V-16 cars was a blend of “60.0-percent alcohol, 20.0-percent benzol, 8.0-percent gasoline, 10.0-percent diethyl ether, 1.5-percent toluol/nitrobenzol, and 0.5-percent ricinus oil.”

Image by L.C. Cresswell from Laurence Pomeroy’s The Grand Prix Car.   

Alcohol mixtures continued in post-war grands prix until 1958’s change to Avgas. Then gradually, fuels became more sophisticated hydrocarbons. 

Rocket Fuels of 1989–1991. Awhile back, I presented a paper “Three Retrospectives of Alternative Racing Fuels: They Burned What??,” delivered at the SAE International Motorsports Conference, December 2–4, 2008, in Concord, North Carolina. The third retrospective was a relatively recent one, the 1989-1991 rocket fuel era of Formula 1.

Folk Legends. Were these fuels derived from those powering WWII German rockets? Uh, no. Nazi V1s were powered by pulse jets buzzing at 50 Hz (thus, their “buzz bomb” moniker) and fueled with low-grade gasoline. 

V2s were fueled by a 75/25 mixture of ethyl alcohol and oxygen (A-Stoff). Propellant turbo pumps used hydrogen peroxide (T-Stoff) reacting with sodium peroxide (Z-Stoff) to form steam and drive the turbines compressing the fuel and oxydizer. Sort of space-age tech, albeit using conventional stuff.

Search the Hydrocarbon Family. During the rocket-fuel era, the late 1980s to 1991, neither teams nor suppliers offered any clues about Formula One fuels, though one hydrocarbon got top billing: Toluene, C7H8

Hydrocarbon Family Dossiers. Image from my SAE paper.

Later, Honda fessed up that its 1988 fuel at the conclusion of the turbo era was 84-percent Toluene and 16-percent n-Heptane, the latter chosen to give a Research Octane Number of 101.8. (At the time, regulations limited it to 102 RON.) 

Carefully Selected Bits. According to “Optimising Formula One Engine Performance Through Fuel and Combustion Systems Development,” JSAE 9302510, by A.R. Glover, et al, “Unlike commercial gasolines, which typically contain more than 200 different chemical substances, Formula 1 fuels were blends of typically 3 to 5 carefully selected components.” Also, the paper cited the importance of computer modeling in designing the precise mixtures.

F1 Rocket Fuels and the Environment. Good stories abounded: The stuff traveled outside ordinary Formula One shipments. It arrived in plain brown bottles. It was sometimes labeled “Drink me.” 

When team members complained about safety, one driver was quoted as saying, “#&$@ that! I work in this dangerous place all the time. All you have to do is refuel it once and a while.”

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll learn how Formula One fuels evolved from exotic chemicals to something closer to refinery products. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 


  1. Jack Albrecht
    September 3, 2021

    I found this very interesting. I always assumed that F1 fuels were always standardized. I have worked in fuel blending since the late 80s. If you are driving around parts of Europe or the mid-west of the USA, your gasoline may well have been produced with my companies software. Blending is so complex and can be so varied, I find it astounding that fuels are not standardized for racing.

    Looking forward to tomorrow’s continuation!

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