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FT REPORT – MOTOR INDUSTRY 2008: Ferrari seeks biofuel with winning edge

By Alexandra Harney, Financial Times
Published: Mar 04, 2008

It is a polluted October morning in Shanghai, and the roads are clogged with the traffic that ensnares every large Chinese city. But Ferrari’s guest room at the Shanghai International Circuit is a world apart.

European women in crisp white blouses and slim blue skirts serve Paris-perfect chocolate croissants while an espresso machine hums in the distance. Red shirts, the uniform of the Ferrari team, dot the room.

The Italian carmaker shares the room with Shell, the provider of the secret sauce behind its championship team.

Downstairs in Ferrari’s pit alongside the race track, Lisa Lilley, Shell’s Formula One technology manager, is getting ready for the Shanghai Grand Prix. Ms Lilley’s role is to ensure that Ferrari has the best possible fuel within the exacting guidelines of F1.

The fuel Shell supplies Ferrari, known as V-Power, was blended in Chester in the UK and shipped to Shanghai in small metal drums two to three weeks before the race.

Shell blends 250,000 litres of V-Power for Ferrari’s Formula One team every year. The composition of the fuel can even vary by the race, and during a race weekend the company’s engineers analyse the fuel and oil used more than 40 times.

Shell prides itself on the cleanliness of V-Power, which cleans the engine as it powers the car to improve performance.

Now, this collaboration faces a new test: how to make Ferrari’s fuels not only more powerful, but also more environmentally friendly.

Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) rules for 2008 require at least 5.75 per cent of oxygenates to come from biological sources – the same amount that many European countries aim to have in their transportation fuel by the end of the year.

Shell has been investing in biofuels. It has formed a partnership with Canada’s Iogen to develop ethanol from lignocellulose, specifically wheat straw.

The oil giant is also developing high-performance synthetic fuel from lignocellulose, namely wood residue, with Choren of Germany.

It is not alone. BP, together with DuPont and Associated British Foods, is opening an ethanol plant near Hull and is investing in a biodiesel plant in India. Petrobras of Brazil has started producing a blend of petrol and biofuel for the AT&T Williams F1 team.

V-Power has already earned an international reputation for performance. Audi was using V-Power diesel when its R10 became the first car to win the Le Mans 24-hour race on diesel.

Shell’s efforts are focused on what are known as second-generation biofuels. First-generation biofuels have become controversial, as they have raised concerns over environmental damage.

Increasing demand for biofuel has also raised the price of some crops, as farmers have started using their land to grow plants for biofuel. Second-generation biofuels have the advantage that they do not compete with food for land but are still available in large volumes.

“We’re doing a ton of research into second-generation biofuels,” says Sydney Kimball, London-based manager of global differentiated fuels at Shell. “The thinking is that this is just the start of the journey.”

Second-generation biofuels use biological sources often considered waste – corn husks, tree bark, sawdust, paper pulp – to sidestep first-generation biofuels’ unwanted side effects while reducing the carbon emissions. Shell would like to see second-generation biofuels used in future races.

“We’re trying to work with the FIA to encourage the introduction of second-generation biofuels in 2009 and 2010,” says Juan Carlos Perez, general manager for global sponsorships at Shell Brands International.

Even as standards tighten for F1 cars, the race is on to transfer the knowledge from the circuit to the road.

Shell sells to ordinary drivers of road vehicles V-Power fuel that contains 99 per cent of the same compounds as used in F1. Shell has rolled out V-Power in Asia to rave reviews. In Malaysia, one reviewer in the New Sunday Times gushed that “something has blown a new life into [my] engine”.

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