Commentary

This ain't rocket science ... or is it?

Updated: July 2, 2010, 12:58 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

MONTREAL -- "You know, you can put that in your car right now and go."

The man who says it to me is Dan Jamieson, and he speaks the words in a thick English accent, the kind of dialect you hear in genuine BBC shows, not the watered-down version we get from Hollywood. The room we're standing in is so whitewashed and tiled you half expect someone to be performing surgery on the countertop behind us, climate controlled and security sealed.

[+] EnlargeShell Track Laboratory
Getty Images for ShellShell technician Mark Farley worked his magic during Canadian Grand Prix qualifying June 12 in Montreal.

I call it a LAB-ratory. He calls it a luh-BOAR-atory.

I don't care what anyone calls it. I'm just happy to be here, standing in the Formula One paddock in Montreal, two days before the Canadian Grand Prix. On the other side of the wall sit the Scuderia Ferrari rides of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso. I am working on an Insider column for ESPN The Magazine, and as I stand in the lab, I have no idea what I'm looking at and understand little of what I'm being told.

I know race cars. I do not know shear stabilities and spectrographs.

Again, I do not care. "Cool" doesn't begin to describe the experience.

Back to Jamieson, who hands me a small sealed bottle of liquid that looks clearer than the water that comes out of my hotel room faucet. It's a sample of the Shell V-Power fuel that pushes the Ferrari F10, the most famous race car in the world, around the racetrack. He repeats his statement for the point of emphasis.

"That can absolutely go in your car."

I respond to his claim by raising an eyebrow and replying in my native tongue, a North Carolina lilt that he's likely heard only on "The Andy Griffith Show." We nearly speak different languages, but here, three walls deep inside the Ferrari garage, we're just car guys.

"You're nuts," I tell him. "I drive a 2002 Dodge Dakota ... though it is red."

"Doesn't matter," says Jamieson's coworker, Mark Farley, who is sitting at a laptop by the carefully sealed lab door. "You could. And the oil, too. Your truck would be better off for it."

I don't argue with either one of them. If I did, it wouldn't last long. Both are chemists of the highest order, and I barely escaped my lone 10th-grade chemistry class.

Ferrari Fans
Bryn Lennon/Getty ImagesWhile Ryan McGee was getting a chemistry lesson from Shell, Ferrari fans showed their true colors.

They are Shell employees with offices in England, Houston and Maranello, Italy, world-renown home of Ferrari, with whom Shell has been a partner nearly since F1's inception. However, this time of year, Jamieson, Farley and their boss, Lisa Lilley, see little if any of those locales. Their real home is this ready-made prefab chemistry lab, complete with beakers, centrifuges and uniforms straight off the deck of the Enterprise. All summer, it drafts behind the race cars of the Prancing Horse, crisscrossing the globe from Abu Dhabi to China to here in Montreal, where they allowed me to slip through security and see what they were up to.

Behind the vacuum-sealed door marked "Shell Fuels and Lubricants Trackside Laboratory," Jamieson sifts through concoctions of Shell Helix synthetic oils, the European cousin to the still-new Pennzoil Ultra brand in the United States.

Meanwhile, Farley tests and retests the Shell fuel that has been flown in with the team in barrels, checking to make sure no impurities have snuck into the mix. Lilley keeps an eye on them both, constantly running back and forth between her lab crew and the 85-person Ferrari team to make sure their partners are pleased.

"In other forms of motorsports, I know you are probably used the sanctioning body providing the fuel," Lilley says. "Each Formula One team brings their own. We take the data that we have gathered and try and squeeze the most performance out of that fuel possible."

That's become even more crucial this season, thanks to new rules that forbid refueling during pit stops. When that was added to the current engine development freeze, Ferrari went to Shell begging for more power and better fuel mileage.

Samples are submitted to the FIA, F1's governing body, during the preseason, and once approved, that original chemical compound must be matched precisely during each weekend. Even the smallest impurity could be ruled by F1 officials as a move by a team to gain a competitive advantage through fuel, a gigantic no-no in any form of racing.

I think sometimes the perception is that Formula One racing is so technologically advanced and so exotic that the idea of what we do having any relevance on the street is outdated. But that couldn't be further from the truth.

-- Shell's Lisa Lilley

With little leeway on fuel, Lilley and her team spend much more of their time during the season testing and retesting new ideas with the oil and lubricants, which are entirely synthetic. To say they are obsessive about it would be like saying that Ferrari makes nice cars. In other words, it's an understatement. And their obsession doesn't end when they leave the trackside lab.

"Yes, I am a bit of chemistry nerd," Lilley says. "I almost know too much about these things. I'm afraid I might drive my friends and family a little crazy the way that I am constantly reminding them not to buy cheap gas for their street cars. I have run out of gas driving past stations with cheap gas looking for the good stuff."

She admits to me that she is just as menacing when it comes to monitoring her loved ones' choice of oil. As soon as Pennzoil Ultra hit the consumer market this year (accompanied by the Shell Helix brand in Europe), she informed anyone she cared about that they would have to use the new stuff or prepare to be nagged.

And why not? She and her team have personally concocted a lot of that "good stuff." Between trips to racetracks, the trio takes data gathered from the pits and shares it with fellow scientists in England and Houston. Information from the streets of Monaco -- better cooling, slickness, durability and cleaning capabilities -- makes for better stuff you can pick up at the local Jiffy Lube.

"I think sometimes the perception is that Formula One racing is so technologically advanced and so exotic that the idea of what we do having any relevance on the street is outdated," she says. "But that couldn't be further from the truth. The cars that Ferrari sells to consumers have certainly benefitted from the race team. And I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that what is on the shelves or in the pumps from us is what we formulated out here in the field for Ferrari. No one else in the world can claim that."

It's the classic "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday." But it's also "If you don't buy what we're selling, then I'm going to be very angry with you because I worked really hard on it, and if it's good enough for Fernando Alonso in Bahrain, then it should be good enough for you driving to your kid's soccer practice."

Right, Lisa?

"Yes," she says with an agreeable laugh. "That's pretty much it."

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR

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