Whichever way you slice it, 2020 hasn’t been a great year at all. One of the biggest losers of the coronavirus pandemic was Formula 1 – the premier motorsport series was due to kick off the season in Australia back in March, but a member of one of the teams tested positive for the disease. This caused the race to be cancelled just a few hours before free practice and led to the entire season being put on hold.

The ensuing lockdowns severely impacted factory operations, so it was inevitable teams would encounter some teething issues once the season restarted in July. But not Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport – barring the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix and the recent Italian Grand Prix, the world champions have won every single race, securing all pole positions along the way. It’s a crushing display of dominance.

Central to the team’s impressive performance is the quality of the fuel and lubricants, and Petronas has worked hard to make sure that Mercedes’ engineers can extract the most out of its products. As such, it’s important to keep Petronas fluids (and by extension the cars) in optimum condition at each race, and that job falls to its recruits – En De Liow from Malaysia and Stephanie Travers from the United Kingdom.

These two individuals are Petronas Trackside Fluid Engineers (PTFE), both hired through a rigorous recruitment process – Travers came out on top in 2019 and Liow this year. The unusual circumstances of this year’s championship have brought some unique challenges, so we talked to them to see how they have adapted to the pandemic and how Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport has managed to stay on top.

This is the first season for En De and the second season for Stephanie as Petronas Trackside Fluid Engineers. What do you guys do in your roles?

En De: Once the fluids have been formulated – we’re talking about Primax fuels, Syntium engine oils and Tutela gearbox and functional fluids – at the track, what we do is make sure that the quality is in check and they’re all compliant with the regulations before we put them in the car.

The other side of what we do is the used oils. So when the cars come back after a session, what we do is check the oil, make sure that the car’s health is okay by looking at the wear metals and the viscosity of the oil. If there are any potential problems, we can detect them first through the oil before we even feel any vibrations coming from the car. That’s where we work with the engineering team from Mercedes AMG Petronas, and we help them make sure that the car is in good health for the race.

Q: As winners, what did you two face during the PTFE talent search? What was the most difficult challenge and what should a potential applicant prepare for?

Stephanie: I went through quite a few stages during the process. After the application, I had to go through a series of psychometric tests, which included numerical and verbal reasoning – things that you are prepared for by your careers department in a university. I was then selected to do a one-minute video answering questions from [driver] Valtteri Bottas and the team.

This was the stage that took me a little bit outside my comfort zone, as I wasn’t really used to being on camera and seen around the world, so that was something that I had to overcome. I just focused on myself and my own journey and tried to create something that was good enough to be pushed through to the next round. It was a very tough time; I took a lot of time to prepare and ensure that it was a good-quality recording.

From there, I was selected as part of the final five to go to Kuala Lumpur, which I was very grateful for – it was my first time ever going and it was such a beautiful place! I had two stages of interviews there; the first was a case study interview where we had to answer some questions. The panel then came back with some more questions based on the information we had given.

Then it was a resting weekend anticipating which three of us had got through to the final stage. Luckily, I was chosen to go into that stage and had to do a sort of hunt to find the CEO [of Petronas Lubricants International, Giuseppe d’Arrigo] to have my final interview.

En De: For me, the most difficult challenge was probably the interview with Giuseppe d’Arrigo. He goes beyond what you can do and what the job entails; [he asks you] what you stand for and what principles you live by, and do those principles align with what Petronas and what the team is looking for.

In terms of preparation, [you should] simply absorb as much as you can. Learning goes beyond school and for me, it’s about taking as much as I can from people around me – mentors, my parents, friends – and understanding what values in life can bring you joy and success. Hopefully, those values will be shared by the successful organisations that you want to work for. Fortunately for me, that was the case, so I’m absolutely grateful and blessed to be in my position.

Q: It’s quite a crazy first season, En De! It must’ve been an interesting experience, working during a pandemic like this one.

En De: Yeah, definitely. I had the experience of going to Brackley [the team’s headquarters] in February and also going to Barcelona pre-season testing, so all of that was relatively normal. Then there was a huge gap after Australia got cancelled, until now. So I had very little full-time experience on the track, but since Barcelona, we’ve used the Covid-19 break to pinpoint where all the bottlenecks in the process were.

We’ve had the time to sit down and think through that and figure out solutions to all these processes and speed them up when we came back to Austria [the first race of the season].

Q: Take us through the race week from the perspective of a PTFE.

Stephanie: We typically arrive on Monday before the race starts, and on Tuesday, we begin the setup of the lab and take samples from the drums of Primax fuel that arrive trackside. That whole day is dedicated to ensuring that all of the drums are okay before the [works and customer] teams then use the drums on Wednesday and fill their fuel bowels.

It does take a lot of time [to check the drums] because every sample takes half an hour to run on our gas chromatograph. The gas chromatograph works similar to using your thumb to open your iPhone – the fingerprint has to match the one in your phone. If it doesn’t, then we know that we have a potential problem and we need to [either] delve deeper and find out the details, or isolate the drum.

We then go on to Wednesday, where we check the fresh Syntium engine oil. We also check the viscosity and ensure that what we have received is what we had formulated and that it will be approved by the FIA. We then have to provide a sample of both the engine oil and fuel to the FIA on that day, and it will do its checks and match them up to the golden samples that the FIA has.

If everything matches, we’ll be given the all-clear for the remainder of the race weekend, and the team will then proceed on Thursday to start filling up the cars with fuel, the engine oil and the Tutela gearbox oil, and then they’ll fire up the cars. On Friday, they’ll [begin running] the sessions; we have about an hour between FP1 [free practice 1] and FP2 to try and do all the analysis and send the results out as promptly as possible, just to ensure that if there are any issues, we can try and rectify them.

After FP2, we do the analysis again [before the team does] a full turnaround of the cars preparing for Saturday, ensuring that everything is correct because the setup of the cars has to remain the same from Saturday to Sunday. Saturday is similar to Friday – post-FP3 we have another hour to do the analysis and then go into qualifying.

Post-qualifying, the cars go into parc fermé and we have about an hour where the FIA will take samples from any car on the grid. It may come up to us and ask for fuel or engine oil, and it will analyse them to ensure that we are compliant and we haven’t tampered with any of the fluids in the car. We then wait for the cars to be approved to come back, and we begin our analysis again. Our aim is to ensure that the analysis is completed within an hour, and that is essentially what we do on a race weekend.

En De: Just to add on to what Stephanie said – essentially our overarching theme here is that we spend 90% of the time preparing, down to the very last detail, for that 10% when the samples come in and [the team] needs the results pretty much as soon as possible. When they fire up the car for a health check, they want to know that the car is okay before they put the floor back on, before they put the engine covers back on.

Sometimes, they’ll be standing at our door waiting for the results. That’s the part where we absolutely have to nail, and we take the other 90% to prepare for that.

Q: This season is quite an unusual one for F1. Since the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix, we had four months of no track running, and then immediately we had several back-to-back races to kick off the season. How have you guys adapted to this “new normal”?

Stephanie: I feel like we were well-rested in those three to four months as we had the F1 shutdown; we had a lot of time to spend with family. But it also meant that when we returned trackside in Austria we were fresh and ready to go, and I think everyone was anticipating the start.

We were pretty efficient at everything; we were pretty quick at getting everything set up and were very well prepared. The last two weeks before we went trackside, we spoke about the ways that we could improve our processes and we spoke about everything we needed to do for that week.

We now have a task list, which splits the tasks for the week, ensures that everything is completed and deciphers who is doing what for a particular race week. That has helped us – it’s improved the speed and ensured that tasks are not doubled throughout the race weekend. The whole team is really energetic, everyone’s in great form and we’ve been working really well all together.

En De: I think part of that is the eagerness of the team to come back. Everyone’s raring to go and we have a good support structure around us. You see the two of us at the track, but actually, in the background, we have a lot more making this happen. We’re extremely grateful for the team we have with us at Petronas.

Little things like, when we have a power surge at the track that cuts out our data acquisition system, within seconds we have someone from IT helping us solve that, making sure we have things set for after a practice session. It all comes down to having a great team around us and being prepared to return to racing.

Q: Stephanie, you’ve been with the team for a year and a half now. What’s the most valuable takeaway for you, being part of Petronas’ trackside team in Formula 1?

Stephanie: I’ve enjoyed every moment of being surrounded by the team. The team is a massive part of how you thrive in that environment and from the first moment of joining – being embraced by everyone, being supported by not only the team but also the drivers and the likes of [team boss] Toto [Wolff], having that open conversation with anyone – the team has helped me to thrive and grow.

Travers was on the Styrian Grand Prix podium to receive the constructor’s trophy (right)

[Chief track engineer] Simon Cole has been absolutely phenomenal with us. When we send out reports, just receiving his feedback has helped me grow, instil everything that I’ve learnt in university and improve on all the skills that I had before I went into the job.

The team has played a massive part in everything that I have achieved so far and in helping me settle into the role as quickly as possible, as well as being self-sufficient and able to help En De get to that point as well. I can’t pinpoint one exact thing, but it’s just been a great experience to put everything into practice. It’s been a steep learning curve, but it’s something that I would not change.

Q: It’s safe to say that Mercedes is dominating the season at the moment. What does Petronas bring to the table to help the team achieve such high performance from the car?

En De: I think what Petronas is very good at doing is making sure that the fluids that we develop are absolutely tailor-made for the car. A lot of people have asked what are the best fluids or additives to go into an engine oil or fuel or transmission oil and so on, but the truth is that the machine and the fluids have to work together.

We often use the analogy of a blood donation. If you ask yourself what’s the best blood for you, first of all, it has to be the type that matches. Without that, it wouldn’t make sense to put even a super high-octane fuel, for instance, into a car.

Q: There has been some controversy in recent months, especially regarding regulations surrounding fuel flow rates and how they affect performance. How important are the fluids in being able to extract maximum performance from the power units while keeping within the rules?

En De: In fact, there is one additional regulation change this season that will make that even harder – because of the Covid-19 lockdown, this year’s regulations have been extended to 2021. On top of that, on the fluids side, in previous years we were able to bring mid-season upgrades to the track, so we could improve the fluids as the car evolved throughout the season.

That has changed this year because the fluids that we ran on the first race have to be kept for the rest of the season. That’s another challenge for our Fluid Technology Solutions team in KL and Turin, to try and find pieces of performance out of the fluids. But a huge component of that, as I touched on before, is the compatibility between the fluids and the car. The secret ingredient here is actually really good communication between the race team and the fluids development team to come up with the right fluids.

Q: Mercedes has won nearly all the races this year and it doesn’t seem like your rivals are able to catch up. Are you confident of being able to sustain the momentum throughout the season?

Stephanie: I think it’s very hard to say. We’ve been very well prepared for every event, but you will never know what may happen throughout a race weekend – some of our competitors are looking very strong. But one thing that we do as a team is to focus on our own journey and work together to ensure that we can get the best possible result for a particular race weekend.

You never know what you will come across. For example, back [during the Styrian Grand Prix], we had a wet qualifying and it was anyone’s game at that point! We don’t want to be too confident, and we can’t be too confident. We have to just ensure that we are on the top of our game at any point and ensure that we are providing our analysis on time to help the team get the best possible result.

En De: I agree with what Stephanie said. What we can do is make sure we’ve done everything we can and prepare as well as we can. This spans across the whole team; it’s not just the strategy team, it’s not just the setup team, it’s everyone down to logistics who make sure that everyone gets to the race.

We’re super grateful to have an incredible logistics team that sorts out things like visas, flights and rental cars, and this cascades through the entire team. Everyone knows what they have to do to get the best out of these cars and this team, and if we do them well, hopefully, the results will reflect that.

Q: What are you looking forward to this season?

En De: Coming into the season being already someone who’s passionate about cars and machines, you’d imagine that the best thing about being on a Formula 1 team would be the cars and being up close with them. But as we progressed through the races, one of the best experiences was actually being around the people and being around really passionate guys who absolutely love what they do, and do it at the highest level. It’s an absolute joy.

Just the other night before we returned from Hungary, we had a sit-down with a lot of the guys on the team, including [technical director] James Allison and Simon Cole. And we just had curry! It’s a tradition of the team and [we had] conversations that went beyond Formula 1 – we talked about all kinds of topics: music, leadership, the state of the world. Being around these guys and feeding off their energy has been awesome. That is definitely something that I look forward to as the season goes on.

And of course, the winning definitely sweetens the deal! It’s going to be a great season for me.