Everyone knows that rubber likes to stick to more rubber, and a brand new circuit like the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez is going to be slippery fun until some rubber gets laid down on the surface. What’s less obvious is the Mexican Grand Prix’s altitude — and what that means for Formula One’s turbo engines.

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The Mexico City track is at an elevation of 7,217 feet—higher than many ski resorts, notes Sky Sports’ Ted Kravitz. One of the grid girls reportedly fainted as well. Oof!

Kravitz said that they can expect 23% less cooling from the thin mountain air for important components like brakes, turbos, gearboxes, hybrid systems and of course, the cars’ internal combustion engines. Everything produces the same amount of heat that it does at every other circuit. Being able to dissipate that heat is a different story.

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Motorsport.com reports that the cars’ turbos will have to spin faster to make up for the thin air. Renault’s Remi Taffin told Motorsport.com that these modern engines haven’t had a challenge like it anywhere else on the schedule:

The issue is going to be cooling for sure, because you have the same amount of energy getting out of the engine and much less air to cope with that.

But the other thing is the turbo – because to try to maintain the power output you will need to rev the turbo much higher than we normally do.

Obviously we have done a lot of simulation but we know that we are going to be going somewhere we don’t really know…

Taffin is concerned that spinning the turbos faster will cause reliability problems. Normally, they run at 100,000 rpm instead of the allowed 125,000 rpm to ensure reliability, but here, that isn’t an option. Naturally, he is concerned that pushing the turbos closer to their allowed rpm limit in the F1 regulations will cause reliability issues during the race.

Cooling is always a compromise on an F1 car between aerodynamics, reliability and the ability to cool down hot components., as Taffin explained to Motorsport.com:

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We have a hard limit that we are trying to take over there, so that is why we are saying we could have some surprises.

If a team has decided not to change the cooling layout then they will be forced to do things that will cost a lot of lap time.

If an engine manufacturer has decided not to push too far the limit on the turbo maybe they will lose more than the other one. We don’t know at the minute how far everyone will go.

We are pretty sure that the turbo charger we use there will be put on the shelf after the race as we will push them like hell.

Well, it’s not like the engine penalties really matter after both championships were decided, even if wins are nice to strive for. Why not change a turbo at this point in the season?

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Back to today, though: tweaking the turbo and cooling systems just right will play a major role in who succeeds in Mexico. Mercedes seems to have nailed it for qualifying, locking out the front of the grid, but Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel is right behind the duo in the third position. Ferrari may have struggled a bit, as Kimi Räikkönen had to replace an overheating gearbox and several power unit components ahead of the race, thus taking a thirty-five-place grid penalty for the swap.

UPDATE: You’d have thought the Renaults may have jinxed themselves by providing a useful and timely update on the perils of running an F1 engine at high altitude, but it was Fernando Alonso’s McLaren Honda that had the first retirement of the race. Poor McLaren can’t catch a break this weekend.

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Photo credit: Getty Images


Contact the author at stef.schrader@jalopnik.com.