Formula One™ is the highest-echelon of single-seat racing. Governed by the Fédération Internationale de L’Automobile (FIA), Formula One attracts vast global television audiences – over 1.4 billion viewers watched the 2017 season. The race cars are some of the fastest – up to speeds of 360 km/h / 220mph – and most iconic in the world. It’s a grueling, sometimes dangerous, sport that is driven by strategy and cutting-edge technology.
Birth of the Silver Arrows
Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport is the reigning FIA Formula One™ World Constructors’ Champion, and Lewis Hamilton, one of the team’s two drivers, is the reigning FIA Formula One™ World Drivers’ Champion. But it has a long and prestigious motorsport heritage. In 1934, the then-governing body had a 750kg weight limit for Grand Prix race cars, excluding tyres and fuel. At the Nürburgring, Germany, the Mercedes-Benz team were overweight during pre-race scrutineering. They hit upon the idea to remove all the paint from the bodywork in order to meet the weight limit. In doing so, they revealed the shining silver aluminium chassis underneath. They passed scrutineering and the team went on to win the race. The cars’ moniker – Silver Arrows – was born that weekend, and it has stuck with the team ever since.
Today, the Silver Arrows aren’t constructed from aluminium, but the weight of the paint is still a crucial element. As four-time FIA Formula One™ World Constructors’ Champions, everything Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport does has performance and precision at its heart. The paint that brings to life the stunning race car liveries is no exception to this level of excellence, and that’s where Axalta comes in. An integral partner to the team for more than four years, Axalta has supplied its global refinish brand Spies Hecker for the previous Championship-winning cars and also on this year’s W09 EQ Power+.
At the team’s headquarters in Brackley, England, about 70 miles to the northwest of London, Andrew Moody, Head of Paint and Graphics at Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, and his team of 15 are ultimately responsible for how the finished components look and how the coating impacts the performance of the cars.
Today’s race cars still hark back to that day at the Nürburgring. The gradients and fades, from silver to black, are so well done, it is a true testament to the skills of the painters. The main, highly reflective silver basecoat colour is called Stirling Silver, named after Sir Stirling Moss who drove for Mercedes-Benz in 1955, and which was developed by the Team with Axalta in 2013. None of the colours are commercially available.
“It’s important that the race cars look great on the track but the weight of the paint, the speed of its application and the reliability of the entire paint system are all exceptionally critical for us. We don’t have time for anything less than perfect. Axalta and Spies Hecker deliver that for us,” says Andrew.
Each part requires a huge amount of attention to detail, particularly relating to its weight. The substrates of the race car vary depending on whether they are of a structural or of a cosmetic nature.
After each Grand Prix, components are sent back to Brackley by truck or by air freight, depending on where the race is. Before arriving at the Paint Shop, every safety-critical component – nearly everything on the cars except aerodynamic or cosmetic components – is immediately sent through the “service” process. This is a rigorous progression of scanning, testing and x-raying to ensure there is no damage or wear that could affect the car at the next race. If passed, the components are sent to the Paint Shop. This sometimes only leaves Andrew and his team three days to prepare the components, ready for the cars to be built so they can be shipped back out in time for the next race weekend. “It takes about 150 hours to paint a race car, with the nose and rear wing each taking about 12 hours,” says Andrew. But it is not just the pressure of the turnaround times they have to face between races. The components also change shape.
Andrew explains, “Some race tracks require a high downforce set-up, others medium or low downforce, so we have to adapt to different shaped components all the time. Before some races, we may introduce aerodynamic upgrades, which will also add to the time pressure and pose the same challenges for my team. A partner’s logo can’t appear smaller just because the size of a component has changed.”
Moody’s team works as quickly and efficiently as the Formula One™ cars they paint. In addition to all the work with the race cars – they will paint literally thousands of panels and components in a season, some weeks as many as 150 – they also prepare show cars, cars for testing, as well as paint everything from grid trollies and water bottles, to the engineering station on the pit wall and garage and hospitality boards.
“Formula One™ is truly a team sport, and Axalta is part of the success we have had at Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport,” Andrew says.