Spies Hecker takes an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the airbrush skills on the Mercedes-AMG F1 W09 EQ Power+ race cars at the Paint Shop in Brackley, England
Paints and inks have been applied with brushes since 300BC, with them becoming more widely used from the 14th Century. So, relatively speaking, the airbrush has had a short life; the first patent was awarded in 1892. But in this time, it has established itself as an instrument that craftspeople and artists love to use, while its versatility has ensured its wide reach. Initially developed to retouch photographs without leaving brushstrokes, airbrushes are used today to create impressive and intricate individual works of art on bikes and crash helmets, as well as to apply make-up, temporary tattoos, self-tanning products and even nail polish.
And during a Formula One season more than 1.4 billion viewers worldwide see impressive airbrush skills on display on the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport’s F1 W09 EQ Power+ race cars most weekends between March and November, as the team works its way through the gruelling race calendar.
As the only team in the pit lane to have a livery with complex colour gradients and fades, Brackley-based Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport relies on airbrushing as a fundamental part of its Paint Shop’s processes. Spies Hecker, one of the three global refinish brands of Axalta, a leading global supplier of liquid and powder coatings, is an integral partner to the team, and has been for more than four years, providing the paint for the W09 EQ Power+ and the previous championship-winning Silver Arrows cars.
Andrew Moody, Head of Paint and Graphics for Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, explains, “we utilise airbrushing in many areas on the cars – for our green and blue glow lines as well as for the fades and gradients from silver into black, but also for the iconic Mercedes-Benz star on the nose and on either side of the engine cover. So, our painters are skilled not only at operating a standard spray gun, but also at using airbrushes. They follow clearly set out processes in our Job Element Sheets, which detail the what, how and why, including, of course, all the Spies Hecker products.”
The Paint Shop uses a variety of Spies Hecker products, including Priomat® Wash Primer 4075, then either Permasolid® HS Vario Primer Surfacer 5340, a high solids primer surfacer, or Permasolid® HS Performance Surfacer 5320, a fast drying 2K HS sanding surfacer. Permasolid® HS Speed Clear Coat 8800 is used on parts that need to dry quickly, and for everything else, they use Permasolid® HS Optimum Plus Clear Coat 8650.
For the striking colour gradients, there’s the main Permahyd® Hi-TEC 480 basecoat highly reflective silver colour – called Stirling Silver, named after Sir Stirling Moss who drove for Mercedes-Benz in 1955, and which was developed by the Team with Spies Hecker in 2013 – plus four additional silver tones, graded one to four, moving into black. And there are three different greens and two different blues for the glow lines. None of the colours are commercially available.
Spray gun or airbrush
The skill level and complexity of processes that go into getting these airbrushed elements looking perfect shouldn’t be underrated. The airbrushes used in the Paint Shop are small, precise instruments powered by the same compressed air the standard spray guns use, but at a much lower PSI and using a much smaller bore air hose. Air passes through the chamber inside the airbrush while the paint, which sits in an interconnected reservoir, is gravity-fed into the internal mixing chamber. The paint is atomised thanks to the air’s velocity, and it passes through the nozzle tip directly onto the race car component. The guns are double-action, which means the painter has to press down on the small trigger that sits on the top of the airbrush with their index finger to release the air, and then pull the trigger back to allow the paint to flow. The more they pull back, the more paint is atomised through the nozzle, and the more they depress the trigger, the more air flows. The paint effect can also be changed based on how far the airbrush is from the object being painted. All these variables present the painters with the power to create a highly precise line and a much softer, wider effect in a single stroke. But this versatility requires great skill to get it right.
Andrew says, “Compared to using a normal spray gun, the painters have to be much more conscious of the trigger control with the airbrush. They have to demonstrate quite a lot of patience and restraint and really work the trigger differently. They should always start and end with just air, as a rule. The painters really must operate at an extremely high level of confidence and skill because the point at which we airbrush is fairly far along in the overall process, so if something goes wrong, it can be problematic in our highly pressurised environment. Airbrushing needs to be all but second nature to them.”
Each one of Andrew’s ten painters in the Paint Shop is a qualified painter who is comprehensively trained for this very highly pressurised role. As Andrew explains. “Things can change so quickly, so adapting and being flexible, while maintaining our focus, is essential. Eighty percent of the team can do all the jobs, and fifty percent of the team are able to do the speciality work, like airbrushing.”
Star of the show
The iconic Mercedes-Benz star that adorns the nose is one of the most complex and process-driven areas on the car that is painted. It is, however, only a portion of the front wing, which is the most time-intensive component of the race cars, taking about 35 man-hours hours to paint in total. The star has a staggering 16 process steps, each of which has up to five different stages. The various airbrushing steps, using a 0.5 closed tip nozzle for greater precision, require the painters to use spray masks. These control and contain any overspray, ultimately creating a three-dimensional effect with sharp, crisp edges.
Andrew says, “Permahyd Hi-TEC really helps us because it is exceptional at multi-toning and designed paintwork. It allows us to mask directly after flash-off.”
The two Mercedes-Benz stars on either side of the engine covers follow the same complex, multi-step process, only on a larger scale.
Andrew says, “It is a testament to the skills of the painters that although the finished effect of the airbrushed star is incredibly detailed, only four colours are used. This gives some indication of just how intricate and complex it is, and how much skill is involved.”
Glow with the flow
The vibrant green and blue glow lines, which are visual representations of the airflow across the car running from the front wing, the side of the chassis and continuing on the rear wing, are also airbrushed. To further complicate matters, they run across multiple components. This means the glow lines have to be identical on every interchangeable component, and able to match up with the adjacent panels perfectly in terms of placement, size, shape, colour and shading. And as the components are not painted alongside their surrounding panels, this is no easy task.
Andrew explains, “the glow lines are difficult because they are delicate. We start with a spray mask to help outline the exact shape, but then the painters freehand airbrush the rest using an 0.8 open nozzle tip. They have to be absolutely consistent. With a highly creative medium like airbrushing, that is a real challenge. To a certain extent through our strict processes we remove the creativity; a painter can’t add a little flick at the end of a line because everything has to be consistent and identical.”
The airbrushes are cleaned just like spray guns, but in their own dedicated extraction system. At least twice a week, the painters break the airbrushes down completely to clean and to inspect the internal components, including the O-rings, to ensure everything is working perfectly.
As Andrew concludes, “airbrushing is essential for our Team and our 2018 livery, but it is a challenge for the painters as they have to forget many of the things they learned when they became a painter. Some of the techniques are very different, but some aspects, particularly the prep, is exactly the same. For any refinisher who has an interest in airbrushing, I would say ‘have a go’, you might be surprised what you can do.”