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Ultra 94 - Fueling fun!

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Kevin ''Crash'' Corrigan
I was recently invited by Suncor Energy (Ultra 94) to enjoy a day at the famous Bridgestone Racing Academy. Now only a fool would turn down the opportunity to clamber behind the wheel of a $70k+ race car with experienced instructors on hand so -- as I like to think myself marginally outside that category -- I eagerly accepted their kind offer.

However, I did wonder. After all, although the Academy uses nothing but Ultra 94 in its race vehicles, was this really the best way for me to learn about gasoline? Yes, I know we all use the liquid gold, but simply knowing how to operate the pump and credit card has got me this far in life without too many issues.

Formule Van Diemen
Photo: Kevin « Crash » Corrigan

So I started thinking to myself: There has to be a catch to all of this. They’re going to sit me down and bore me silly rattling on about all sorts of complicated fuel technology of which I know nothing and then, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to run a couple of laps!

Boy was I ever wrong! Obviously, we did get to listen to a Suncor representative explain Ultra 94 to us but, in all honesty, it was almost as fascinating as experiencing the glorious Van Diemen Formula cars. You see, the clever speaker grabbed my attention straight away by explaining that the development of high-octane fuel had led to the Royal Air Force winning the Battle of Britain. He even had pictures of Spitfires and everything! Of course at this point, being an ex-pat, I had to refrain myself from rising from my chair and singing “Rule Britannia!”

He then explained that although the German Messerschmitt had the initial power advantage over the British Spitfire, not to mention outnumbering them 4-to-1, with the arrival of the American-developed higher octane fuel it enabled the Brits to greatly increase the horsepower of the Spits; and the rest is history, so they say!

He then went on to explain RON which, up until this point, I’d believed to be the name of the man who tested all octane levels for our Government fuel agency. Apparently not, as it refers to something called Research Octane Number. There is also something called MON, which is not the day after SUN, but the shortened form of Motor Octane Number.

Now this is where it gets interesting because what you purchase at the pump is actually an average of these two. Therefore, if the fuel has an MON number of 85.6 and the RON is 97.2, then the octane rating is actually somewhere around 91. In fact, you’ll notice under the figure at the pump, it actually says “Minimum,” which means you’re actually purchasing better than what’s posted.

That’s all well and good then, eh, but what do octane ratings really mean to you? Well, with motor technology changing rapidly today and car companies pushing powerplants to the max in order to squeeze every last drop of power from them, it’s rather important to understand fuel ratings. You see, you can do a lot of damage if you cheap out and throw in just any old gasoline.

Formule Van Diemen
Photo: Kevin « Crash » Corrigan

I know in the past, we’ve all thought: So the power output will suffer slightly, but what the hell (be honest, you have, haven’t you?). But it’s not as simple as that. Dad’s old V8 Cadillac may have run superbly on regular gas, as it was designed to do just that, but this doesn’t mean your modern, high compression, direct-injection turbocharged love-of-your-life will also. Far from it! In fact, by straying from the manufacturers’ recommendations, you’ll not only risk serious damage to your engine (anything from bent valves to full-blown detonation), but you’re likely to burn more fuel as the motor has been specifically designed to operate on a certain octane level. So you’re not only risking your engine, you’re doing it all for nothing as the vehicle won’t perform, or be as economical as it should. So the rule is: Always stick to what the manufacturers recommend for your particular vehicle.
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