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21 January

Clairvoyants rely on tarot cards or tea leaves to predict the future. But over at Motul, we have a more scientific way of seeing what might happen. The Motul Racing Lab is our rolling laboratory where we can spot future mechanical problems and help riders and teams get to the end of a race through an analysis of their machine’s lubricants. Motul scientist Céline Danion has just returned from this year’s Dakar and tells us how this lab really makes the difference between a failure or a win.

What is the Motul Racing Lab? 
The Motul Racing Lab is a mobile laboratory that analyses, live and on-site, the lubricants from all parts of the machine (engine, transmission, differential). The lab is installed in a truck, allowing us to travel almost anywhere on the globe, like following the Dakar, which we’ve just returned from: almost two weeks in the middle of the desert. 

What’s your role in it? 
I’m a chemist in Motul’s research & development department. I’m also one of the people who follow the Motul Racing Lab wherever it goes. My role is to perform the lubricant analyses on-site and send these results to our technical experts, who can then use these chemistry results when designing the mechanical parts. 

What is the benefit of the Motul Racing Lab to the Dakar competitors?
The machine is one of the key elements to finish the Dakar. It must travel several thousand kilometres in the most extreme conditions. The state of the engine and transmission is not visible to the naked eye. One of the ways to find out is by analysing the oil that passes through all the parts. Over the year’s competitors have discovered the advantage of having this kind of information after each stage, which can detect problems and prevent a failure in some cases.

Can you describe the process? What are you looking for when you test the oil?
The Motul Racing Lab uses three devices: a spectrophotometer, which detects and quantifies all types of elements. The main goal of this device is to detect the wear elements that indicates if there is abnormal wear in engine parts. The second is a viscosimeter, which measures the viscosity, the main property of the oil. And the third one is an infrared device that determines if the oil is oxidised and if there is contamination. All these devices require a little amount of oil and the analysis takes less than five minutes. We print a report of the results of all this and give this to the competitor. 

What sort of things do you discover from the analysis?
Most often we can see that, from the viscosity, there is fuel dilution. We can also see if there is an abnormal amount of a wear element like iron, copper or aluminium. This indicates which engine parts are wearing out. We can also see the amount of sand in the oil and detected a problem with an air filter. If we found some engine coolant it indicates that there is a problem with a coolant circuit or, in the worst case, with the cylinder head gasket. If the oil is too oxidised, it indicates the oil needs to be changed more often. 

Are competitors surprised by the results?
They are often surprised by the quantity of information we can provide on the engine state by a simple oil analysis. If there is a problem, most of the time the team suspected it, and the oil analysis confirmed this. But in other cases, they are very surprised. For example, in this Dakar, a team asked us to do an analysis of their used oil thinking that all was ok, but we found a high amount of engine coolant and suspected a cylinder head gasket crack. They were very surprised. They have could fixed the problem and finished the Dakar. 

Do the teams make changes based on the results?
Yes, they do. We don’t just give the results, we also help them to fix problems, talking with them and finding out what is the origin of the problem. But the final decision is theirs. We’ve seen through this Dakar that competitors listen to us and follow our advice. 

Does having this insight help lead them to success?
Yes. I like to believe it does. When analyses are good, it reassures the teams, and they are then more confident for the rest of the course. When the results are bad, they are grateful to have that information and have a chance to fix it before it’s too late. Finally, the Motul Racing Lab is not only a device. There is also a team around it that provides real technical support to teams and works hard to try and help them to finish and even win an event like the Dakar Rally. The Motul Racing Lab is not just for show. 

See what the racing lab does, from Dakar to races all over the globe: 

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