For Mercedes, the 2022 Formula 1 season has long been about ensuring it develops the understanding needed to prevent its mistakes from being repeated next year.
But team principal Toto Wolff’s recent comment about his “great conceptual understanding” but his difficulties understanding what he calls “mood shifts” in car performance during Grand Price, raises red flags.
Mercedes are now confident they can roughly predict how competitive they will be at any given circuit, which is reflected in their recent performances where they were strong at Hungaroring and Zandvoort but weak at Spa and Monza. It’s one thing, but to say you really understand the car, you need to know why things can fluctuate over these weekends.
We are often asked what teams are doing in pre-season testing. The simple answer is that it is used to discover the characteristics and behavior of your new car. It’s kind of like a first date. You may have had a lot of communication, exchanged data and seen a few photos, but this is the first time you will find out if they meet your expectations and if things work as expected.
Once you’ve run a few test drives and made a few configuration changes, you’ll know deep down whether your new car is something to be proud of or, as Wolff once described the 2017 Mercedes, “a bit of a diva”. The 2022 Mercedes turned out to be that, in fact, you could say “a lot of diva” as the unlucky W13 has bitten the team time and time again.
The Mercedes is a better and more consistent car in the race than in qualifying, which at least shows that the team can make the most of it on Sunday and that they have achieved consistent results. It shows that there is some understanding.
That, combined with the extra aero testing time allocated to it for the second half of 2022 thanks to its slide to third place in the constructors’ championship, should put Mercedes in good stead for 2023.
Yes, there is the change to the outer edge of the floor to be addressed through the change in regulations for 2023 to combat safety issues related to porpoising and kickback. But combined with the extra CFD and wind tunnel time, the fact that the edges of the floor will be raised by 15mm should help as I think this is the area Mercedes is struggling with.
The writing had been on the wall since the first time the car drove. When I was in the technical director’s hot seat, you knew after that first test if it was going to be a fun season or an uphill battle. Yes, you can do your best to get out of trouble, but with the cost cap, you have to make your pennies count.
Mercedes’ inconsistency is obvious when you look at their percentage deficit up front in qualifying for the season. And that confusion is there, whether in Hungary, where Mercedes was on pole, or in Spa and Monza when Mercedes was off the pace.
MERCEDES QUALIFICATION DEFICIT
|Race||Deficit %||Average km/h|
Wet or dry, fast or slow circuits, there is no obvious consistency other than the fact that it is nowhere near the level expected of a team that has won the last eight constructors’ championships and seven out of eight drivers’ titles.
If you take Hungary where Mercedes was on pole there are quite a few long 180 degree turns so if you take that as a positive it seems like when the car has time to settle it produces a decent grip. Most other circuits have shorter corners, so it seems most of his problems are at the entrance. It can also be due to braking instability.
For the driver, it is when braking and entering corners that he gains confidence and this is what allows him to increase his speed in corners.
After the race at Spa, Wolff made some interesting comments about “the massive variations in performance that we can’t really control” and touched on the areas of mismatch between the simulation and the track.
More tellingly, he admitted “we have trouble getting the car to go where we think it needs to go in order to extract the most downforce and that’s why we got it wrong conceptually”.
It’s an issue that’s been clear for a long time and it’s a surprise that Mercedes hasn’t followed the lead of Red Bull and Ferrari by opening up part of the floor edge or changing the floor edge detail to incorporate a tunnel.
Incorporating a tunnel into the floor area of the subfloor is much like the tunnel teams have used in the foot area of the front fender endplates for many years. It allows air circulation between the surface of the body and the track. This airflow allows the waterproofing to be a bit like a dimmer. Without it, the seal is good or bad – there is simply no middle ground.
It sometimes seems like Mercedes is only too happy to stick with what it has and hope it finds a magic bullet – and while that’s happening complaining about it and how others must have exploited a gray area in the regulations that allowed them to live with the problems.
I’m not sure Mercedes is really able to predict its future performance with the tools it has. As for 2022, Mercedes was fast on Friday at Barcelona and didn’t quite know why, they were on pole in Hungary and didn’t quite know why, and they were slow at Spa and didn’t quite know why. At Monza, again, Mercedes was slow, but you can attribute that to the fact that this circuit is an outlier and the team simply failed to master it.
This is the time when you really need to figure out where you are right now and where you’re headed for next season. To enable you to do this, simulation has become a common tool. Gone are the days of having a good gut feeling and going that route. From what we have seen so far this season, Mercedes is not in that position with its simulation tools to predict its performance.
We are now in mid-September and if this was one of his normal seasons, he would now be making big decisions on the main architecture of the 2023 car. To make those decisions, you have to have confidence in your tools. If they don’t, there will be compromises later in the design and manufacturing process.
Speaking after Monza, technical director Mike Elliott said the Italian Grand Prix weekend went as planned by Mercedes. Again, it was about understanding.
“We’ve been working hard to improve performance and we’ve done that gradually throughout the season, but we’ve also tried to figure out why some circuits are good for us and some circuits are bad for us,” Elliott said. .
“The work that came out of that kind of gave us a tool that pretty much allows us to predict where we’re going to be, so we knew coming into Monza it would be a tougher circuit. It would be a bit more as we had seen in Spa and less as we had seen in Zandvoort and Budapest.
“Having said that, given the car we had, getting it back to third and fifth, I think it was a good result for us. It showed we drove the car very well, the drivers got away with it. the best out of it. Given the position we find ourselves in with the car, I think I couldn’t ask for more than that.
The only thing I would agree with here is that the race team, circuit engineers and drivers did a great job on a Sunday. If Mercedes had a car that could genuinely qualify a bit better and understood why, then race wins would be on the cards without a doubt.
I guess this proves what we’ve all known for years: car performance matters. We saw that with the success of Red Bull from 2010-13 and the success of Mercedes from 2014-21. We could now see another string of success with Red Bull, or at least Max Verstappen, in 2022 and beyond. In Ferrari’s case, they have a fast car but make too many mistakes on race day.
Based on all of this, one of my big questions would be if Mercedes are willing to take it on the chin for one season just to get more aero research time for next season? As they say, all is fair in love and war and you can say that very easily about F1.
So, while Mercedes isn’t far behind Ferrari in the battle for second place in the Constructors’ Championship, perhaps the real prize is finishing third and getting a bit more time in the wind tunnel and CFD?
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