Following the results of the three short days of pre-season testing in Bahrain, Mercedes’ dominance in Formula One is in jeopardy.
Seven consecutive years of titles warn against making such statements at this time of year, but if you only look at what happened on the track in Bahrain, it’s hard not to conclude that Red Bull has built a faster car.
Based on the data we have collected over the past few days, we can see that in terms of race pace we are not as fast as Red Bull, Mercedes’ track director Andrew Shovlin said Sunday night.
It was quite a confusing picture with less fuel, we didn’t have enough and we need to rethink our approach because too many cars were ahead of us in terms of pace today.
Not surprisingly, Red Bull has produced a car that can compete with Mercedes.
The former championship team lost its way at the start of Formula 1’s turbo-hybrid era in 2014, but has always had the personnel and financial resources to return to the forefront.
After a slow start to the season last year, Red Bull made significant progress with the design of its car in the second half of the 2020 season, beating Mercedes fair and square in the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi.
With cost-cutting rules requiring a larger-than-usual transfer of car parts from 2020 to 2021, and with engine supplier Honda doing all it can before retiring from F1 at the end of the season, a competitive package from Red Bull could be expected this year.
The preseason suggested that Mercedes and Red Bull could be in a close battle for victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix. MAZEN MAHDI/AFP via Getty Images
What surprised me during the test was the clear decline of Mercedes.
In the best track conditions on Sunday night, Lewis Hamilton’s best lap was 1.065 seconds faster than Max Verstappen’s, while the Mercedes driver drove on rubber that should have been 0.3 seconds faster.
Mercedes often hides its true pace in tests by running on a lot of fuel, but even with a 20kg difference between the two cars, the difference is still 0.7 seconds with tyre and fuel adjustments.
In addition, Carlos Sainz in the Ferrari and Yuki Tsunoda in the AlphaTauri set times Sunday night that would have been 0.35 and 0.15 seconds faster than Hamilton’s lap, taking into account fuel and tyre correction.
Perhaps the surprising pace of Ferrari and AlphaTauri should serve as a warning for lap times, but even with a significant margin of error, Mercedes clearly lost something of its ability in the one race that defined its 2020 season.
When teams compare their test performance with that of their rivals at the Catalunya circuit, Formula One’s traditional venue for the season, they usually have a margin of error of 0.4 to 0.5 seconds, but in Bahrain, track conditions have significantly increased that margin of error.
A change in wind could increase lap time from one race to the next by 0.5 seconds, and after sunset at night the course was 1.5 seconds faster per lap.
On top of that, Bahrain is a power-sensitive circuit, which means that the choice of engine setting – known only to the team – was more crucial to performance than in Barcelona.
It’s simple: It is highly unlikely that the 1.065 second difference between Verstappen and Hamilton on Sunday will reflect the gap between the two cars, but for Mercedes to finish ahead of Red Bull, there would have to be a lot of cautions.
Firstly, it is clear that the new Mercedes car has not lived up to expectations during testing and the team is now in a race against time to get the car back on track before qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix on the 27th. Mars to find out why.
What went wrong at Mercedes?
An unusual corner left Lewis Hamilton in the gravel at Turn 13 on the second day of testing. Clive Mason/Getty Images
The three-day test went awkwardly for Mercedes when Valtteri Bottas reported a gearbox problem on the first lap after leaving the pits. By the time the car was fitted with a new gearbox, Mercedes had lost some 60 laps to its main rivals and was unable to make up those miles in the next two and a half days.
Mercedes, which completely skipped last year’s pre-season testing, finished the week in second place with 304 laps, compared to 369 for Red Bull and 422 for the two most active teams, Alfa Romeo and AlphaTauri.
But unlike previous years, Mercedes said maximizing laps was not one of its main goals in Bahrain.
Moving so many parts from 2020 to 2021 to meet austerity targets assumed a certain level of reliability (despite the gearbox problem), and Mercedes thought the time would be better spent experimenting with performance rather than pushing the car to its limits.
In addition, Bahrain is a circuit where the rear tyres wear out quickly and longitudinal driving would disrupt the experiments by worsening the performance of the rear tyres. It is better to get hard data in shorter races than in racing simulators, where tire wear becomes a major factor affecting performance.
That is why Mercedes decided to limit the number of kilometres driven compared to previous years and to concentrate on obtaining as much quality data as possible from 32 sets of tyres and three days of testing.
But when the team started the programme after Friday’s gearbox problem, it soon became clear that the rear of the car was unstable and that the drivers were struggling to get power from it.
We’re not quite satisfied [with the car] yet, Bottas said on Sunday. We continue to work on the set-up of the car and to improve its handling, but there is still a lot to do.
So we keep working, we keep trying to improve the balance so the car handles better and hopefully that will make it faster.
So you have to wonder how a dominant and benevolent car like last year’s W11 became the tricky and unpredictable W12 we saw during testing.
Mercedes didn’t have an answer to that question Sunday night and will spend the next 11 days until the first test in Bahrain sifting through the data to better understand it.
But since the chassis and most of the mechanical parts are carried over from last year’s winning car, the logical conclusion is that the problem has to do with the team’s interpretation of the new 2021 aerodynamic regulations.
Ironically, the rule changes were introduced by the FIA as a safety measure after two leaky Mercedes cars at the British Grand Prix.
The current generation of Formula One cars is faster and heavier than any other in the sport’s 70-year history, and there are concerns that the ever-increasing pressure on the tyres will lead to more failures if the development of the cars is not kept under control.
As a result, management has sought to reduce downforce levels in three key areas: cutting the triangular floor area for the rear tires, reducing the length of the tension on the diffuser, and limiting how the rear brake ducts are used to generate downforce.
The main aerodynamic modifications were to reduce the floor, optimise the rear brake ducts and adjust the length of the diffuser pillars. Mercedes
Separately, these changes don’t make much difference, but together they aim to reduce the aerodynamic downforce of last year’s cars by 10 percent.
Of course, the teams did everything they could to minimize power loss during the winter. Based on the last three days of testing, tyre manufacturer Pirelli believes that a four to five percent reduction in downforce is more realistic.
The areas affected by the law changes are particularly sensitive in terms of generating downforce at the rear of the car, and perhaps the incredibly refined Mercedes 2020 Aerospace package will be affected the most.
In addition, it is not uncommon for wind tunnel gains to have unwanted side effects on the track, especially when conditions – such as the high winds in Bahrain – cannot be replicated at the factory.
The team says the instability occurred regardless of wind speed or direction, indicating a more fundamental problem, but they probably would have gained more insight into the car if conditions had been stable.
He also said the heavy fuel issue was less obvious, as Mercedes were able to approach Red Bull’s performance level and keep a familiar distance from mid-table teams by focusing on race pace.
Red Bull Advantage?
Red Bull set the fastest time during the test and seems to be the favourite for the first race in Bahrain. Joe Portlock – Formula One with Getty Images
The last time a team other than Mercedes was the favorite to win the first race, things didn’t go as planned.
After pre-season 2019 testing, the paddock was sure Ferrari was the fastest car, but when Formula One got to the first race in Australia, Mercedes dominated.
Although Mercedes struggled in the first week of 2019 testing, their development curve was much steeper than Ferrari’s and by the start of the race they had reclaimed their place at the top, while the Melbourne circuit revealed weaknesses unseen in Ferrari’s car.
This year is different, with the first race at the same place as the test, and there are no tangible signs of the improvement Mercedes showed at the end of the 2019 pre-season on low fuel in Bahrain – quite the opposite in fact.
It is also expected that the vehicle development curve this year will not be as steep as in the past. Developers’ attention is already focused on the 2022 regulatory review, and the introduction of this year’s budget cap and new wind tunnel restrictions means there will be fewer resources to address the 2021 design issues.
Mercedes’ engineering team has been incredibly good at solving problems in recent years, and the team is optimistic that understanding the data collected will unlock new possibilities before the first race.
We will analyse the data to see where we worked well and where not, where we had a good correlation with our simulations in the [wind tunnel] and where not, team boss Toto Wolff said on Sunday.
It’s like sleeping on an idea, you wake up smarter the next day.
It would be brave to bet against Mercedes at this stage, but it’s also fair to say that the team hasn’t had such a difficult pre-season since their dominance began in 2014.
Furthermore, the problems with Mercedes should not distract from Red Bull’s strong performance in Bahrain, and even if the world champions find a solution, it is unlikely that their main rivals will stick to developing their RB16B.
The combination of these two could be enough to turn things around heading into the 2021 season, and would certainly be an exciting start to the season.
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