Due to three short test days in the preseason in Bahrain, Mercedes’ Formula 1 dominance is threatened.
Seven years of title success warn against making such statements at this time of the year. However, if you just focus on what happened on the track in Bahrain, it’s hard not to conclude that Red Bull made a faster car.
“From the data we have collected over the past few days, it is clear that we are not as fast as Red Bull at racing pace,” said Andrew Shovlin, Mercedes roadside technical director, on Sunday evening.
“Working on less fuel was a more confusing picture, we haven’t gained enough and have to look at our approach as there are way too many cars ahead of us today.”
It should come as no surprise that Red Bull has produced a car that can compete with Mercedes.
The former championship team got lost at the start of the F1’s turbo hybrid era in 2014 but always had the staff and facilities back on the ground to get back to the top.
After a slow start to the season last year, Red Bull made significant progress with its vehicle concept in the second half of 2020 and prevailed against Mercedes in the last race of the season in Abu Dhabi.
A competitive Red Bull package was to be expected given the cost-saving regulations that require more than normal carryover of auto parts from 2020 to 2021, and with engine maker Honda pulling out all the stops before exiting Formula 1 at the end of the season .
What was surprising during testing was the obvious step backwards from Mercedes.
On Sunday night, when track conditions were at its best, Lewis Hamilton’s fastest lap was 1.065 seconds behind Max Verstappen’s best, even though the Mercedes driver did his lap on a tire compound that should have been 0.3 seconds faster.
Mercedes often hides its true test pace by driving heavily on fuel, but even if a 20kg discrepancy between the two cars is factored in, the tire and fuel corrected gap would still be a whopping 0.7 seconds.
In addition, Carlos Sainz in the Ferrari and Yuki Tsunoda in the AlphaTauri set times on Sunday evening that would be 0.35 s and 0.15 s faster than Hamilton’s lap, respectively, due to fuel consumption and tire corrections.
Perhaps the surprising speed of the Ferrari and the AlphaTauri should serve as a warning before reading the lap times, but despite a significant error rate, Mercedes has clearly lost the performance that defined the 2020 season in one lap.
When comparing testing performance with that of competitors at the traditional F1 preseason venue, Circuit de Catalunya, the teams typically allow a margin of error of 0.4-0.5 seconds, but in Bahrain track conditions have significantly widened that margin of error.
Changing wind conditions had the potential to cause up to 0.5 seconds of swing in lap time from one run to the next, and the track was up to 1.5 seconds per lap faster once the sun went down in the evening.
Additionally, Bahrain is a performance sensitive circuit, which means that the choice of engine mode – known only to the team – was more critical to performance than it was in Barcelona.
Simply put, the 1.065 second lap time difference between Verstappen and Hamilton on Sunday is very unlikely to reflect the gap between the two cars. However, in order for Mercedes to be ahead of Red Bull, a lot of restrictions are required to be in the game.
Most importantly, it is clear that Mercedes’ new car did not live up to expectations when tested and the team is now in a race against time to understand why it was ahead of qualifying for the Bahrain Grand Prix on Jan. March qualified.
What went wrong at Mercedes?
The three days of testing got off to a bad start for Mercedes when Valtteri Bottas reported a shift problem on his first lap out of the pits. In the time it took to install a new transmission in the car, Mercedes sacrificed around 60 laps to its main competitor and was unable to restore that mileage in the following two and a half days.
In a complete reversal of pre-season tests in recent years, Mercedes ended the week with 304 laps at the bottom of the miles, compared to the 369 laps of Red Bull and the 422 of the two most active teams, Alfa Romeo and AlphaTauri.
However, unlike in previous years, Mercedes said that maximizing the number of laps was not one of its main goals in Bahrain.
With so many parts carried over from 2020-2021 to comply with cost-saving regulations, a certain level of reliability was assumed (despite the transmission problem), and Mercedes felt that its time would be better spent doing performance-based experiments than running the car should be up to the breaking point.
In addition, Bahrain is a circuit that causes severe rear tire degradation and longer run times would have skewed the experiments due to the drop in performance of the rear tires – better to get 12 laps of solid data than a racing simulation that will damage the tires the main factor in performance.
For this reason, it was always planned for Mercedes to limit the mileage to some extent and to concentrate on gaining as much quality data as possible from the 32 sets of tires and three days of testing available.
But when Mercedes recovered from its early transmission problem and took to the track to conduct its experiments, it quickly became apparent that the rear of the car was unstable and drivers were struggling to get the power out of it.
“We’re still not feeling very well [with the car]”Said Bottas on Sunday.” We’re going to advance car setup and understanding and make it behave better, but there is more to be done.
“So we’ll keep working, we’ll keep trying to improve the balance and get the car to behave better and hopefully be faster.”
It begs the question of how a dominant, well mannered car like last year’s W11 transformed into the tricky, unpredictable W12 that was seen in the test.
Mercedes didn’t have an answer to this question on Sunday evening and will spend the next 11 days before the first practice session in Bahrain sifting through its data to better understand it.
With the car’s chassis and most of its mechanical components carried over from last year’s championship car, the logical conclusion is that the problem is related to 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 tire failures on Mercedes vehicles at the British Grand Prix.
The current generation of F1 vehicles are faster and heavier than any other in the sport’s 70-year history, and there have been concerns that the ever-increasing stresses placed on the tires would lead to more failures if vehicle development were not scrutinized.
For this reason, the governing body tried to reduce downforce levels by making targeted changes to three main areas: the floor of the vehicle, the length of the brakes on the diffuser, and the design of the rear brake ducts.
The individual changes alone wouldn’t matter much, but together they were aimed at removing 10 percent of the downforce from last year’s cars.
Of course, the teams did everything they could to minimize the loss of performance over the winter. Based on the last three days of testing, tire manufacturer Pirelli believes that a more realistic number represents a four to five percent reduction in downforce.
The areas covered by the regulatory changes are particularly sensitive to the creation of downforce at the rear of the vehicle, and it may be that Mercedes’ incredibly nifty 2020 Aero package was hit hardest.
Additionally, it is not uncommon for wind tunnel gains to create undesirable side effects on the track, especially when conditions – like the high winds in Bahrain – cannot be replicated at the factory.
The team says the instability was present regardless of wind speed and direction, indicating a more fundamental problem, but it likely would have made more progress in understanding the car if conditions had been stable.
It was also reported that the problem was less obvious on heavy fuel as Mercedes was able to approach Red Bull’s level of performance and maintain a more familiar gap with midfield teams when it came to racing pace.
Advantage Red Bull?
The last time a team other than Mercedes was the favorite to win the first race, it didn’t go according to plan.
After pre-season testing in 2019, the paddock was convinced that Ferrari had the fastest car, but when F1 showed up for the first race in Australia, Mercedes dominated.
Although Mercedes had problems in the first week of testing, its development curve was far steeper than Ferrari’s. By the time of the inaugural race, Mercedes had resumed its place at the top, while the Melbourne circuit exposed previously unseen weaknesses on Ferrari’s car.
The situation this year is different as the first race is set to take place in the same location as the test and the tell-tale signs of improvement that Mercedes showed at the end of the 2019 preseason with low fuel consumption were absent in Bahrain. if anything, it was the opposite.
In addition, it is expected that the development curve of this year’s cars will not be as steep as in the past. The focus has already shifted to the revision of the regulations in 2022. The introduction of a budget cap and new wind tunnel restrictions this year means fewer resources are available to troubleshoot the 2021 design.
Instead, Mercedes needs to understand what went wrong in testing and find fixes within the car’s current specification.
The group of engineers on the team have proven over the years that they know their way around solving problems, but past success is no guarantee that they will find a solution in time for the first race.
“We will be aggregating the data to understand where we performed well and where we did not, where we had a good correlation with our simulations in the EU.” [wind] Tunnel and where not, “said team boss Toto Wolff on Sunday.
“It’s like sleeping on an idea. The next day you wake up smarter.”
It would be brave to bet against Mercedes at this point, but it’s also fair to say the team hasn’t had such a difficult preseason since their dominance began in 2014.
Furthermore, Mercedes problems shouldn’t hurt Red Bull’s strong performance in Bahrain – even if the world champions find a solution, their main rivals are unlikely to stand still.
The combination of the two could be enough to improve the balance at the start of the 2021 season and is sure to make for a fascinating start to the season.