Blog: Mercedes reaps what it sows
Even the deposed champion team principal Christian Horner admitted that ‘It’s been inevitable pretty much since the first or second race’.
This wasn’t an F1 equivalent of ‘I never really fancied her anyway’, or benefiting from the 20/20 vision of hindsight. We all saw it coming. And indeed in Sochi last time out it was confirmed finally: Mercedes is the 2014 F1 World Constructors’ champion.
Horner’s assessment above may even place him as being one of the later ones indeed to accept that the inevitable was set. Most before cars first rolled out of the trailers for the first pre-season test in Jerez in January, some even for months previous to that, thought the Mercedes was the power unit to have for the 2014 campaign. And that the works team would be best-placed to make good on it all. So, pretty much exactly, has it proved.
We know that for this campaign the regulations shift – in chassis and particularly in engines – was big. Probably the biggest the sport had ever known between two seasons. And as we know it's always a possibility that when rules are changed radically the order can be shuffled, as well as that a single team either from good luck or good engineering can get it right, or at least a lot closer to right than anyone else, immediately. Thus for a time dividing the runners into two highly distinct groups – them out front and the rest.
This very thing happened this time too, and the one doing the dividing as outlined was not unforeseen.
Then its full extent was confirmed in Bahrain in round three. After the late-race safety car peeled in giving us ten or so laps of racing to the flag the two Mercs now absolutely off the leash in their battle for victory routinely lapped upwards of two seconds a lap quicker than anyone else including their closest (a relative term) pursuers. And in the final shake out the best lap from any other car was 1.7 seconds over that of either Silver Arrow. Perhaps, given that the Mercs were on fresh tyres in that final sprint and many of those behind weren't, the gap was a bit exaggerated. But few doubted that the representative time that the silver cars had in hand was well north of a second a lap. Little wonder that the team’s Technical Director Paddy Lowe in recent days admitted ‘by Bahrain you began to feel “OK, we really have got a car with historic levels of performance difference.”’
Indeed winning every race – doing what McLaren so famously just missed out on in 1988 – seemed a genuine possibility for a time. As it was F1’s capacity of happen-stance – unreliability, weather and am intra-team contretemps – meant that at the time of writing three races have been relinquished, all to Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull. But still, this should not diminish the concept too much that in the 2014 F1 season the rest were routed.
The Mercedes’s pace advantage has been big in qualifying, in races usually even bigger, and hasn’t really shown much sign of being diminished over time either all things being equal.
In the Silverstone race mid-season indeed the gap was gargantuan: the two silver cars in the early laps capable of running routinely in the low 1m 39s at least as well as banged in plenty of 1m 38s. The rest at the same moment circulated at best in the 1m 41s… Really only in the curious Singapore qualifying session, as well as in Williams’ strong weekend in Austria, did the W05s look even remotely likely to be pipped on pace in the normal run of things.
And while the previous dominant force in F1 of a succession of Red Bulls had the slightest of Achilles’ heels in its top speed, the W05 hasn’t even had that. This was noted by Valtteri Bottas – who has got closer to the Mercs and more often than most – in Sochi: ‘they have showed that they are really quick everywhere, every track, any kind of track they are always there.’
He’s right. Whether it was the tight confines of Monaco, the long sweeping turns of Silverstone, the long flat-out blasts of Monza, the bit-of-everything Tilke-dromes of Malaysia, China and Russia, the heat of Singapore, the wet of Suzuka, in its campaign of triumph Mercedes took them all. Indeed wiped the floor in them all.
And the explanations for the Mercs wiping the floor with its rivals have by now come into focus. As the clouds parted in the early part of the year – indeed a few had a good grasp of it even before round one – it revealed the sheer scale of the cliff edge that its opponents needed to climb to get on terms.
The ‘unfair advantage’ as Colin Chapman might have had it was disarmingly simple. The Merc power unit took a radical departure from the usual concept of a turbo layout, by placing the air compressor at the front of the engine rather than at the customary rear, having separated it from the turbine via a lengthened shaft. The compressor therefore is placed well away from the hot exhaust and this means less pipework is required to cool the air before it is entered into the engine. Ferrari apparently also produced something in the same ballpark but crucially didn't take it to the same extreme, placing the compressor only about a third of the way along the unit.
As is often the case the benefits of such a gain were not ring-fenced.
This shorter pipework improves driveability by reducing turbo lag, which in turn means less of the ERS power is required to make up for the turbo lag (meaning there's more of that to use elsewhere) as well as allows more compact sidepods thus boosting aero efficiency.
You can add to these too that as a consequence of the repositioned compressor the Merc's gearbox is placed further forward, helping handling and change of direction via the more centralised weight distribution, as well as that its 'coke bottle' at the car's rear is much more compact than that of its rivals, further benefiting aero.
And getting ahead of the game in F1 2014-style meant one heck of a virtuous circle more generally. A better-handling car, better aero and lower drag means less fuel usage due to less of a need to stamp on the throttle to make up for it, which means you can run at higher boost; these also mean lower tyre wear which also benefits fuel economy as well as energy harvesting; better energy harvesting in turn helps power and fuel economy...
Lenin isn't the most likely source of quotes relevant to F1, but one of his utterances seems highly apt to how Mercedes reaped its considerable gains this campaign: 'everything is connected to everything else'.
Perhaps the greatest beauty of all for the Merc team is that such things – like the power unit and coke bottle area – are probably the most time-consuming and difficult to create your own version of. It was no work of a moment for rivals to honour this by imitation.
Of course, the Merc power unit customer teams also benefited from this layout concept, but what they didn’t have was the same amount of time to design their cars around it and thus maximise the resultant possibilities. To give some idea of the difference, it's said that Mercedes first had its big layout idea somewhere in the region of two years ago. Whereas in the case of its customers it could only find out about this when their 2014 contracts with Mercedes were finalised, which in many cases gave them but a matter of a few months to prepare.
Some indeed have said that the Mercedes advantage can be traced back yet further, to 2008 when unlike Ferrari (which outsourced it to Magneti Marelli) or Renault (which let the teams get on with it) Mercedes kept its development of the impending KERS technology in-house, and this year it benefited from the knowledge that accrued from there. In F1, you reap what you sow.
Mercedes indeed has had this year's change in regs circled on its calendars for a while; let's not forget its preparations were a crucial part of convincing Lewis Hamilton in late 2012 to come aboard. Also when it gave up on the 2012 season early, it was not to focus resource on 2013’s preparations but on 2014’s.
The architect of this early start, and a man who shouldn’t and hasn’t been forgotten in the tributes of Merc’s current success, is Ross Brawn. And talking early this year Brawn reflected on the benefits accrued from being ahead of schedule: ‘If you start too late you get committed down a route whether it’s right or wrong. With such different car concepts you want to be able to take a few different routes and then be able to choose – and that’s what we did.’
‘I think the work we did to get the project started early and the problems we had on the dyno – in developing a drivetrain in as representative a condition as possible to that we get on the track – told us that turning up at the track without doing all that would be a nightmare.’
Throughout 2013 Brawn had the team running the new unit and its associated systems on the dyno exactly as if it were a Grand Prix weekend, complete with FP1, 2 and 3, qualifying and the race, and with the same time gaps between, and ‘that brought to light an enormous number of problems we wouldn’t otherwise have found’ according to Brawn.
Brawn too outlined the benefits of being a works engine team, and thus being able to develop the new power unit and chassis in unison. ‘One of the big challenges with these cars is the cooling concept – which has to be hand in hand with the engine concept. For example: what charge air temperature are you going to try and target? Because of the fuel flow restriction, it doesn’t follow – like it did in the old days – that the cooler you keep the charge flow the more power you generate.
‘I remember the problems we had when we put an engine and gearbox and all the other gubbins on a dyno and tried to get the whole thing to run properly – all the energy recovery systems and all the rest. The first few months were a nightmare. Some teams are having problems now: but at what point on that curve are they?
‘If you approached it like the old days – just take the engine, plug it in, stick a gearbox on the back of it and stick it on the track – you’ll have a nightmare. Heat, installation, the dynamic coupling of everything – it’s fascinating in many ways. But God help those who have not been on the dyno in representative conditions.’
Given this was said at around the time of pre-season, Brawn may have had one team in particular in mind. As on top of Mercedes’s own stellar job the team that it toppled, indeed the team that even so turned out to be its closest challenger, in the early throes got it very wrong.
Suddenly the Red Bull structure of an arms-length relationship with its engine supplier became exposed in this year’s new landscape, its power unit builder being several hundred miles, one border and one English Channel away in Viry-Châtillon as opposed to the 40 minute drive between Merc’s race team in Brackley and power unit builders in Brixworth. It didn’t matter nearly as much before when the engines were well-known – you could bolt it on the back and go.
Whether this is a permanent shift or merely one that helps a team hit the ground running after an engine-focussed regulation shift isn’t clear but that Red Bull is reportedly seeking to pull more of the power unit development closer to it indicates it thinks it knows the answer.
And whatever its set-up Red Bull cannot reasonably have been expected to anticipate the extent that Renault would get it wrong in the early days of the new formula, and in a way that has not yet been fully explained. Its pre-season testing running was like something from the diaries of a wacky inventor, repeated and immediate conking out before disappearing back to the shed for a lengthy round of head-scratching.
In the end only Marussia and Lotus (which missed the opening test) did less on-track mileage than the Red Bull before round one, while Mercedes benefited from its extended preparation by functioning like a watch throughout. The silver car topped the mileage charts, with close to three times the RB10’s running. And overall the Renault unit had clocked up less than half the mileage of the Merc. That Red Bull this season recovered to the extent and at the speed that it did was remarkable, particularly given that even with its improvement the Renault never got close in the horsepower battle. But the team could never recover from starting the race a couple of laps behind.
Ferrari wasn’t quite as badly prepared, but made fundamental errors, particularly in that it wilfully compromised the power unit in seeking aerodynamic benefit, but even with this didn’t quite produce a car as aerodynamically strong as the W05. By round four it had set off the process of ripping things up to start again, with a new team principal and a radical programme of reform.
Just as Red Bull did in previous years, Mercedes appears now to deriving additional benefit from its opponents getting into a state of flux in response to its domination.
Even so of course it’s unlikely that things will be quite as good for Merc again. Its opponents as intimated will do their best to incorporate for itself the things that have made the Merc quick.
You’d imagine the other Merc customers will be especially well-placed. As we know the Brackley team is doing its best to ensure the engine freeze maintains its full rigidity, but even if it does this advantage is likely to be narrowed, as there are loopholes which ensure that the development freeze is more honoured in the breach than in the observance. There will be a new power unit on the scene next year too.
Lewis Hamilton acknowledged as much in Suzuka recently: ‘I’m sure others teams will make a big step (for next season)’ he noted. But in it he fired a warning shot: ‘but we plan to move forward again as well. Mercedes are planning to be number one again.’ You wouldn’t doubt him.
Author: Graham Keilloh
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