Mercedes F1: A return to traditional car engineering
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Aerodynamics or mechanical engineering?
We’ve heard a lot from Ferrari and their paternal president in recent times about how unhappy they are that aerodynamics is so important in F1. Il Padrino has been cited regularly as complaining this is no good for car manufacturer’s as it is irrelevant to most of what they do in producing road cars.
This of course has nothing to do with the fact that Red Bull have in Newey, the King of the aero designers and due to lack of foresight on matters such as the wind tunnel and quality of their aero team. That said, aerodynamics on a Ferrari road car are not the ultimate priority.
That said, I have been involved in countless debates over what F1 should be trying to achieve with the design and technical regulations. We all fear the move towards a ‘spec’ series like Indycar because F1 has historically been about automotive prototyping and engineering.
The automotive manufacturers
With hindsight F1 faced a huge crisis back in 2009. The withdrawal of Toyota, Honda and BWM all within 12 months demonstrated exactly how flimsy the F1 grid could quickly become. Ecclestone was persuaded to offer some funding to new teams 11 and 12 with ‘Bernies cash’ - the reasoning being that history and financial attrition of F1 would mean that 12 could easily become 10 again soon.
There are now in F1 just 2 manufacturer’s proper and 3 engine suppliers. I can argue McLaren should not be considered in the same breath as Ferrari or Mercedes as a ‘manufacturer’. Of course they make road cars but they have nether range of Mercedes portfolio or anywhere near the supercar volume of Ferrari. Most importantly they don’t produce an engine in-house. Caterham are essentially a specialist kit car provider.
Manufacturers not turned on by F1
Why does this matter? A motor sport where most of the design effort goes into aerodynamics does nothing for the likes of BMW, Audi, VW/Porsche and the Japanese companies either. So F1 is highly dependent on a few players to keep the show on the road. Speaking to Keke Rosberg in a hotel bar last year he was adamant F1 needs more manufacturers – and this appears to be widely held view by people across the F1 spectrum.
The turn off for many of the absent manufacturers named above has been the engine specification. These companies are not building V8’s en masse – if at all, Those running F1 did hope the new V6 Tubo specification power trains would be sufficient to entice more manufacturers to enter/re-enter the sport. Clearly not so far.
I have to say of all the teams in F1, I am intrigued by Mercedes more than the others. Maybe that is because the personnel, history and modus operandi of the others are more clearly defined. Their utter lack of competitiveness has in some ways been shocking, but when you peel back the layers more understandable even though still poor.
F1 2012 was full of the unexpected. For me Mercedes topped the list with the surprise appointment of Niki Lauda as chairman of Mercedes AMG F1 (failed boss at Jaguar) and Lewis Hamilton as lead driver (in all but name). Equally surprising were the departures of Norbert Haug and Michael Schumacher and Dieter Zetsche explains to Autocar exactly why this had to be.
“Formula One is a very visible platform, and there’s no doubt we spend a lot of marketing budget on competing as we consider it close to our core business. But as it’s so visible people see pretty quickly if you succeed or not, and if the results are up to your expectations. For Mercedes those expectations must be that we are up there at every race competing for victory.” (Autocar)
The direction forward made clear
We don’t hear a lot from Dieter, so when he speaks, what he says carries all the greater significance. He is crystal clear that it was because the team had won but 1 race in 3 years the above changes have been made stating, “a new driver, new chairman and more to come”.
More to come? This apparently does not include budget. Nikki Lauda informed (AMGfans) website insists that the teams budget is only the 5th largest in F1, behind lotus, McLaren Ferrari and Red Bull and TJ13 (Nov 19 2012) reported that he had requested an extra 50m euro’s from Stuttgart. He was told publicly in no uncertain terms by Zetsche that the 150m euro budget would remain constant.
However, In the past 12 months there has been a huge rebuilding going on in Brackley and who knows how much of this has come from Stuttgart’s in house engineering R&D budget. Much of the equipment, wind tunnel and other facilities are reported to be state of the art and there has also been a senior personnel recruitment programme of such scale, it was derided by Helmut Marko as delivering too many chiefs and not enough Indians.
What exactly is Mercedes problem?
What do the AMG F1 team then need to do? Examining Mercedes 2013 priorities James Allen observes, “Above all, it needs its aerodynamics team to raise its game and design a more competitive car from the outset.” (James Allen)
Yet Dieter Zetsche disagrees, ”The real problem lay with the chassis and we are working on that” admits Dieter. ”The coming season will probably not allow us to show the full effect of the changes, but in 2014 we will have a good shot at the championship, especially with the new engine rules,” he added.
I am convinced from what I’ve heard and read that Mercedes have been working on a long term chassis/suspension project that if they ever get it to work – could be a big game changer.
Niki Lauda alludes to the complex nature of this engineering technology on the same AMGfans fans page. “This complex car is really the main issue. The problem is that these highly intelligent ideas on some tracks work very well and go on some tracks they don’t.”
Amusingly one German writer in Auto Motor und Sport commented, “Mercedes have built a car as advanced as a spaceship – the problem is – there are no space ship races.”
What is this complex technology both are referring to? It may be a spot of history can help us here.
For those of you who don’t remember the 80′s and 90′s there was a technology called active suspension which helped Williams dominate F1 for 2 years. It was born out of the banned ground effect technology where cars were sucked down onto the tarmac by creating a vacuum underneath the vehicle by way of hovercraft type skirts.
Ground effect was banned, but the idea of creating a suspension system to maximise the suspension settings for each corner was born. The cars used computer systems to adjust the independently active wheels to produce a theoretically perfect amount of resistance for each corner, allowing the car to run softer suspension at certain points of the track and harder in other places.
To cut a long story short, by 1991 Williams had mastered active suspension better than everyone else and brought the FW14B to the final round in Adelaide, yet terrible weather meant the team got no decent data.
F1Fanatic tells us, “But in the off-season they found the car was so astonishingly fast they wouldn’t need to run the FW15 at the beginning of the season. As it turned out, the FW15 wasn’t even needed until the next year.
At the first round of the 1992 season Mansell took pole position from Senna, in a conventional suspension McLaren, by 0.741s. The Englishman won the race by 24s from team mate Riccardo Patrese, who was in turn a further 10s ahead of Senna. It set the pattern for the season.
At the bumpy Hermanos Rodriguez circuit in Mexico Mansell’s qualifying advantage over the next non-Williams was 0.946s. At Interlagos the gap was 2.199s. At Catalunya, 1.005s – Williams were on a different plane. In front of his home crowd at Silverstone Mansell really wound it up and was on pole by 1.919s – from Patrese! Senna was 2.741s adrift and everyone else was at least three seconds slower.
The season was a Williams rout, and rival teams complained that the cost of researching and developing their own active suspension systems would be huge.
Active suspension was then banned.” (Full article on active suspension at F1Fanatic)
Mercedes legal 21st century version
Here and now is not the place to discuss the regulations, but suffice to say in the current climate of regulation enforcement, Ross Brawn is not going to set a complex project in motion that is clearly illegal.
I’ll attempt to explain Mercedes suspension project in layman’s terms. There is a damper system linking the 4 corners of the car by hydraulics – with the aim to control the pitch (forward and rearward movement – sometimes called dive and squat) and roll (side to side movement) of the car and ensure the tyres always run flat. This system was developed first in 2011 and refined for 2012.
Other teams connect their suspension front to rear, however the Mercedes system however has both side to side and corner to corner connectivity in addition. In 2012, they never fully got to grips with how this system affected the tyres and regularly when the tyres were removed after the running the car, all 4 were at completely different temperatures. When they tried to integrate the Coanda exhaust system later in the season this then amplified the problem, hence why Schumacher and Rosberg had such a miserable final run toward the end of the year
The Mercedes project continues
Dieter Zetsche’s comments make it clear that Mercedes will persist with the chassis and integrated suspension development and for all our sakes we should hope they can deliver, because it will strike a blow at the aerodynamic obsession that delivers 80-90% of the incremental performance F1 teams crave at present.
After 2 failed years it would be reasonable to suggest Mercedes should forget the whole idea – but I read something last week that made me think. When the Mercedes engine’s division revealed their new 2014 engine to a select group of people. So secret is the programme, all mobile phones and recording devices were confiscated prior the visitors being invited into the room.
So, the big news surrounding the revelation of the first of the new F1 engine’s of the future was pretty much reported as ‘sounding sweet’.Other journalists focused on the volume of the engine sound, like Sky’s David Croft who tweeted, “And don’t worry folks, the V6 engines will still be loud, so don’t forget your ear plugs when you go to the track in 2014 J”.
Bernie should be reassured and the V6 Turbo doubters silenced, so the F1 world could sleep again at night. Mmm.
The effect of the V6 Turbo’s on 2014 car handling
I was interested in what Mercedes engine chief Andy Cowell had to say which was reported little and commented on not at all to my knowledge. He was countering a question from a journalist who was concerned about a statement from Ferrari suggesting their drivers may have to drive more slowly at certain races than was actually possible – just to complete the race on the 30% less fuel allowed for the engines.
Cowell said, “I don’t think we will go down that route. If you make inefficient engines, then yes, that will be the case. If you make efficient engines, then no. Overall, it’s about putting the motor back into motor sport.” And this is what hit my radar particularly, “Further, the extra torque will make the cars harder to handle coming out of the corners”.
Interestingly in the days of active ride, the cars were running turbo engines. So does the technology and rule changes for 2014 play into the hands of a team that has a futuristic chassis? Only time will tell.
Synergy for the manufacturer
One thing is certain. F1 wants to attract the likes of Audi, VW/Porsche, BMW et al, yet it appears so far the switch to V6 Turbo engines that have a greater synergy with road car technology has not been a large enough lure. A reduction in aerodynamic obsession and a return to traditional automotive engineering but with 21st century ideas may just do the trick.
It is not difficult to see why Mercedes F1 has pursued this path because for the Daimler-Benz global brand who have built their reputation on engineering, putting silly looking bits all over their cars -gurneys, triple decker airflow deflectors and monkey seats – has no relevance to the luxury and sports road cars they are promoting.