Voice of the #F1 Fans: Mercedes Conspiracy – Part xx?

Brought to you by TJ13 contributor Iain: R8

So officially, it’s a ‘substance’ that’s used in normal maintenance. Hmm!

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The Mercedes steering wheel uses the PCU-8D display module from McLaren Electronics, supplied without connectors. This is a sealed unit, and according to the spec sheet “splash resistant to standard motorsport fluids”.

Thumbnail-PCU-8DAccording to first reports from Toto, the problem was a broken wiring loom. Now the team’s position has changed to it being “a normal servicing substance” which caused a short circuit in the “steering column electronics“. What electronics? There is possibly a position sensor on the column, but what else? The steering wheel controls – and display electronics – connect to both the ECU and the Mercedes local control units for ERS, diff, engine controller etc. Yet the steering wheel was substituted and the problem remained.

connectorSo surely, they must be talking about a physical connections between the wheel and the wiring in the column. I would be very surprised if they were using an optical fiber system for the CAN bus, which would require ‘receive’ electronics. So an obvious conclusion to the first Mercedes statement, would be a physical connector malfunction or a broken wire in the connector. However, they now insist that it was a foreign substance to blame.


cutaway1These photos come courtesy of SPA design and give an idea of how the quick release steering wheel might attach to the column. I would guess that a multi pin connector, like the silver Lemo shown, might be used. What maintenance would you do to that connector?

The recommended product is Isopropyl Alcohol. This evaporates, so it can be be excluded as a cause because it would be very obvious if it was not ‘Iso Al’ that was being used. The wiring would be another potential candidate for failure, if the original claims by Mercedes were true.

But, the only way that a substance could damage the plastic covered wiring is – if it was an acid. Maybe they were using Kapton wiring to save weight. However, using Kapton or Mylar covered wire to save weight, would be extreme, even for F1. Kapton degrades under thermal and mechanical stress, and it is hygroscopic (absorbs fluids).

Now is when we can start making educated guesses. Broken wiring in a connector initially seems the best answer. If it really were a mystery substance problem which caused a short circuit – it would have to be have been conductive.

If it were an open circuit problem, then you could imagine somebody picking up a can of spray lube, by mistake. Surely, they would have noticed immediately. However, that would be obvious the moment the car was started, because the steering wheel is connected when they fire up the engine, and the dash display should show a fault condition.

So what did they do between practice and the start of the race? Why were they doing anything to the connector? I have noticed that the steering wheels are left with the connector uncovered during the race weekend, so this might be a reason to clean the connector pins before practice, qualifying and the race. A better way would be to keep them clean at all times.

It puzzles me that someone introduced a conductive fluid and never noticed. As an engineer, it is just inexplicable at this level. Maybe the Mercedes explanation is just a cover story for bad design. Though the sabotage idea can’t be excluded.

Considering Paddy Lowe’s recent assertions of discovering faults within the Mercedes technical infrastructure at Brackley – it is of particular interest that according to Wiki, Lowe was joint head of electronics at Williams. So shame on him for not spotting this potential issue.

44 responses to “Voice of the #F1 Fans: Mercedes Conspiracy – Part xx?

  1. Good write up and correct to ask these q’s. However had this problem inflicted Hamilton instead, would this piece have seen the light of day?

    • Djezes kraaist. Even if there is a normal written, unbiased article somehow it has to be turned around to this? Why wouldn’t it be written if it would have happened to hamilton. The article completely focuses on the mercedes part of the story. And it’s an insight you won’t get on regular f1 sites, so stop complaining. And just enjoy the show…

      • It’s not just about the car part. The title talks about Merc conspiracy and sabotage. Don’t turn a blind eye to the obvious. Nevertheless a good article.

    • I agree with Bruznic…

      Also I’ll point out that anyone, at any time, can sit down and write a fan contribution… So yes, had this problem inflicted Hollywood instead AND someone here bothered to write something, that too would have seen the light of day…

      Easy to complain, easy to comment, hard to contribute.

      Perhaps the LH/NR, bi-polar / cerebral characterisation extends to their fans too? Food for thought…

  2. It is a very odd failure. Also odd to me is that there were zero changes between parc ferme and the race from Mercedes. There’s usually a few things that are changed at every race in this period.

    It would seem quite an elaborate sabatoge, if that’s what it was. Brakes would’ve been much easier to sabatoge at Singapore. Mercedes, and their woeful reliability, are becoming the story, and I can’t imagine Zetsche or Weber are too thrilled about that.

  3. Conspiracy or not, the Mercedes spokesmen do know how to create confusion out of thin air.
    We don’t know how Mercedes do their connections but I don’t believe it was the steering wheel or display that needed servicing. Perhaps it was the steering column and fluid dribbled into the wiring loom.
    So the wiring loom still was the problem but not due to wear as initially thought.
    You may want to do maintenance for moisture or friction.

  4. How about the possibility of extreme humidity coupled with a cooling air blast that condensed the water in the steering wheel connector.

    Or before Nico put on his helmet, he took a drink and someone suggested that Hamilton was the best F1 driver ever and he spat out the drink in fits of laughter.

    Either or.

  5. I think there’s kilometre(s) of wiring in an F1 car. So to use an extra light wire doesn’t seem extreme to me.

    All ifs and buts aside, I repeat: incompetence

    • Yeah, exactly. These cars are all about wiring, and the brake-by-wire eerily recalls me Airbus’ fly-by-wire. The A380 has 530 km (330 mi) of wiring in each aircraft, and this year’s cars are proportionally just as well endowed. It is actually strange that obscure wiring issues have happened only so rarely this season..

  6. Sometimes a mechanical fault or mishap is just that. No conspiracy or attempt to sabotage your own employees. This is only a big deal because of the parties involved.

    We’ve seen things like this happen up and down the grid this season, we even saw Jenson’s car shut down on him in the same race.

    That was 2 weeks ago, let’s move on

  7. I’d doubt it was a connector problem – there are plenty of sprays out there that can drive moisture and other contaminants away. Even if they couldn’t do that on the grid they could have done it in the pits and it would take seconds to correct the problem.

    More likely as someone else posted the fluids got in elsewhere and caused damage. Could even be something shorted connections to the ECU which caused damage in there – will be interesting to see if Nico takes a new CE for the next race.

  8. As I said before, deliberate sabotage makes strictly no sense:
    The PR disaster that was Singapore, with Rosberg sandwiched between Chilton and Ericsson for his entire race, may have sealed Lowe’s reputation (and fate) in the Merc team. It also fails the test of sanity: Nico has a long term contract with Merc team while Lewis doesn’t and is out there in the cold; so why would Merc sabotage the driver that they intend with certainty to keep?

    Most likely is that we simply don’t have sufficient information one way or the other. Inexplicably strange failures happen all the time, but none get the conspiratorial scrutiny of Rosberg’s.. Think of K Man’s boiling hot sauna in Singapore; or Alonso’s inexplicable rollbar-failure in Monza quali a couple of years go, conveniently when Massa’s tow failed to help him; or Massa’s very curious lock-up & crash at St Devote which was put down to driver error, and second almost identical crash in the same spot which was attributed (I think) to rollbar failure; or Kobayashi parking on the formation lap in Singapore, etc., etc. And cars fail to start for the formation lap, after parc ferme, all the time.

    But not all of the times the teams are honest and straightforward with the technical explanations: they simply throw at the public something that your average Joe/Jane could superficially understand; isn’t this what Twitter is all about?

    People should keep in mind that these cars are experimental prototypes exposed to extreme conditions (forces, temperatures, etc.) and with very very small margins for error. Basically these are cars designed to last exactly the duration of a season, no less no more. So such obscure breakages must occur all of the time.

    • The only sabotaging I can imagine in this scenario would be a lone engineer (from Hamiltons side of the garage) who took matters in his own hands. But its most likely as you say. You just need to look back at Mercedes 2012. MSC kept DNF’ing in the first half of the season. Every time it had a different cause. A faulty DRS at Canada was also unique until Bahrain 2013 (Alonso).

      • “The only sabotaging I can imagine in this scenario would be a lone engineer”

        Yeah, but then Merc would want to do all they can to identify the person (a la Stepney and Ferrari), and put him on trial. Which clearly doesn’t seem to be happening in Merc’s case..

  9. If you are right in the suggestion that Merc sabotage Nicos car,then the logical conclusion is that they trying to correct some imbalance.
    It would seem then that this isnt simply about SPA.Evidence must come to Lewis attention that the team or faction in the team were sabotaging his effort to give Nico a big enough lead,then they could legitimately install him as number 1 driver.This strategy may have been in place from the 1st race with Lewis rather simple suspect spark plug problem.

    Since Melbourne could easily be put down to clumsy error,the real 1st indication of Merc under handed behavior came in Bahrain.The rules of engagement was that after the last pits stop,who ever was in front would lead the way home.Lewis was very surprise to hear Paddy come on and say they are racing to the end.This was a knife in the back from team,they thought that Nico would easily pass on faster tires,and if he had won and Lewis complained he would have looked like a bad looser.Lewis flip the script with some very assertive and aggressive defense.

    The strategy was simple and was base on the old stero type that Lewis is fragile and mentally weak.all you needed to do was set him back as in the 1st race,he would crumble under the pressure and Nico would establish a nice comfortable lead.
    Lewis the Lion keep fighting and it was Nico arrogance in SPA,secure in the knowledge that he had the team or faction of the team on his side
    He blew everything up with his comment” I did it to prove a point”………shit hit the fan and Merc may have been forced to redress the imbalance……There you go…….yaw welcome

    • As I read this cmt, I slowly got a picture in my head of a man standing there in high heels, face covered in lip stick smear, talking into a phone with a cord that wasn’t connected at the base, and various spy type Lewis pictures plastered all over the walks, “but Lewis the lion really is the very best, and he is the smartest and, they’ll see, they’ll all see! he is…”

      But hey, that’s just me…

      • A quick psychoanalysis would say that deep down you just like to envision cross-dressing men. If while drafting a weekend to-do list, your thoughts drift towards the same cross-dressing men, then that would settle it. 😀

  10. OK Lets be clear, I didn’t make a definite conclusion in the article, so anybody reading that into it, is mistaken. The heading was tabloid in its approach! Brits will understand that. The idea, was to drag the issue away from the ‘trolling’ that this issue usually attracts, and make it a more technical argument. Monumental failure there, methinks!

    @John Mane. We do know that the connector is similar to that in the drawing. AMUS have a number of pictures showing the difference between the 2013/14 and Lewis/Nico steering wheels. The rear shot, shows a multi-pin socket.

    @verstappen, landroni. Yes there is a lot of wiring, and you are right to mention Airbus. This is exactly why any wiring that was/might be subject to abrasion or fluid contamination would/should be specified for that eventuality.

    @Stephen Hughes. I wouldn’t dismiss the connector problem. Remember this part is subject to numerous operating cycles.There are many pictures/videos showing all teams to be somewhat careless about keeping out contamination from the steering wheel connector. I don’t agree with your idea of a short to the ECU connections for two reasons. First, it would show up on the diagnostics, when the engine was fired up. Second, the ECU is a McLaren part. Considering the current vibe between Mercedes and McLaren, it would be a perfect opportunity for Mercedes to give a bit of negative PR.

    Time to step up to the plate, and make a tentative conclusion. (a) There are other things that could have caused this issue, if you really believe it was exactly as they said – a normal servicing substance. I am pretty sure that the steering column would be frequently crack tested. (Think Senna) But using DPF(Dye penetrating fluid) such as “Magnaflux”. The fluid is wiped off, before viewing the area with black light. Maybe someone was really heavy handed and left some in the hub. Of course on planet earth fluid flows downhill. (b) The top of the column will have bearings. These should be a ‘sealed for life’ type. So why would someone squirt it with anything. (c) If it was sabotage, and I don’t think it was. Then it was absolutely perfect in concept and execution. (d) The most likely explanation is that someone picked up the wrong spray can. This begs the question, did they realise and say nothing? That would be really worrying if true. What if that person was working on brakes?

    • Since you’re an engineer, and I’m not, I’ll just evince techno-conjecture and say thank you for an illuminating article, black light not included.

      • @Christopher Osborne

        “for an illuminating article, black light not included.”

        Hee Hee! For those not in on your joke. Black light is another name for UV – Ultraviolet.

  11. While I broadly agree with what you say, I can offer counter-explanations to both of your rebuttals. (So to speak….)

    Firstly, the diagnostics may show a problem but not necessarily where. The obvious place is the steering wheel connector and to be honest anything else isn’t replaceable in time so that is all they could try before and during the race.

    Secondly, they are obviously trying to make the explanation as simple as possible. Saying they’d squirted something in the connector which had shorted the ECU is a bit techy and also makes them look a bit foolish…

    • @Stephen Hughes

      Agree with your second, but not with all of the first. These cars and their PU’s are full of diagnostic routines and sensors. The McLaren ECU has the facility for three bus types, CAN, FlexRay and ARCNET. All three are able to respond to node errors, and transmit back. Also consider the number of times that drivers have reported that something or other has switched itself off, or the whole engine or gearbox has gone into a protect mode. The ECU has multi-pin connectors. I seem to remember Red Bull changing it on the grid.

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