The dawn of 2022 saw the beginning of a new era for F1 car design. The FIA regulations allowed a return to the ‘ground effect’ concept which was banned in 1982. The rationale was to reduce the amount of downforce the cars require from the rear wing which creates vortices that disturb the air flow behind the car and make it difficult for another car to follow closely.
The ground effect design means the cars have lost around 50% of their downforce from above the car and now use the “Venturi effect” underneath the floor to create negative air pressure which sucks the cars onto the track.
The Mercedes 2022 ‘zero sidepod’ car design caused a stir in the paddock and given their constructors’ run of 8 consecutive titles, F1 observers almost universally believed the Brackley based team had found a silver bullet for the new regulations.
Mercedes launched a ‘novel’ 2022 car
Ex F1 car designer Pat Symonds who led an FIA working party to form the new car design regulations was impressed and observed of Mercedes W13, “This is a very novel approach.”
“I like to see novel interpretations. I have to say it’s not one that I’d expected to see. And I’m still really impressed at how they’re getting the air through to cool the car, but they obviously are.”
The zero sided concept clearly found novel ways of cooling important components on the car.
“So for example the intercooler, is a very, very neat device, it’s a water/air intercooler, which of course Mercedes have had for a little while, but I think this is a little bit different,” Symonds added.
“And that’s why they can really shrink wrap this car a little bit more than most of the others can.”
Mercedes deployed rocket motor technology
Shrink wrapping, as Symonds describes it, would have delivered more aerodynamic benefits on the pre-2021 car designs, though with the ground effect downforce this appears to matter less.
“The intercooler that I was talking about, I think, comes from Reaction Engines in Oxfordshire, the people who are doing this sort of air breathing rocket motor, and the sort of spin-off from that has been this really extremely efficient heat exchanger technology.
“And I think that’s part of the reason why they’ve been able to produce the car the way they have,” concluded Symonds in an interview with Sky’s Ted Ktavitz.
Mercedes confused over car performance
However, it quickly became clear the W13 design was not all Mercedes hoped it would be. Rather than discovering a silver bullet Mercedes quickly realised they had designed a self imploding mortar bomb.
By late May Lewis Hamilton was calling for the team to abandon the design for next season and start again. Yet a false dawn came in Barcelona with updates that appeared to improve the car significantly and then again in Silverstone. This led the Mercedes technical designers to believe there was hope for an evolution rather than Hamilton’s proposed revolution.
However, despite Mercedes getting on top of the early season porpoising and bouncing, the car is unpredictable from circuit to circuit.
In Spa the W13 was nowhere with Hamilton and Russell qualifying P7 and P8. Then a week later competing for a front row start in Zandvoort.
Russell claims huge data analysis is a breakthrough
Another week at the final leg of the triple header in Monza Hamilton was almost 1.5 seconds away from Verstappen’s pole time with Russell a few hundredths behind him.
George Russell believes the team have worked hard in recent weeks to understand the unpredictability of the W13
“I think we’ve managed to gain quite a grasp onto that and understand why at certain circuits we were so much more competitive than others.
“We’ve only managed to learn that over the course of these races and I think that triple-header after the summer break was quite telling for us, with our performance between the low-downforce and high-downforce circuits.”
Russell refuses to reveal secrets
When questioned what Mercedes have learned George Russell is coy.
“I don’t want to go into too much detail because it’s something that we’ve worked very hard on to understand and hopefully will give us an advantage into next year, so I don’t want to say anything that will potentially benefit our rivals.”
For Mercedes fans this appears to offer them a glimmer of hope that the Silver Arrows F1 team can return to winning ways in 2023. Yet team boss Toto Wolff is no confident the Hamilton or Russell will be fighting for next seasons titles.
“To turn the ship in this industry is a little bit like an oil tanker,” said Wolff this week.
“First you have to understand what the root cause is for your non-performance and then you have to peel the skin.”
“What is the first layer? What is the second layer? Are we really on top of all the questions? The answer is no, we are not.”
Little hope for Mercedes of pecking order change
When Formula One makes big regulations changes the pecking order is usually reset. Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel won 4 consecutive titles between 2010 and 2013 as the V8 era came to a close.
The big regulation changes for Formula One’s new V6 hybrid power units saw Red Bull’s dominance ended as Mercedes came to the fore winning 8 consecutive constructor titles and 7 driver championships starting in 2014.
For 2023 there are no big car design regulation changes and the power units are frozen from development until the end of 2025. For these reasons alone Wolff is realistic over whether Mercedes can fight back quickly and overcome the Red Bull and Ferrari performance advantage they have over the Brackley team.
That said, Toto believes; ” I think a big chunk of the performance that we are missing, we have discovered.
“It is not something we can change this year. It is decisions that we have made for next year but I am not 100 per cent confident to say here that next year we will be fighting for world championships.
“The aim is [there], the expectation is [there], but there is still work to do.”
Hamilton’s next title hope when he’s 41yrs
It appears if Lewis Hamilton is to achieve the record breaking 8th F1 drivers’ title he will need to extend his current contract beyond its current cut off at the end of 2023.
Even then it may be Mercedes have to wait until 2026 when the next big chassis and power unit regulations come into force, that Red Bull can be toppled.
Lewis Hamilton will then be 41 years of age as the 2026 season begins.