It’s no coincidence that Mercedes AMG F1 went from an also ran to the dominant force in Formula One the year the power unit regulations changed in 2014. Granted the Brackley outfit had finished second to Red Bull Racing during the final season of the V8 engines, but that season the fight was close between them, Ferrari and Renault and all were a long way behind the Milton Keynes team.
Paddock talk has repeatedly suggested Mercedes and its parent company Daimler invested fortunes in the V6 turbo hybrid and clearly the team had a significant lead over the rest of the field when the new engine formula was revealed in 2014.
Mercedes domination due to power unit?
With an unprecedented 8 F1 consecutive constructors’ and 7 drivers’ championships by the end of 2021 Mercedes have dominated the sport like no other in its history.
Yet hope was on the horizon for a changing of the guard as the FIA enforced the biggest change in car design regulations in living memory for 2022. Such changes reset the pecking order and this was indeed to be the case for the 2022 F1 season.
The poor results for Toto Wolff’s team in 2022 would suggest to the casual onlooker that Mercedes problems lie in the chassis given the monumental change in the FIA car design regulations. The W13 car bounced for the first half of the season like it was competing in a bucking bronco competition and so the focus on the power unit was obscured.
Concerns over power unit grow
Yet behind the scenes there was also significant concern in Brixworth, the home of Mercedes High Performance Powertrains (HPP), about their revised V6 Turbo Power Unit.
The FIA had made another significant regulation change together with the enormous step change for the chassis with the return of ground effect and this was to freeze the architecture of the F1 power units for 4 consecutive seasons.
This left the manufacturers scrambling to redesign their power units knowing full well the architectural designs would be locked in for the next four years.
Even though Mercedes power unit for 2021 was probably still the class of the field, Brixworth believed they could make substantial improvements which would see them through to the new power unit era slated to begin in 2026.
Mercedes admit they underestimated the challenge
In a remarkable video released by Mercedes this week, Toto Wolff discusses the 2022 season with technical gurus Mike Elliott (Mercedes F1 technical director) and Hywel Thomas (Mercedes HPP managing director). Their discussion elicits a number of surprising revelations about the Mercedes power unit and the problems HPP created for themselves with the redesign of the all conquering power unit.
Hywel Thomas states that the engine manufacturers had 2 “big things” to prioritise. The power unit freeze which allows for no performance upgrades over the following four seasons and the fuel regulation change that upped the ethanol mix from 5-10%.
“We had a really big development programme over the whole of last year and through that winter,” Thomas says of the project to get the new engine ready for the freeze.
“And just trying to make sure we landed that was a real big effort, a really, really big effort.”
New fuel regulations hit Mercedes hard
Thomas reveals Mercedes were concerned over the “hit” they would take due to the fuel change as the internal combustion engine would suffer reduced power.
“We just didn’t know where we were going to end up,” says Thomas.
Mercedes previous modus operandi when faced with new power unit challenges had been to develop the hardware to overcome the problems. Yet in previous seasons even though a driver was allowed just 3 power units, each new unit would contain upgrades to the hardware and even elements of the architecture. Thomas conceded once they homologated their V6 unit, this would no longer an option.
Huge power unit design changes for Mercedes
Thomas describes the Mercedes V6 redesign as a “massive tear-up” composing of a redesigned layout of the exhaust and the cooling systems of the car in the pursuit of aerodynamic gains. This resulted in the front of the engine being “completely different” from the previous iteration.
Over the winter of 2021-22, HPP changed more parts on their V6 power unit than during any previous full season since 2014.
Whilst the team had results from the dyno, it was not until the on track testing in Bahrain they could benchmark their work against the others.
Most of the media focus at the pre-season Bahrain tests was on the radical “zero sidepod” design of the W13 chassis, but behind the scenes the team instantly realised they had power unit issues. The drivability of the car was poor and required improvement.
Mercedes modus operandi disrupted
Thomas reveals “we knew we couldn’t do it through hardware, which had been our way of developing things for the past however many years.
“So, we had to really go back and reconsider how we were going to develop ourselves out of that position.”
“Our part of this is to get some more performance and get some better driveability and we need to add that at the same time the car is being developed and that’s how we will get out of this position,” said Thomas.
“We all said: ‘How do we do that in this new world?’.
“And that then became the excitement of the season, seeing how we could change the way that we could develop this power unit even though the hardware is frozen to get more performance from it.”
Did Mercedes really improve during 2022
Much has been made over how Mercedes were closing the gap during the 2022 season, though in reality their performance only improved significantly at ‘Mercedes’ tracks.
Qualifying in Abu Dhabi saw the lead Mercedes in P5 almost 7/10ths of a second behind the pole position sitter.
At the season opener Lewis Hamilton was the lead Mercedes’ qualifier again in P5 and with almost exactly the same deficit as at the season finale in the desert.
The problems Mercedes faced were that their fundamental car design was too draggy and any gains made by HPP were masked at the high speed circuits like Spa and Monza.
Mercedes results were track specific
Wolff says that the poor results at such venues was inevitable given “the engine couldn’t pull us through the invisible aerodynamic wall”.
“We were nowhere at the beginning and it looked like a major setback but I guess it was all part of our understanding where the car performed well and how the interaction between drag and power unit performance lay,” said Wolff.
Thomas claims HPP set out to bring “small gains at pretty much every event” which he believes they delivered. Yet even with the many chassis upgrades Mercedes delivered, it was only at certain circuits where the cars looked closer to the Red Bull’s.
Thomas concludes that one small blessing from the extreme bouncing was the power units were tested to extreme for reliability.
W13 power unit tested to destruction
“It was becoming very clear that the bottom of the engines were taking a hell of a pounding,” Thomas revealed.
“When you [Wolff] came up to Brixworth last week you saw some of the parts that were off the race engines and it was quite a surprise to see exactly how hard they were being hit by the ground.
“You know when you see Lewis and George looking a bit uncomfortable getting out of the cars, the power units were doing much the same.”
The brazen honesty from Mercedes in their video is surprising but it leaves questions over their past and future performance unresolved.
Were the titles all about the Mercedes PU?
In previous seasons the Mercedes power unit was considered to be the most powerful and hence the team could run more downforce, protect the tyres, qualify up front and dominate races from there.
So how good were they previous Mercedes chassis? Maybe not as good as suggested.
Could it be the rocket ship engine produced by HPP masked certain chassis deficiencies and this was not possible in 2022 given the revised power unit architecture.
Further, how far behind Red Bull and Ferrari are Mercedes on both chassis and power units fronts?
Without a big step change in the regulations for 2023 it is hard to see how the silver arrows will be able to provide Lewis Hamilton with a car capable of delivering his record 8th drivers’ F1 title.
Reviewing a rollercoaster ride 🎢 Sitting down with Toto, Mike and Hywel to talk through the ups and downs of the 2022 F1 season 💪
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) December 28, 2022