29 March 2021
29 March 2021
The more you know about Formula One, the more mind-boggling it becomes. If you’re ever lucky enough to get a look behind the high-security walls of an F1 engineering facility, your brain might actually explode.
I was once allowed to tour the headquarters of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team at Brackley in England and wandered around in a mix of awe and information overload.
At the time, there were more than 1500 people working in four shifts, so that the facility could continually test and develop new carbon-fibre parts, 24 hours a day. In the 2018 season, some part of the car was updated, or reimagined on average, every 20 minutes, 24 hours a day. New F1 rule changes will soon put a stop to this near-constant development, but more on that later.
“The car that starts the first race is not the same as the car that finishes the last one, and if you’re not constantly improving, you fall behind,” my guide explained. “Last season we’d gained two seconds over the course of the season – if we hadn’t done that, we’d be two seconds behind everyone else, and that would mean finishing last.”
So when Mercedes-AMG revealed its new car for the 2021 season, the W12 E Performance, it was safe to assume that an unimaginably large amount of work had gone into it – even before you factor in a couple of major changes to F1 regulations.
One of the things that makes F1 so challenging – aside from the level of competition at a technical level – is that the rules of the sport are often changing. These changes are intended to make the racing more exciting to watch, or to allow smaller teams with lesser budgets to catch up.
For the 2021 season, the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team needed to adapt to new aerodynamic regulations and budgetary restrictions, while also making changes to the power unit.
The first thing you notice about the W12 is that it has retained the largely black livery of its predecessor, the world championship-winning W11, with some of the traditional Mercedes racing silver touches. This is a statement of the team’s continued commitment to improving diversity and inclusion – a passion of the team’s superstar driver, Lewis Hamilton.
The new car was unveiled at the Brackley technical centre in early March, just 12 weeks after the end of the last season, which gives you some idea of how intense the development timeframe must have been.
The changes to the aerodynamic rules this year were basically aimed at slowing down F1 cars, albeit slightly. The easiest and cheapest way to do that is to change the floor of the car, explains the team’s technical director, James Allison.
“The floor is such an important aerodynamic component that small geometrical changes bring large reductions in performance,” Allison says.
“Once the rules had been established, our task was to figure out how to recover the losses brought by the changes.”
Invisible to the naked eye, this included tiny tweaks to the size of “winglets” on the rear brake ducts and sealing up slots in the floor to reduce drag.
“Our other aerodynamic work has been the normal fare of seeking out aerodynamic opportunity across every square centimetre of the car,” Allison adds.
A testing time for testing
Gone are the days of alterations roughly every 20 minutes. The 2021 season brings a radical change to just how much constant development teams can do, which will make things very different from previous years.
The Aerodynamic Testing Restrictions (ATR) limit the amount of time allocated for wind tunnel testing and Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) testing for all teams.
On top of that is a form of handicapping, granting teams less or more access to these aerodynamic tools depending on their championship position. As the 2020 Championship winner, Mercedes-AMG will have 22 per cent less access in 2021 compared to the last-placed team.
“We have always tried to get the most out of every wind tunnel and CFD session, but there’s nothing like having a new constraint imposed to renew the spur to become more productive and efficient,” Allison says.
“We are determined to find better ways of working so that we can mitigate the effect of this handicapping.”
Squeezing under the cost cap
Speaking of handicaps, another huge challenge for the 2021 season is the introduction of cost cap regulations, which will see teams’ annual budgets capped at US$145 million for the 2021 season.
This has required an enormous amount of work behind the scenes, says Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team boss, Toto Wolff.
“We had to change the structure of our team, the way we work with each other, streamline our processes and become more efficient,” Wolff says.
“And we fundamentally believe that the more efficient we are, the more performance gain that will translate to out on the circuit. So, it’s had a huge impact, but it has also provided us with the opportunity to re-evaluate our organisation.”
Allison adds that the cost caps will also affect how often an F1 car can be updated during the season, just as the testing restrictions do.
“We will try to ensure that we protect the rate at which we learn how to make the car go faster, but the cost cap will inevitably change the intervals between updates,” he explains.
“We will have to wait longer, and combine the gains into bigger steps, before we spend the money to manufacture them, in order to ensure we don’t run out of development budget early in the season.”
Bumping up the power unit
A modern F1 car doesn’t just have an “engine”, it has a power unit, which combines a traditional internal-combustion engine with a complex electrical system and batteries, turning the car into a hybrid of an electric vehicle and traditional racing car.
The new M12 Power Unit is the latest iteration of the Mercedes-AMG team’s power plant. Their quest to maximise performance was further emphasised by those regulation changes for 2021, which allow only a single performance specification of hardware rather than introducing upgrades at different points throughout the season.
Somehow the team have once again come up with some completely new innovations that will be in the power unit for the first time, but obviously they are not about to tell anyone what those are – at least, not yet.
More will be revealed as the W12 hits the track for testing before the season opener in Bahrain on March 28.
By Stephen Corby