The fifth Mercedes double victory slides Formula 1 into a deep depression. Never before has the lead been so big. And it is becoming increasingly clear that Mercedes will maintain this lead for a long time with a few exceptions. Because Mercedes have opted for the better concept. Barcelona has mercilessly uncovered what was previously only hinted at. The layout of the Circuit de Catalunya shows the strengths and weaknesses of the individual cars. To conclude all the GI’S analysis: Mercedes was again slow on the straights and fast in the corners. Because there are so many corners, the lead was much bigger.
Ferrari won half a second on both straights and lost 1.3s in the 16 corners. 7 tenths of them in the seven corners of the last sector alone. Red Bull Honda was 2 tenths slower on the straights than Mercedes and 7 tenths slower than Ferrari. In the corners Red Bull lost 7 tenths on Mercedes, but made up 6 tenths on Ferrari. In the last sector Red Bull lost on Mercedes 0.444s but won 0.289s against Ferrari. The gap increases in the race. Without the safety car Max Verstappen would have finished 23 seconds behind Mercedes and Sebastian Vettel 38 seconds. According to the Mercedes engineers, Lewis Hamilton did not even push much. The tyre picture revealed another bitter truth. Mercedes would have been the only car that would have managed a one-stop race at full race speed. Ferrari and Red Bull would have had to change tyres twice in a full attack mode due to high wear.
Downforce at the expense of aerodynamic drag
The speed profile of the three top cars reveal the secret of Mercedes: downforce, and nothing but downforce. That wouldn’t be a surprise knowledge, if you didn’t know how Mercedes achieves downforce. This year, to a large extent at the expense of more aerodynamic drag. On most of the circuits, Mercedes doesn’t care on how much time they lose on the straights. Because they win back the time which they lose on the straights twice or three times in the corners.
The incredible speed of the Ferrari in the full throttle sections has only marginally to do with better engine performance or more efficient energy management. The Barcelona circuit only ranks 16th in the ranking of the importance of engine power for lap time, so it’s mainly the higher drag that makes the difference on the straights. An engineer tells us that Mercedes deliberately took this route: “The fuel limit was raised from 105 to 110 kilograms. That was also a gift to the aerodynamicists. They could put more downforce on the car and sacrifice efficiency for it.”
On the other hand, Ferrari and Red Bull have built super-efficient cars. At Red Bull that has always been the thinking of the engineers. For five years, they believed that the Renault engine’s horsepower deficit should be compensated for by small wings, but higher-rake. Now they are only 30 hp behind Mercedes with Honda, but they have less downforce than Mercedes. And now the chassis is under criticism. Ferrari switched to the Red Bull concept with the introduction of wider cars. For two years this has worked properly. Until the summer break Ferrari was both times a title candidate. After that they lost the championship because of individual mistakes, not because of their car concept being bad.
The three trump cards of Mercedes
But in 2019 three things changed fundamentally. And that questions the philosophy of total aerodynamic efficiency. Firstly, the increase in fuel limits. Secondly, the new front wing. Third, the 2019 Pirelli tyres. The simplified front wing favours the aerodynamic philosophy of the Mercedes. It focuses on length instead of a large angle of attack. Between the wheels, the Mercedes W 10 is 7.9cm longer than the Red Bull RB IS and 4.5cm longer than the Ferrari SF90. On the other hand, the Mercedes is 41mm less higher at the rear than the Red Bull and 23mm less than the Ferrari.
The new front wing no longer allows the engineers to directly attack the air vortices created on the front wheels when cornering. This must now happen directly behind the wheel. Mercedes has more space between the front wheels and the sidepods (due to the length of their car) to bring on baffles which calms the flow to the rear. You can see with your own eyes that the flow aligners in this area are much more complex at Mercedes than at their rival teams. So the new aerodynamic rules have done Mercedes a favour.
And now comes the most important point. And that are the new Pirelli tyres. Mercedes obviously drew the right conclusions from the Abu Dhabi test last December. A stiffer carcass means that the tyre heats up less from the inside. A thinner tread means that the heat is less effective in the tyre. Therefore the tyre window went up. On critical tracks with slow corners and smooth asphalt (Melbourne, Baku) how is the best way to get the temperatures in the tyres? Through downforce. How do you make sure that the tyre doesn’t get over the tyre window on fast circuits like in Barcelona? Through downforce.
An engineer tells us: “Ferrari and Red Bull slide so much in the first two sectors in Barcelona already, that they come into the Sector 3 with a tyre surface that is too hot. At Mercedes, the tyres are still in the window. So they win twice in the last sector. Through more downforce and more grip from the tyres.”
In the slow corners a third factor comes to play: the mechanical grip. Mercedes worked hard on the suspensions during the winter. Mercedes not only follows a very own aerodynamic concept, it also has a very special geometry of the front axle. Only McLaren’s front suspension has a similar characteristic. The fact that the Mercedes trick is better than Ferrari’s philosophy is also shown by the comparison between Ferrari and their customer team Haas. Engine and chassis are more or less identical. The only difference between the two cars is their aerodynamics. Like Mercedes, Haas is fully committed to downforce, even at the expense of drag. GPS comparisons in Barcelona have shown: Haas loses 7 km/h on the straights to Ferrari. But in most corners, Haas is faster than Ferrari.
Advantage through smart politics
Mercedes already won the title race in the development phase of the W10. Because the engineers have correctly read the new rules and the new tyres from Pirelli. Perhaps also because they were actively involved in changing tyres and rules in their favour.
It was Mercedes who last year advised Pirelli to reduce the tread on the critical tracks. If Mercedes had a problem in the last five years, it was that the tyres tended to overheat. Mercedes was also one of the six teams that voted for the new aerodynamic rules. By the way Ferrari too. Red Bull was against it. For a good reason. And Mercedes also didn’t veto it when the fuel limit was raised. Although that should have been actually against their interests. The Mercedes V6 turbo is the most economical engine in the field. But the advantage you give up in fuel consumption turned out to be less than the advantage you gain in aerodynamics. Only if you come to the right conclusions.
Now the question arises, why the superiority of Mercedes has not yet been demonstrated in winter testing in Barcelona. Most will say that Mercedes was deliberately bluffing. In fact, it was probably a bit different. In the first test week only half a new W 10 drove. That was no measurement. In the second week it took Mercedes three and a half days to understand the car. The confusion was so great that they even questioned their own front wing concept at some point. Only on the last day of testing the engineers found the settings with which the new car worked. The speed in the slow corners was good from the start. In the fast corners the rear proved to be unstable. Mercedes lost too much in the first two sectors. One of the tricks to solve the problem was, that Mercedes supposedly increased the car’s angle of attack in the afternoon.