The pitstops of Mercedes have come glaringly under the spotlight this season as the team fights for the world championship with Red Bull. It’s not a new thing that Red Bull’s stops are faster – it holds the record for changing all four wheels in 1.82sec, accomplished at the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix – but it’s the first time it has really mattered.
Previously its cars weren’t fast enough for pitstop times to be a deciding factor in a championship. This year they absolutely are. Since the beginning of the hybrid era, which Mercedes has so dominated, Red Bull’s qualifying deficit to them has been as follows:
2014 – 0.83sec
2015 – 1.17sec
2016 – 0.72sec
2017 – 0.76sec
2018 – 0.48sec
2019 – 0.39sec
2020 – 0.58sec
After six races this season any difference between them would need to be measured to three decimal places of a second (it was 0.002sec in Merc’s favour); they are absolutely neck and neck in performance. But not in the pitlane, where a Mercedes stop typically takes around 1sec longer than that of a Red Bull. That’s if the Mercedes pitstop even goes smoothly. The refusal of Valtteri Bottas’s front-right wheel to come off at his stop in Monaco was just the most extreme of the glitches suffered in the Merc pits this year.
At Bahrain a delay of 8sec at Bottas’s second stop prevented him being used to force Verstappen in early and thereby aid Hamilton’s victory bid. At Imola, Hamilton’s attempt at overcutting past Verstappen at the first stops was foiled when there was a delay of around 3sec removing both front wheels.
The more often it happens, the bigger the pressure heaped upon the Mercedes guys as the stops loom. Given that the stakes are the world title itself, that pressure will only intensify. So what is going wrong?
“Mercedes has been compromised by a £1m accident bill from Imola”
The most obvious is that Mercedes has not paid as much attention over the years in how to shave those fractions off at the stops. It has devoted all its resource into what it saw as the more productive area of car development, keeping it faster, so much faster that pitstop differences were second or third order. Red Bull, by contrast, with a car that was never quite fast enough has been looking at every possible area and squeezing every gram of possibility from it. Its pitstop equipment, notably the guns and jacks and the way they attach, the allowances they make for different ride heights, their articulation and quick release, is simply better. A lot of money has been spent on developing it. Now they have a car as fast as Mercedes, that difference is proving crucial.
There was a little-noticed technical directive issued in June of last year – when Mercedes still had a big car advantage – prohibiting teams from further developing their pitstop equipment. In the drive to reduce costs during the pandemic, their pitstop equipment was effectively homologated. Teams had to provide the FIA with details of their existing equipment by the end of September, and whatever they had then is what they would have throughout the remainder of that season and the next.
Given the price of the equipment and of developing it, it’s easy to see why this was an easy target in the drive to cut costs. A front jack? Go on, have a guess how much? Yes, £250,000. Wheel guns – around £5000 off the shelf but with tailor-made mods, probably more like £10,000 each – and the team needs around 24 of them. There’s another quarter-million.
So Mercedes has found itself stuck with inferior pit equipment at just the moment pitstop speed has come to matter way more than before – because its car has lost its advantage. There’s another possible cost cap-related factor in this too. As part of the drive to bring itself under this year’s cost cap, Mercedes has used more metal in its suspension and less carbon fibre. Might that be radiating more heat to the hubs and splines, making the wheels ‘stickier’ to come off? The metal expands with heat, different metal at different rates. As we saw in Baku, the Merc’s difficulties in generating front tyre temperatures – more extreme with the ’21 tyres and aero regs – means them using some quite extreme measures in directing brake heat to the rims and thence the tyres. This too may be contributing to the problem.
What they’ve got is what they’ve got in terms of pit equipment. So Merc’s emphasis has to be on developing the car. But there’s a problem there, too. So tight up against the $145m (around £102m) cost cap are the top teams that it’s difficult to develop your way out of a problem by making the car significantly faster. Merc’s ability to out-perform Red Bull in the development race has been compromised by a £1m accident damage bill from Imola (where Bottas and George Russell collided). Again, F1’s eye-watering costs make this a serious problem. A front wing assembly: £175,000. A rear wing/crash structure assembly: £200,000. Bodywork: £300,000.
You begin to get an idea of the scale of the problem…
Since he began covering grand prix racing in 2000, Mark Hughes has forged a reputation as the finest Formula 1 analyst of his generation Follow Mark on Twitter @SportmphMark