How much trouble is Mercedes really in?

F1

Mercedes says it's slower than Red Bull but is it another bluff or could we be in for a championship battle this season?

Mercedes W12, RB16B 2021 F1 Testing

Mercedes looks to be on the back foot and Red Bull is more than just lurking

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

As the chequered flag fell on testing in 2021 after just three days of track time, Mercedes finished fifth on the timing screens but bottom of the pile in terms of mileage.

The reigning constructors’ champion endured arguably its most difficult start to a season in the turbo-hybrid era, with lost track time and tricky conditions muddying the already murky waters of a preseason F1 test.

Trying to read into lap times can be difficult and result in a misrepresentative pecking order, but to say Mercedes is doing just fine would be a stretch.

Trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin admitted as much after things had wrapped up officially in Bahrain, saying the team was behind Red Bull and still seeking the cause of the deficit.

Valtteri Bottas said that missing track time had hurt preparations for the season and Lewis Hamilton alluded to the W12 as lacking in all areas.

But is it all doom and gloom for the Silver Arrows or another occasion where Toto and co. are crying wolf?

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Missing mileage

With the regulations staying relatively stable between 2020 and 2021, the usual race simulation running that can serve as a telltale sign of true pace was not on many team’s agendas in Sakhir this year.

Instead, maximising the experimentation of set-up and aero efficiency was the key aspect that took up the majority of teams’ run plans on all three days.

Missing the first morning with a gearbox issue “out of nowhere” cost Bottas and his team three hours of track time while main rivals Red Bull hit the ground running.

He managed just six laps after emerging from the garage with 36 minutes remaining on morning one and the arrival of a sandstorm in the afternoon only compounded the lost time.

Over the next two days, the team was able to run as normal for the majority of the time, save for a spin for Hamilton on day two, though it was slow to emerge from the garage on all three days post-lunch break.

Of all the pre-season tests in the turbo-hybrid era, 2021 is the second-worst for Mercedes in terms of overall distance covered, but only after 2020’s four-day test and it dominated the season.

What is worrying for the team is that despite holding back its filming day until after the preseason test, using both of its allocated 100km days would still leave it short of Red Bull’s total kilometres covered.

The champions only managed 1077km versus 1307km for RBR, and that’s even before the consideration that filming days don’t use race-spec Pirelli tyres, further limiting the value of the track time.

Preseason mileage

Year Days of testing Distance covered (Km)
2014 12 4972
2015 12 6121
2016 8 6024
2017 8 5102
2018 8 4841
2019 8 5563
2020 6 4204
2021 3 1077

 

Is the W12’s design flawed?

Since the regulation shift in 2017 to longer and wider cars, Mercedes has stuck with a low-rake concept while others, chiefly Red Bull, have championed a high-rake philosophy.

Mercedes ran a slightly higher rake angle than usual in Bahrain but the teams that have utilised the higher rake concept looked much better on track in comparison. In 2021, the rear of the floors have been reduced in size, meaning downforce generated at the rear of the car is even more vital as teams look to claw back the lost aero points.

On the opening day, much was made of the W12’s ‘wavy’ floor design by the sidepods but it’s at the rear where the issues seem to arise. Both Hamilton and Bottas complained of an unpredictable and snappy car, the polar opposite of what we’ve seen from the Brackley team in seasons past with it usually on rails over the course of a lap.

“We made some improvements but it’s still not where we want to be. I can’t pick out any one area, it just feels globally through the lap that we need to improve,” Hamilton surmised afterwards.

Teams were coy about thoughts on high rake versus low rake throughout the three-day test, but on first impressions, it looks as though the floor changes may have impacted Mercedes more than others.

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It is one thing to be slower than the main competition, but Mercedes says it can’t figure out what is prompting the handling issues its drivers are experiencing, and that is potentially huge.

In 2019, arguably the season in which Mercedes was given the biggest scare pre-season as Ferrari looked like the strongest package until the final hours, it took a late ride height change to unlock the W10’s ultimate performance in the second week of testing.

So far, there are no signs of a similar magic bullet curing the issues, save for a miraculous recovery behind closed doors during its filming day.

“We’ve made a bit of progress with the balance on higher fuel and the car was more predictable but we can see from the data we’ve collected over the last few days that on race pace, we’re not as quick as Red Bull,” Shovlin said after day three.

“The lower fuel work was a more confusing picture, we didn’t gain enough and we need to go and look at our approach as far too many cars were ahead of us on pace today. We’ve had issues in recent years with pace in winter testing and managed to make good progress before the first race but we may have our work cut out this time.

“We’ve not got long before we’re back here for the race so we’ve planned a programme of work to try and understand some of our issues and will be leaving no stone unturned in our efforts to find some more speed over the next ten days.”

Mercedes W12 Floor

The front of the Mercedes floor attracted attention but it’s at the rear where its troubles may be

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

Stronger competition

Red Bull on the other hand experienced its own rear-end issues last season but dominated the final round and said it had finally conquered its concept.

Chief engineer Pierre Wache said at the finale: “I think they [Mercedes] were beatable. If we’d found what we find now on the car, we’d beat them.” His words look like more than just fighting talk after this past weekend.

Adrian Newey and Red Bull are typically much quicker at adapting to aero changes and identifying efficient and innovative solutions and it looks like they’ve finally got their concept nailed down.

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The RB16B was the car that was flying along in Bahrain no matter the track conditions. This is the strongest we’ve seen Red Bull look heading into a new season.

Red Bull has shown a tendency to perform towards the end of a season then fail to carry that to the next but Max Verstappen ended up fastest overall across the three days and it looks like the team hasn’t even broken into a sweat.

Honda has accelerated its development of the power unit in its final year in F1, shifting the upgrade roadmap a year forward from the original schedule as it looks to bow out on a winning note.

In his measured responses to questions about expectations for the year ahead, Verstappen reminded everyone that Mercedes has finished off the top before and come back to bite at round one, but if it can’t match the stability of Red Bull in the corners consistently, there is weakness in the armour. That is all the Dutchman needs as he seeks his first real title battle.