Mercedes is slower than Red Bull — but it could all blow over: MPH

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Mercedes was seemingly off the pace during a turbulent Bahrain test, writes Mark Hughes. Could the desert weather be at fault?

Lewis Hamilton kicks up sand in Bahrain

Mercedes struggled in the Bahrain test. But can red Bull maintain its advantage when racing begins?

Clive Mason/F1 via Getty Images

Three days of winter testing at Bahrain two weeks ahead of the race there threw up an intriguing picture, one in which the Honda-powered Red Bull and AlphaTauri teams emerged as the star performers and in which Mercedes was struggling with a serious rear end instability problem which it didn’t immediately understand.

There are all sorts of reasons why testing at this venue makes reading the underlying pace of each car even more difficult than at the usual venue of Barcelona. There is a huge variation in the speed of the track from the heat of the day into the cool on the desert night – by something between 1.5-2sec. The different engine modes used by the teams at different times have a much bigger effect on lap times than at Barcelona because of the layout of the track with its repeated acceleration zones. But trickiest of all, in these three days the wind was gusty and wildly varying in both its strength and direction – which is something that can happen at a track surrounded by flat expanses not far from the tidal effects of the sea. It is that wind which may well hold the secret to Mercedes’ struggles.

Red Bull appeared to be a full 1sec faster than Mercedes

There were no classic long runs to help with the comparison by equalising the fuel loads. With everything squeezed into three days, for most teams race simulations simply took up time better devoted to conducting a greater number of experiments (Ferrari and AlphaTauri were exceptions here). So all we had really were the fast times set in the cool ‘happy hour’ on the final day – which in general seemed to be at least 1sec faster than the equivalent happy hours of the previous days – when we cannot know for sure how the fuel loads between teams compared.

Traditionally in testing Mercedes has run even qualifying simulations with significantly more fuel on board than it would if it were for real. McLaren and the former Racing Point team historically have gone for only slightly less, Red Bull, Ferrari and AlphaTauri a little less again. The others tend to fuel much as if it were actual qualifying. Adjusting for those assumptions and for the different tyre compounds used when the best times were set, Red Bull appeared to be a full 1sec faster than Mercedes, which was merely in the lead chasing pack, together with AlphaTauri, Ferrari and McLaren (and probably Aston Martin but the car was sidelined by a turbo problem when the track was at its fastest). Behind that pack seemed to be three no-man’s lands occupied by Alpine, with a big gap then back to Alfa Romeo, then Williams – with Haas hanging off the back. That was the picture on that day in those conditions.

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So, what was going on with the new Mercedes? Both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas were complaining of an unpredictable and unforgiving rear end, something which was quite visible when they were on track – in contrast to the Red Bull which looked a vision of grip and balance. Mercedes engineering chief Andy Shovlin was frank in his assessment, “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. 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.”

There is a lot of detailed analysis and understanding to be done for Mercedes in the remaining days before if it can know the root of the problem and whether it can be rectified in time. But the best clues are maybe hidden in two qualifying sessions of the 2019 season – one of them at Bahrain. The other was Sunday morning Suzuka that year after qualifying had been rained out on the Saturday by a typhoon. In both those sessions Mercedes struggled badly with strong cross winds and the front row was locked out on both occasions by Ferrari.

Mercedes W10 front

2019 Mercedes W10

Mercedes-AMG

Mercedes W12 front

2021 Mercedes W12

Mercedes-AMG

The Mercedes has also traditionally been a difficult car in traffic, seemingly more adversely affected by turbulence from the car ahead than others. The aero restrictions of 2019 divided the field up into loaded and unloaded outboard front wings, with Mercedes the most extreme of the outboard-loaded camp, Ferrari near the opposite end. Mercedes made it work extremely effectively but other teams which had looked at the concept in the tunnel said they saw some great downforce numbers with it, but that they couldn’t adequately control the outwash flow around the tyres and down the side of the car in all the different conditions of yaw, ride height, cornering speed – and crosswinds. Mercedes managed to make it work – but it was clearly a more challenging concept.

At Suzuka 2019 all that was left of the Saturday typhoon by Sunday morning qualifying was a strong and gusty wind. The Mercedes was edgy through the multiple direction changes of the Esses and generally more nervous than the Ferrari. By race time later the same day the wind had died down and the Mercedes was returned to its usual balanced self. The team thought back to the last time the car had been such a challenge – and it had been during the windy Bahrain qualifying.

Red Bull RB15

2019 Red Bull RB15

Red Bull

Red Bull RB16B

2021 Red Bull RB16B

Red Bull

Back then Red Bull was firmly in the Mercedes camp with an extreme loading of the outboard end of the wing, using up the full permissible depth there. Since then it has migrated towards a less extreme version. Even Mercedes has done so to some extent, but not by as much as Red Bull. Could this be at the root of the Merc problems when combined with the changed aerodynamic demands imposed by the regulation reduction in floors?

But recall that at the end of last year Red Bull was adamant it had finally unlocked the secret of its RB16 and that if it had done so earlier it was convinced it would have had the beating of Mercedes. Easy to say. But maybe it’s finally going to make good on that promise. Rarely in recent years has a Red Bull looked like the form car heading into a season.