Wednesday 9 April 2014

Everything is connected to everything else for Mercedes

It had been hinted at since the point that the new cars first turned a wheel in Jerez testing in January. Indeed it had been hinted at since long before even that. And it - and its extent - was confirmed in the Bahrain race.

The Mercedes team is miles ahead of the rest. Of course, after three poles and three wins from three rounds so far this year this isn't much of a revelation; but perhaps just how much the silver cars have on their opponents as revealed last time out still had the capacity to surprise. After the safety car peeled back in giving us ten or so laps of racing to the flag in Sakhir the Mercs routinely lapped upwards of two seconds a lap quicker than anyone else including their closest (a relative term) pursuers. And in the final shake out the best lap from any other car, that of Nico Hulkenberg, was in the region of 1.7 seconds over that of either Silver Arrow. Perhaps, given that the Mercs were on fresh tyres in that final sprint and many of those behind weren't (only Valtteri Bottas and the two Ferraris among the pack next up behind the Mercs were similarly booted), the gap was a bit exaggerated. But few doubt that the representative time that the silver cars have in hand is well north of a second a lap.

Some of the secrets of Mercedes's success are
starting to be understood
Photo: Octane Photography
We often talk about the ability that radical rule changes have to jumble the order, and indeed it's proved so this time too. But another common result of such rule changes is, initially at least, that by good engineering or good luck one team can get it right immediately and leave the rest a long way behind. That's definitely proved to be so this time.

Similar has been seen before. Back in 1998, the season of possibly the biggest recent rule departure from the previous aside from the one we've just experienced, things were even more acute. McLaren turned up at the start of that year with a car so superior to the others that it was almost insulting. The two Woking cars lapped the field comfortably in the opening round, while for the most part giving the outward impression of circulating at half throttle. In round two things weren't quite as acute; the first non-McLaren was a mere minute behind the winner...

The next question for 2014 is whether anyone has the ability to catch up with the imperious Mercs. Indeed in that very same 1998 season the Michael Schumacher/Ferrari combination was in time able to make a something of the title race, which it took the final round. And of course as with any new set of rules the learning curves will be steep, more potential remains unexplored, and therefore there will be more scope to gain large amounts of time than is usually so.

But there are also a few reasons to think that things will be different this time. In 1998 Ferrari (and everyone else) had unlimited testing, no engine homogolation (though it's said that even now that's more honoured in the breach, or rather more honoured in the creative exploitation of the loopholes, than in the observance) as well as was in the midst of a tyre war and its Goodyear rubber then improved immeasurably relative to the McLaren's Bridgestones as the season went on. These avenues of improvement now are largely closed off. Ferrari also had a few political calls go its way too that season (natch).

And the explanations behind the Mercs wiping the floor with its rivals right now are beginning to come into focus, and as they do clouds are parting to reveal the sheer scale of the cliff edge that its opponents will need to climb if they are to get on terms.

It's been reported widely that the Merc power unit has taken a radical departure from the usual concept for a turbo layout, by placing the air compressor at the front of the engine (rather than at the customary rear) having separated it from the turbine via a lengthened shaft. The compressor therefore is placed is well away from the hot exhaust and this means less pipework is required to cool the air before it's entered into the engine. Ferrari apparently also has produced a concept in the same ballpark but didn't take it to the same extreme.

The McLaren in 1998 had similar early dominance
Credit: Rick Dikeman / CC
As is often the case too, the benefits of such a gain are not ring-fenced; they are incremental and assist in a variety of areas. This shorter pipework improves driveability by reducing turbo lag, which in turn means less of the ERS power is required to make up for the turbo lag (meaning there's more of that to use elsewhere) as well as allows more compact sidepods thus boosting aero efficiency. You can add to these too that as a consequence of the repositioned compressor the Merc's gearbox has been placed further forward, helping handling and change of direction via the more centralised weight distribution, as well as that its 'coke bottle' at the car's rear is much more compact than that of its rivals, further benefitting aero.

Lenin isn't the most likely source of quotes relevant to F1, but one of his utterances seems highly apt to what we're seeing here, and what Mercedes is reaping the gains from: 'everything is connected to everything else'.

Perhaps the greatest beauty of all for the Merc team is that such things - like the power unit and coke bottle area - are probably the most time-consuming and difficult to create your own version of. It will be no work of a moment for rivals to honour this by imitation.

Of course, the Merc customer teams also benefit from this power unit concept, but what they haven't had is the same amount of time to design their cars around it and thus maximise the gains. To give some idea of the time difference we're talking about here, it's said that Mercedes first had this idea somewhere in the region of two years ago.

And as Mark Hughes noted after the Malaysian race, getting ahead of the game in F1 2014-style means one heck of a virtuous circle more generally. A better-handling car, better aero and lower drag means less fuel usage due to less of a need to stamp on the throttle to make up for it, which means you can run at higher boost; these also mean lower tyre wear which also benefits fuel economy as well as energy harvesting; better energy harvesting in turn helps power and fuel economy...

Given all of this, even at this relatively stage it's seriously difficult to see how Mercedes can be stopped in 2014. Anyone that does manage it surely will deserve whatever success comes its way as a result.

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