From the data that emerged after Formula 1 pre-season testing and at first race in Bahrain, the Red Bull RB16B turned out to be the best single-seater in all conditions, despite the final victory slipping through its hands by a whisker to Mercedes.
The Mercedes W12, despite its win, was objectively inferior to the Red Bull RB16B in Bahrain, particularly in outright qualifying pace, when Max Verstappen took pole by almost four-tenths!
The new 2021 aerodynamic regulations, which limited the downforce contribution of the floor and diffuser, seem to have had a greater impact on the balance of the Mercedes W12, compared to the RB16B. The rear instability experienced by Mercedes during the pre-season tests decreased with the continuation of the sessions, as the engineers improved its set-up, but it was never perfect. The new regulations could therefore have worked in Red Bull’s favour and, at the same time, penalised Mercedes.
Under the watchful eye of Adrian Newey Red Bull Racing’s cars during the last decade have been characterised mainly by an extremely high rake angle (when the rear is much higher than the front of the car).
In contrast to this, Mercedes has always run with a relatively flat single-seater with a long wheelbase. Only in the last season, albeit much less aggressively than Red Bull, have Mercedes moved to a higher angle. The same goes for Ferrari, which since 2018 used a fairly accentuated rake set-up, though none of the cars currently on the grid go as far as Newey’s Red Bull.
The cut to downforce at the rear as a result of the smaller floor surface and shorter diffuser is likely accentuated by the lower rake, which has hit Mercedes and Aston Martin harder than their rivals as they ran with the shallowest angle.
This is backed up by the data from Bahrain, which shows that year-on-year Mercedes and Aston Martin were two of the three teams to lose the most time. The other, Haas, was undoubtedly hampered by running two rookies in a car it has barely developed.
Red Bull certainly appears to have lost the least rear downforce with its car looking very stable at the rear in Bahrain, which not only helps with downforce, but also tyre wear and heating.
Several teams on the grid have tried to copy Red Bull’s high rake set-up at one point, but few have managed to exploit it in quite the same way Newey and his team have, often returning to their previous concepts.
The reason a high rake concept is so attractive is because it increases the performance of the diffuser by creating a greater gap at the rear, which allows the airflow to expand rapidly, creating a strong vacuum effect.
Everything on the car must be revised if the diffuser is very high from the ground, therefore it is not simply a case of increasing rear ride height as this increases the risk of aerodynamic stalling and can allow rogue airflow to pass under the floor when cornering, decreasing stability. This is why teams introduce drifts or fins in an attempt to better control the airflow and avoid it becoming disturbed.
Red Bull may therefore have lost fewer percentage points in terms of downforce due to a “different function” of the diffuser. The new regulations have limited the maximum height of the internal fins of the extractor channel, which are shorter this year by 50mm from the reference plane.
But with very high ground clearance, due to the rake, Red Bull is already accustomed to operating the diffuser with drifts detached from the ground and has already learned to overcome the disadvantages that brings, unlike its rivals.
The RB16B therefore, must be understood before it is simply copied. It took Newey several years to perfect the high rake concept. Already in 2010 he began to adopt the set-up, reaching significant levels of rake angle the following year.
It should also be considered that on the straights, the single-seater tends to return to flatter trim levels, lowering the rear. All this happens quite microscopically, but returning to a more horizontal set-up in the straights has advantages in terms of drag.