The very stable Mercedes we saw at the Spanish Grand Prix has already made the memories of Bahrain seem very distant, where it suffered from a lack of grip at the rear of its W12, whilst also struggling with balance.
But since the end of March to the beginning of May, Mercedes has been able to get on top of its problems and that was very much evident in Barcelona where Lewis Hamilton claimed pole before winning with a two-stop strategy to beat Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
It might be a little too early to judge whether Mercedes is truly back on top, but a few more races should make things clearer.
Mercedes has been able to quickly analyse the data it has collected on-track and back at its factory in Brackley across the opening four races, to determine the areas which required urgent attention. But unlike its rival Red Bull, it hasn’t introduced any particularly obvious technical innovations to its W12, other than some small tweaks to adapt the car to certain track characteristics.
Mercedes’ problems at the beginning of the season had been highlighted by an imbalance of the car, due to the change in technical regulations – the cuts to the floor and the limitations to the diffuser have reduced the downforce of all the cars at the rear by about 6-8%, and this caused an aerodynamic balance imbalance between the front and rear axles.
Mercedes seems to have suffered most from these changes, together with Aston Martin, which is no surprise given their close relationship. On the other hand, Red Bull together with Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and AlphaTauri have suffered the least.
One factor that has had a lot of influence is the low rake of the Mercedes, with a fairly flat car, especially compared to the angle of the RB16B, with a difference of almost 2-degrees, which may sound small, but makes a huge difference.
Mercedes has always managed to generate a lot of high-efficiency downforce from the floor and diffuser, with a car that is almost parallel to the ground. The team approached the regulations in an aggressive manner, not limiting itself to the simple interpretation of the technical directives.
The floor introduced on the W12 since the pre-season tests of Sakhir was distinguished by the now widely adopted ‘Z-cut’, together with a series of flow deviators in front of the rear wheel to reduce aerodynamic drag. The diverters are then connected by a horizontal bridge element (see below).
Trying to recreate the aerodynamic conditions of the 2020 floor is one of the main focuses of the technicians, and Mercedes immediately realised they had to sacrifice a portion of the floor to achieve this. The edge more parallel to the bodywork of the Z-cut brings the vortices of the air flow to the lower part of the floor, recreating a sort of skirt that seals the flows creating something akin to ground-effect.
But Mercedes also distinguished itself at the beginning of the season with the introduction of the “wave” floor in the central area. A solution that no team has adopted until now, except its “cousin” Aston Martin, which developed this solution further in Portimao.
In Bahrain, despite the victory, Red Bull clearly seemed to have the better car and it went on the deliver a win in Imola.
For that Emilia Romagna GP, micro-aerodynamic interventions were made in the diffuser area, both in the central area of the extractor and in the internal fins. Obviously, the development areas this year mainly concern those that have suffered the limitations of the technical regulations.
Mercedes were unable to extract the maximum from its updates in Imola, but by Portugal, on the Portimao rollercoaster, Mercedes seemed to be in a superior position.
The contribution that both drivers made in recovering the right balance of the W12 should not be underestimated. In Portimao, for example, they preferred different choices of downforce at the rear. Valterri Bottas preferred to use a set-up that favoured qualifying conditions (he took pole) with a high downforce rear wing.
Lewis Hamiton, on the other hand, preferred to unload the rear, and debuted on the Mercedes the second configuration of the inclination of the DRS flap (the FIA imposes a maximum of two different configurations for the whole season) with a significantly reduced rope. Mercedes, to compensate for the choices between the two drivers, provided Bottas with a rear wing with a single support pylon, which offers less drag. Last year the single-pylon was used for lighter wings, in this case Mercedes had used it in the high downforce version.
In Spain, on the other hand, the same rear wing returned for both drivers, with the classic double-pylon configuration.
On the Barcelona track, which has always been a circuit linked to Mercedes triumphs in recent years, the W12 offered the best performance of the season, and the Power Unit seems to have returned to maximum speed, after a somewhat safe start for reliability purposes.
On the technical front there has been a lot of talk about the flexible wing of the RB16B, although we strongly doubt that Lewis Hamilton was able to see the flexing of Verstappen’s wing from the cockpit, hence Christian Horner’s comments that it was in fact Toto Wolff who initiated the discussion.
The downward movement of the wing flattens the shape of the wing edge, and this produces advantages by reducing drag. It was evident how the wing flattened out on the main straight of the Montmelò circuit when viewed from the rear-facing camera.
As a result, the technical checks in terms of bending will be more severe, starting from the French GP.
In terms of downforce choices, Red Bull had unloaded the rear wing for the qualifying and race sessions, opting for a spoon main plane as in previous races. A choice quite in contrast with what was done by Mercedes, which in Barcelona used a rear wing in pre-configuration for Monte Carlo.
The Mercedes choice ultimately paid off, and the W12 was faster both in qualifying and in the race, especially with Hamilton behind the wheel.
In anticipation of the Monaco race next weekend, Red Bull still seems to be the favourite on a track that has historically enhanced the characteristics of Adrian Newey-designed cars. But the W12 is not to be underestimated, especially now that it’s back to top performance.