Last weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix was very much a case of euphoria for one title protagonist and misery for the other, as everything seemed to go Red Bull’s way on Sunday, but the same can’t be said for Mercedes.
Red Bull went into the race weekend favourites, although Ferrari looked set to upset those predictions as Charles Leclerc stuck his SF21 on pole, only to crash on the next lap and fail to start the race, essentially promoting Verstappen to pole, albeit from second place on the grid.
Mercedes meanwhile saw their race end in disaster for Valtteri Bottas, due to a right-front wheel nut, whilst Lewis Hamilton could do no better than seventh.
It was certainly a dip compared to Spain the previous time out where Hamilton won the race ahead of Verstappen and Bottas.
The characteristics of the Monte Carlo circuit make it rather unique, it’s not often considered a real representation of the strengths of a car, and Mercedes will be looking to recover quickly when F1 heads to Azerbaijan in June – at a circuit that offers up a rather different challenge.
It’s expected that the W12 will be on top again, especially at a track where outright power plays a pivotal role with the Baku Street Circuit featuring the longest straight on the calendar, however it also features some slow, twisty sections more akin to Monaco, therefore Red Bull will certainly be in play as usual.
Red Bull will arrive in Baku in a more relaxed state, as it leads both the Drivers and Constructors’ Championships for the first time since 2013 and has been working hard to bring updates to its car with each passing race, whereas Mercedes has focussed on much smaller tweaks, rather than innovations.
In Monaco, Red Bull introduced a new diffuser design which featured serrated metallic patinas (gurney flap) in the external extractor area.
Rear stability is one of the strengths of the RB16B, which manages to generate a lot of downforce at high efficiency through the floor and the diffuser. The modifications to the diffuser seen in Monte Carlo were useful in managing the vortices and the vacuum field – a rather curious solution, which Mercedes used in the past in the edge of the wing flap.
It is difficult to think that Red Bull will continue to bring so many new updates, as the spending limitations due to the budget cap will begin to be felt. Above all, it will be essential to preserve parts such as the frame and suspension, avoiding crashes. We have seen how Bottas’ damaged chassis at Imola affected Mercedes’ budget as it cost them as estimated $1m to replace the damaged parts.
Red Bull has taken a step back from the updates adopted for Barcelona, regarding the front brake ducts. In fact, we have returned for Montecarlo to a solution seen only in Portimao, with a different configuration of the air flow dividers inside the brake duct.
In Baku we will certainly return to talking about flexible wings, given that the characteristics of the circuit they will favour those who adopt a very flexible rear wing like that of Red Bull, which is able to shed downforce at high speed.
The Baku track, having a very long straight, will allow the rear wing to flex and compress as seen in Spain, flattening the degree of impact of the flaps, reducing drag. This boosts speed on a the straights before the wing returns to its standard position under braking as the flow of air that exerts downforce decreases.
At the regulatory level, the rear wing of the RB16B is perfectly compliant, and passes the load tests used in the technical checks by the FIA. However, after the post-GP analysis of Spain, the FIA decided to tighten its stance by modifying the parameters of the wing compliance tests. Despite this, these new directives, which will involve the redesign of the rear wings of several teams, will only come into force starting from the French GP. This has annoyed Toto Wolff among others, as it gives those teams a major boost in Baku.
The tension at Mercedes after Monaco is high, but there is awareness that we will see an immediate return to the levels seen in Spain. The W12 has potential that certainly matches its rival, the RB16B, but what emerged from the tests is that the new regulations in depth and diffuser have jeopardised the aerodynamic balance of Brackley’s car, which is more difficult to put in the right setup window.
Furthermore, the abolition of the DAS system seems to have hindered their ability to manage the front tyres of the W12 in low temperature conditions. We have seen how Lewis Hamilton struggled in Monaco, starting from Saturday in FP3 when the temperatures dropped compared to Friday’s sessions.
On a technical level, to adapt the W12 to the streets of the principality, Mercedes has introduced its first real technical innovation of the season, modifying the steering column to offer better handling of the car in the tight corners of Monaco.
From the comparison of the drawing above it can be seen that the new arm that activates the tie rod movement of the wheels is more robust and advanced. Its new shape was designed to ensure better resistance of the tie rod in the event of brushing against the guard rails. The more advanced steering column in the position near the hub also affected the brake duct, slightly reducing the air inlet holes.
It doesn’t appear to have helped much however, given their performance in Monaco, which with its long wheelbase and a low rake set-up finds it more difficult than Ferrari and Red Bull in making the car rotate easily in slow corners.
In Baku, this problem shouldn’t exist, and most likely they will opt for a set-up that favours straight-line speeds, rather than cornering grip. In Baku there are a mix of fast corners and slow, 90º corners, but nothing sharper than that.
This is why comparative tests could be carried out by Mercedes during practice, in helping to find the right choice of set-up that leans more towards race pace than outright qualifying speed. At the rear, the low downforce wing seen at Portimao, used by Hamilton, together with the double pylon, could reappear.