Why Hamilton and Mercedes could surprise in 2013

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Guest writer @John-Beamer looks at how Mercedes lost their way in 2012 and could bounce back this year.

Lewis Hamilton’s move to Mercedes for 2013 has attracted widespread comment and speculation.

He has been quick to play down the team’s chances this year, leading many to speculate that they are throwing all their resources at the change of engine regulations for 2014.

This doesn’t seem an unreasonable view. Mercedes ended 2012 with an uncompetitive car, the technical regulations are much the same this year and the technical structure at Brackley has undergone considerable changes which are yet to bear fruit.

But a closer look suggests there are reasons to expect Mercedes could surprise with their performance this year.

Mercedes’ troubles in 2012

Mercedes began 2012 with a very competitive car. The W03 looked strong in testing, won the Chinese Grand Prix comfortably and was the quickest car in qualifying in Monaco.

Mercedes’ average grid position in the first half of the year was 3.8. In the second half of the season it rose to 9.2 which illustrates how the Brackley-based team was out-developed by its rivals.

We’ve this trend before from the same team. In 2009, when it was Brawn, the BGP-001 was unbeatable for the first half of the season. But after other teams, notably Red Bull, bolted double diffusers on their cars Brawn began to struggle.

At the time it was put down to their lack of resources following the departure of Honda. But Mercedes’ development rate in the three subsequent seasons shows signs of a similar pattern. In 2012 their development problems stemmed from the decision to focus on Double DRS (DDRS) and passive F-duct systems.

Double DRS

Mercedes stated to experiment with a passively stalled front wing at the end of 2011 so the team made a commitment to the device early.

In 2012 that they hooked it up to the DRS. Initially the system was seen as a boon, especially in qualifying. However, by the mid-point of the season it was clear the device hindered performance.

The main issue was one of flow reattachment. DDRS on the Mercedes worked by feeding air from a small inlet to a slit in the underside of the front wing when DRS was activated. This stalled the front wing by disrupting the airflow. If the front wing doesn’t work it also disrupts the airflow towards the rear of the car – the diffuser will also stall too, further reducing drag and downforce.

This increased the speed boost when used on straights. But when the DRS is closed it takes time for the air to reattach to the front wing – at a minimum a few milliseconds are required once the DRS is shut for the front wing to ‘switch on’ again.

When the front wing flow is reattached the flow at the rear of the car still needs to harmonise with the new flow regime. The consequences of delayed reattachment aren’t good: corner-entry understeer being top of the list. Mercedes tried to ameliorate that, leading to set-up changes which forced compromises elsewhere.

In addition installing DDRS or a passive F-duct requires design compromises to some of the aerodynamic surfaces of the wing. The underside of the wing was contoured slightly differently to try to get it to reattach air faster. Similarly the inlet holes cause design compromises with the rear wing.

Passive F-duct

Mercedes also played around with a passive F-duct – as did Lotus. This device is similar to DDRS except that is ‘switched on’ automatically when the car reaches a certain speed. Faster air causes low pressure so it is possible to harness to effect to create a fluid switch.

The passive F-duct presents problems with flow reattachment and tuning. The switch ‘on’ and ‘off’ speeds can vary: for example, at circuits with high-speed corners the ‘switch on’ speed must be set quite high to avoid it activating mid-corner. Therefore the benefit is lessened.

There is little question that the focus on DDRS and the passive F-duct diverted valuable resources away from other aerodynamic development – particularly the Coanda exhausts, where it turned out there was more lap time to be found.

It is not the case that their ideas were flawed. A key part of Red Bull’s late-season gains was down to the addition of a DDRS to their RB8. However theirs stalled the beam wing rather than the front of the car. This simpler system was a lot more effective and suffered less from reattachment issues.

Rules stability in 2013

The technical rules have changed little over the winter. The banning of unlimited DRS in qualifying is one of few significant changes, and is likely to work against some of Mercedes’ rivals, notably Red Bull.

In periods of rules stability designs tend to converge as teams adopt each others’ ideas. That is particularly true at the moment as the rules are more restrictive than they’ve ever been.

As the scope for major breakthroughs is lessened, teams are increasingly involved in an exercise of iterating and fine tuning existing concepts. The teams who have faster cars to start with are more likely to stay ahead providing they can sustain the development rate.

One year after the 2012 exhaust restrictions, teams will have observed what works from 2012 but have plenty of scope to tailor the design of the car to take advantage of the regulations. This means that while 2012 platforms are a great starting point for the likes of Red Bull, McLaren and Lotus there will be a bit more ‘revolution’ than there would be in a third year of rules stability.

As we saw in 2012, teams may find good chunks of time through reasonably simple changes (e.g., new exhausts or front wing upgrade). So it should be possible for a team to go from being off the pace to challenging for race wins providing they have the resources – as Mercedes undoubtedly do.

Mercedes should be able to exploit the stability in the rules to their advantage. But the likes of Red Bull and McLaren have better starting points with their 2012 chassis.

Changes at Brackley?

Mercedes have made several changes to their technical team to expand and strengthen it. Over the last 18 months Ross Brawn has hired Bob Bell, Geoff Willis, Aldo Costa and Mark Elliot – all senior figures.

An obvious potential problem is that with so many heavy hitters in the technical team lines of accountability may become blurred. While Elliot’s role as head of aerodynamics is straightforward, Willis, Costa and Bell are all in some sort of technical director capacity and it is unclear who has overall responsibility for the technical vision of the car.

Over at the team everyone is trying to beat – Red Bull – there is no mistaking that Adrian Newey in the man in charge on the technical side. The same isn’t obviously the case with Mercedes.

In addition to hiring people there has been a significant upgrade is technology and systems. Geoff Willis led a programme to upgrade the wind tunnel to 60% (from 50%), which should give more accurate data on tyre modelling.

This is a significant undertaking – as attested at Ferrari who continue to suffer significant wind tunnel-to-track correlation issues. Although it will be a long-term benefit it isn’t guaranteed that the wind tunnel correlation will be perfect from the off. If not this will hamper development efforts and could turn 2013 into a long year for the Brackley team.

The departure of Norbert Haug one month ago showed the team expects greater success then one race win in three years. The arrival of Hamilton is further proof of that.

What can we expect in 2013?

It is a few weeks before the 2013 cars are revealed but reading the media it is possible to pick up a few clues as to where Mercedes will focus its 2013 efforts.

First off it is apparent, despite the above, that the passive F-duct approach hasn’t been abandoned. However I do not expect it to be a significant feature of the car.

The majority of Mercedes’ efforts will be on getting the rear end right. There are two components: using the exhaust gasses properly – something they never really got a handle on in 2012 – and maximising airflow over the diffuser through smart component packaging and heavy sidepod undercuts.

There are rumours Mercedes has developed a ultra-small gearbox, copying Williams. I expect a few teams to go down this route as it is an obvious way to reduce blockage at the rear of the car. The challenge with a small gearbox is that the drive shafts are more steeply angled which reduces power transmitted to the wheels. But the evidence from Williams suggests this conundrum is solvable.

In addition it is thought that Mercedes will copy the Red Bull exhausts with ducting at the rear to better direct the exhaust flow. The jury is still out on whether the McLaren or Red Bull exhaust solution is best, but Mercedes struggled to emulate McLaren’s Coanda solution last year.

And then there is the Hamilton factor. How much of the potential of the W01, W02 and W03 did Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg extract – and will Hamilton do better?

Is 2014 the better bet?

At minimum Mercedes should stand to regain the position they lost to Lotus during 2012. I suspect they will be challenging Ferrari for third fastest car on the grid and could be in the mix for podiums and the odd race win.

That raises the question as to what point Mercedes should divert their focus from 2013 to 2014. This will be a critical decision for every team this year.

The new engine formula for 2014 favours factory-backed teams as they can work with the engine manufacturer to fine-tune the engine over the course of the season. Customer teams will have less opportunity to do this and engine optimisation will be worth a lot of lap time early on.

Although the engine formula is the most radical change it will inevitably have consequences for aerodynamics. The V6 has different packaging needs to the current V8 and in addition there will be some (minor) changes to front wing width and nose height. Given how important front wing end plates are to aerodynamic performance a substantial amount of work will be required to optimise the tyre-wing interaction.

If Mercedes have a top-three car in 2013 and demonstrate they can develop through the season then there is every reason to be positive for 2014. If the W04 is off the pace come April expect the team to write off 2013 and plough their efforts into next year. A tactic which served them very well during 2009.

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46 comments on “Why Hamilton and Mercedes could surprise in 2013”

  1. Good article, enjoyed it. I have huge doubts whether they can compete upfront next season, but 2014 can be a whole different story. I like how they played their chances down all throughout last season, means much less pressure and a 5th place in constructors from last year means they can only look forward to going up the ladder in the championship next season. Even a 4th place finish would be deemed successful though I expect them to be competitive for podium finishes at least in half of the races in 2013.

    1. I think Merc started off 2012 quite optimistic about fighting for podiums. They thought they had an upper hand with the DDRS, and NR’s win confirmed some reason for excitement, so I don’t think it was until they saw that they were starting to move backwards during the races, and then throughout the season, that they started to downplay their chances. They certainly started off the season expecting more than what the end result became. Some fallout…MS gone before he even had a chance to announce it…LH hired…Haug gone. Last year’s results for them will only have served to increase the pressure for this coming season and next, pressure that no doubt increased as last season went along and they only moved backwards, almost losing a constructor spot to Sauber near the end.

  2. Lewis doing well in a Mercedes would make the title fight something to watch out for through the season. However a strong Mercedes will make it tougher for Midfield teams to make a mark. Testing can’ start soon enough.

    1. I don’t think Hamilton will be a title contender, at least not this year. Mercedes have gone to some length to reverse their fortunes, but they know that there is still a long road ahead of them.

  3. I am very confident that Hamilton will win at least one race next year: if Mercedes can effectively adopt the Red Bull/Coanda exhaust system in combination with an effective DRD then I imagine they will be able to challenge for victories with Red Bull and McLaren, especially because we are likely to have a “tyre lottery” yet again at the start of this season with Pirelli brining more aggressive compounds.

  4. By far the best F1 web site ……… in the world!

  5. Wouldn’t at all be supriced if Hamilton wins equally many races as he did in 2012 with Mclaren. Mercedes/Brawn is a funny team, either they get it right and are very competitive, or they get it wrong and it’s not working at all. They have had some great ideas, like the double DRS, but then seem to make mistakes in making the right choises in development. They also trew away alot of points with mechanical failures. I bet that if they can get a car that is solid and reasonablely quick, Hamilton can do what Raikkonen did this year and be right there at the top with Vettel and Alonso in the driver championship.

  6. Never been a fan of Hamilton, and maybe it’s because I have a soft spot for the Mercedes team, but I’m quite looking forward to seeing how they do. I don’t know if they’ll bring a car that can compete with the likes of McLaren and Red Bull (and possibly Lotus and Ferrari), but they might regain some of the ground lost in the second half of the year. Though, due to the DDRS being the heart of the previous car, then perhaps they’ll have the be more revolutionary, than evolutionary, which could quite hurt them.

    Especially, when you look at teams like Sauber or Williams, which both had quite fundamentally good cars, and with the rules being so stable, they could surprise.

    I definitely get the sense that Ross Brawn is trying to create another super-team, as was with the case with Ferrari in the late 90s. Employing Aldo Costa, Geoff Willis, Mark Elliot and Bob Bell can only help the team. Perhaps Hamilton is the last piece of the puzzle? Having said that, I’d prefer it if Rosberg beat him…

    1. Agreed.

      And I just hope that they do not find themselves flayling about all season, resigning themselves to hopes that 2014 will be better. I hope they progress relative to the rest of the field such as they at least start knocking on the door of some podiums. We’ve seen LH in top cars…I want to see NR in one soon. Not expecting it for next year necessarily, but sooner than later would be great.

  7. I bet that if they can get a car that is solid and reasonablely quick

    But while Lotus, or formerly Renault have shown an ability to develop a car at quite reasonable pace, Mercedes has not. Not one year have they been able to develop the car in any noticeable fashion. So even if they start the year with a solid car that is reasonably quick they will likely end up with an unreliable, tyre eating, sack of potatoes by the end of the year.

    1. Should have been a reply to @me4me

      1. MB went down a revolutionary track last year but were unable to evolve during the season, this year with the design rules virtually unchanged they can have a second bite of the cherry, I see no reason why they can’t produce a very competitive car given their resources and what they have seen work and fail last year, and I would not be at all surprised to see them leading races.

        1. @hohum
          Yes they did, but what happened in 2010? 2011? There might be excuses for their 2012 performance, but it was still a misjudgement from the design office that stalled their development completely.
          Even if they don’t get them self dug into another mistake with the passive double DRS, they have still yet to prove that they can actually develop a car.
          Its not to say that its impossible. Nothing is. But considering their performances over the last four years it would certainly surprise me if they managed to develop the car in any noticeable fashion.

          1. @mads, Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was RBR or for that matter MB-AMG but I think the are pretty close now.

    2. Yeah, but as @hohum has pointed out, the fundamentals of the car were a little more daring and based with the DDRS system in mind. This would have compromised the development and probably couldn’t do too much more.

      Interestingly you mention Lotus. Look at Lotus/Renault in 2011 – the forward facing exhausts were not that easy to develop and so suffered a similar downward spiral in the second half of the season. Now, look at their 2012 season in contrast…

    3. Agree it actually always happen in Brawn’s cars since 2009 ……

  8. The entire Front wing DDRS thing always seemed such a crazy complex idea, I am surprised it was allowed to be developed past the drawing board. You can imagine the pitch now “If we use a loop hole in the Regs’ to attach a hose-pipe between the DRS & the front wing the championship will be ours!!! What can possibly go wrong?”.

    You could say the F-Duct idea was just as crazy, but that did not win either championship either.

  9. Seriously? Do you guys really expect any major surprise from Brackley (formerly known as BAR Honda, now know as Mercedes)? The team that has been announcing big upgrades and updates to the car since 1999. The team which has build one good car in the past 14 years, while having 13 new excuses for under performing in all the other 13 seasons? :D

    Sorry. I’m just in a bashing mood today. :P

    1. Which good car are you referring to? The 2004 car or the 2009 one?

      1. The 2009 one. Even if it did not develop at the rate it should have, because Brawn was broke. It still won both championships and 8 out of 17 races.

        The 2004 challenger was good, but unfortunately utter Ferrari dominance meant that it could not win anything.

        I was referring to the 2009 car. Which is still the only car in history that has lived up to the hype which Brackley regularly put themselves in.

        1. @optimaximal
          Although you make a fair point about the 2004 car, which was very good but unluckily had to compete against dominant Ferrari’s which prevented it from winning anything.

          I’d make that 2 good cars in the past 14 years. Still a dismal ratio of 1 to 7 though. :P

          1. 2006 wasn’t too bad. Not on level with 2004 of course, but it won a race and was probably the 3rd or 4th best car.

  10. Great article @john-beamer !

    Had Mercedes retained Schumacher for another year i’d be inclined to think that they were just not going to bother too much with 2013 but bringing Hamilton brings in a certain amount of expectation from the media and the fans so I think it could be a steep learning curve for Mercedes when it comes to striking a compromise between 2013 and 2014.

  11. Michael Brown (@)
    14th January 2013, 20:13

    Let’s hope Mercedes doesn’t suck at mid season development again.

  12. I was suprised to read you thought that you reported this opinion:

    “I suspect they will be challenging Ferrari for third fastest car on the grid and could be in the mix for podiums and the odd race win.”

    What is to say Ferrari won’t be on pole position at the first race by half a second? They aren’t exactly a 2nd rate team!

    1. *thought that Ferrari might be slow / surprised to read this opinion

      Brain fail, writing two wordings at the same time.

    2. We already know the relative finishing ‘performance’ of the cars at the end of 2012 and the rule stability heading into 2013 places McLaren and Red Bull at the head of the pack.

      What surprises me about Keith’s statements is that he expects them to overhaul Lotus, who were regularly faster than the Ferrari.

      1. @optimaximal What surprises me more is that you think Keith wrote the article:)

        1. Yeah, that’s a force of habit right there ^_^

          I, ofc, meant John.

    3. I too found that odd. I’d expect the top four teams from 2012 to be quite close next season, due to the rules stability. Ferrari certainly end the year with the dog they started out with!

      Surely the rules being so similar to 2012 means that there’s little chance of an upset and for a team to ‘do a Brawn’ and dominate the field with a clever concept, and as such less chance for Mercedes to jump straight up to the front of the field?

      1. *Ferrari certainly DIDN’T end the year, I mean.

        1. They still finished second in both drivers’ and constructors’ championships.

          DRS ban in qualy should also help Ferrari. According to Pat Fry, on the Scuderia thread on Autosport, the main reason to why Ferrari has struggled so much in dry weather qualifying since 2011, is because when the F150 and F2012 opened it’s DRS on the exit of corners, unlike the Mclaren or Red Bull, the car was far from being planted on the ground, and created a lot of oversteer. With that issue gone next year, god who knows…

  13. OmarR-Pepper (@)
    14th January 2013, 20:31

    Let’s hope the mercedes case gets more suxxessful thn Toyota (at least Merc already has a victory) or BMW (Canada win by Kubica… then some bright spots, that was all). Hamilton, as good as he can be, needs a battle car or he would start to fade along with Mercedes…
    On another point, John Beamer clearly states that engine manufacturers will have some advantage in 2014. Who knows if that will be the end of RBR as a winning car, as happened with Benneton in the past, another “no racing brand” team which got a world champion. Vettel must be alert on that time (probably the right time, 2014, to wear a red uniform)

    1. @omarr-pepper
      I don’t think that Red Bull is in trouble in that respect.
      Costumer teams are said to be in trouble because the factory team will be the one running the newest spec engines. McLaren for instance should be hurt by that.
      But Renault doesn’t have a factory team to favour over Red Bull, and since Red Bull has just won Renault 6 championships in 3 seasons, there is no reason why they shouldn’t give Red Bull their full backing to make sure that they can win more championships and race wins for Renault to brag about in their brochures for their next Clio Sport.

    2. @omarr-pepper, The new engines are so constrained by the rules and so restricted in power output that I think it highly unlikely that any of the engine builders will be unable to make a competitive engine, IMO the difference , if any, will come from the electric drive, and who knows who will do that best.?

      1. It’s about the combined engine power AND electric power, given that an ‘unit’ that has a good electrical system has the potential to offer 150+BHP for nearly a third of a lap.

  14. hamilton will bring the half a second needed to get the car on pole for at least the first half of the season. Mercedes has to do the rest for the 2nd half.

  15. Amazing read ! very comprehensive ,.

  16. I personally feel Mercedes will be further away to begin with, but might improve in mid-season. I also feel that Hamilton will struggle initially, though I expect him to get the better of Rosberg overall.

  17. If you speak to anyone who has ever worked with him, nobody can understand why Mercedes have ditched Loic Bigois: maybe this could be a huge failing. Also, I do not buy the idea that the Mercedes powertrain will be better than McLaren’s in 2014. The engine will be the same and as for the ERS, MES are the best on the grid at electronics, hence why they supply the ECU, how are they supposed to produce an inferior ERS unit?

  18. Why doesn’t any see that Mercedes stalled there development in 2012 while recruiting for the coming season. Brawn needs a good car to run a good team, theses engineering and experts while provide that, that is why Hamilton has gone to Mercedes. If not in the first half of the season expect the W04 to be challenging in the second half of the season, it’s do or die for team Brawn.

    1. I think many DO see what Merc has been doing. After all…they have to do something. And their moves have been public. As have their failings last year in spite of a win. I think there are more reasons than just the potential that Brawn is assembling a stronger team, as to why LH went there. I think he had to leave Mac and had to go somewhere. And I think there is something to what Brawn said during last season…that being, that the place a driver will want to be for 2014 is with a manufacturer based team. I don’t think it is do or die for team Brawn…I think it is another year in F1, and progress vs. last year or not, they will simply say watch out for us in 2014. We’re gelling..it was LH’s first year on the team…etc etc. I think most are not banking on the Merc leaping up to contending with Red Bulls and Macs, given the rules stability…ie. less chance of them nailing some advantageous trick, vs. 2014 which should carry more potential for that. If Merc is just more in the mix all season in 2013 rather than just for the odd race as in 2012, that would be exciting.

  19. Wonderful article. Thank you very much !!!

  20. 2013 will be a lackluster year for Formula One. Other than nose jobs, there is little reason to believe that any team will bring something radical to the challenge this year. Refine what was already raced last year with added bits and pieces and trends from the cars that did well then. Hope that copycat ideas will somehow make up some difference. Sounds like the tires will finally follow the path of consistency from the get go and that my personal favorite DRS will be used in a more sensable way.

    The time invested in the 2014 car this year will certainly pay off. Formula One has become a bit stale. The new engines will bring a new generation racecar, fan interest, and finally a leveling of the playing field. No one knows what 2014 will bring, but all of us will see a repeat of 2012 with the new 2013 cars. Redbull, Ferrari, McLaren , Mercedes and Lotus in that order….year after year….

  21. with mclaren i dont think there gonna be very competitive this year simply because of the drivers. when lewis was winning last year button was just midfield. lewis was the one to show that the car could win races without being the outright fastest.

  22. Brawn said 3 months ago they had been focussing on 2013 car for quite some time, so maybe they have overhauled design to some degree. Vast resources and a talented team, seems quite possible they could be right up there. Factor in Hamilton’s pace and they could do really well.

    Isn’t a major factor for 2014 not just engine performance and fine tuning, but the cruciality of reliability, given the fragility of smaller turbocharged engines, in the context of a smaller allocation for the season, and bigger penalties for exceeding that limit?

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