Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Interlagos, 2019

Why Mercedes aren’t as strong on ‘altitude tracks’ like Interlagos

2019 F1 season

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Mercedes may have already swept to both championships this year but qualifying at Interlagos highlighted one of the key weaknesses with the W10: Its performance at higher altitudes.

The Brazilian track is the second-highest on the calendar, ahead of the Red Bull Ring and far behind Mexico City, which is over two kilometres above sea level. But at all three tracks Mercedes were out-paced by their closest rivals, Ferrari and Red Bull, in qualifying.

“This is still a bit higher [from] the sea level in terms of altitude and it is having an effect,” Valtteri Bottas admitted after qualifying yesterday. “Like we saw in Mexico I think we are probably, [of] the top teams, the team that struggles more.”

“We see we’re still losing on the straight lines, that’s the biggest chunks,” he added. “Just that straight up the hill we’re losing losing too much time. I think that’s one of the biggest things.”

The problem is more apparent over a single, flat-out lap than it is over a race distance. After all, Mercedes were able to win at the highest track on the calendar this year. But they needed a few things to fall into their favour, including Max Verstappen’s pre-race penalty and collision with Bottas, and a pair of questionable strategy calls by Ferrari.

The problem was particularly acute in Austria, where it was exacerbated by unusually high air temperatures. The team subsequently brought an update to address the latter. But the effect higher altitudes have on its engine are down to fundamental design choices which aren’t easy to change, the team’s technical director James Allison explained.

“You try and design the turbo compressor unit to be good over the whole season,” he said. “We come to a couple of tracks a year – Mexico the most extreme example, Brazil less so – where the air is thinner and the compressor has to do more work to get the get charge up to sea level conditions.

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“You can size your compressor to cope with Mexico, with here, but then you’re carrying around hardware that’s bigger there needs to be for the rest of the year. It’s always a compromise doing that.

“I think probably looking at the last few seasons when we’re in altitude we always tend to be just a little bit less on form. And I think that’s probably an indication that the position we have picked our compromise is slightly different to the others.”

Conversely, some teams may simply perform better at higher tracks. Daniel Ricciardo suspects this is true of his former team Red Bull.

“There is a trend where the Red Bull, I guess having a good aero package, they do seem better in these high altitude places. In Mexico the last few years they’re always been strong. Here as well. Austria.

“Sure Honda have made progress but it seems the car is certainly working better. When maybe the others lose more, Red Bull can hang on to some of the downforce.”

“I’ll give Adrian [Newey] a call tonight,” he joked…

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2019 F1 season

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12 comments on “Why Mercedes aren’t as strong on ‘altitude tracks’ like Interlagos”

  1. And that’s why F1 has to leave as much room for designers as possible, and not replace everything with stock parts.
    This creates variety.

    1. The power units will not be spec…

  2. On the bright side, perhaps it means Merc will gain a few HP in zandvoort, as I believe parts of it are slightly below sea level ;P

  3. The problem was particularly acute in Austria, where it was exacerbated by unusually high air temperatures. The team subsequently brought an update to address the latter

    They did what!? ;P

    1. The team subsequently brought an update to address the ‘high air temperatures’. ‘Latter’ refers to the last object discussed.

  4. I did not seem to notice the altitude having a thinner air. I have been to Austria, Japan, Germany and Italy, and I did not feel anything different. Do you guys somehow feel different when going to different altitude tracks? Or will you notice the difference once you go from a light one to an extreme? Like Japan to Mexico?

    1. From my experience, you won’t notice anything in your body bellow 2000 meters, even Mexico City, at 2200, is Ok. Things get really tricky above 3000 meters (thinking of the andean regions like Cuzco, Lake Titicaca, La Paz), and it’s not exactly thin air, harder to breath: headaches and nausea are more common. FIFA speculated banning high altitude matches, but Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia protested it would be unfair, because most of their stadiums would be useless. In Copa Libertadores, brazilian teams struggle to adapt and try many different approaches to their pre-match training.

    2. Try excercising and you will feel it.

    3. We lived in Denver, Colorado (1609 m), and, yes you feel the altitude (at least when you just moved there).

      But how to understand that as some tangible measure? Try a study of US football. Kickoffs in Denver averaged 64m. The average of those teams at home was 57.4m.

      And for a very tangible human experience of altitude, drive from Denver up Mt. Evans (14,200 ft). A short exercise leaves you gulping air.

  5. I wonder if having already won both titles plays any part in Mercedes iffy form here. Maybe there’s just not much energy to fight after you’ve already won.

  6. 700 meters to be precise, roughly the same as at the Red Bull Ring, so some effects, but, of course, nowhere near the same as in Mexico City.

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