Honda logo, Red Bull, Circuit de Catalunya, 2021

Will anyone protest the ‘flexi-wings’? Eight Azerbaijan GP talking points

2021 Azerbaijan Grand Prix

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Formula 1’s row over ‘flexi-wings’ is likely to come to a head at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Here are this weekend’s top talking points.

Flexi-wing protest coming?

The latest row over ‘flexi-wings’ – which have been knocking around in one form or another for well over two decades – surfaced at the Spanish Grand Prix. But, according to Mercedes’ CEO Toto Wolff, the rumblings of discontent began earlier in last season, when they first caught wind of how some rivals, the most prominent example being Red Bull, had configured their wings to deflect at high speed in order to reduce drag and improve straight-line performance.

At Baku, where F1 did not race last year, the potential performance benefit from such wings is much greater. The enormous acceleration zone leading to the pits is just one of several points on the track where the cars approach the highest speeds seen all year. Teams running wings which flex will have the advantage of being able to increase the wing angle to improve cornering performance in the knowledge they won’t be compromised by suffering more drag on the straights.

Lewis Hamilton said the wings could be worth six tenths of a second around a six-kilometre lap of Baku, where the pole position time two years ago was a whisker over 100 seconds. New tests aimed at preventing their use will come into force after this race weekend, but the delay is a major bone of contention for the teams not using such wings, chiefly Mercedes and McLaren.

Romain Grosjean, Haas, Baku City Circuit, 2019
Flexi-wings will give and advantage on Baku’s long straights
Red Bull, Ferrari and Alpine are among those who have indicated they will have to change their wings when the new test comes into force. Could they face a protest from a rival? That will firstly depend on where they finish. Mercedes is unlikely to protest Red Bull if the W12s finish ahead on Sunday, ditto for McLaren if they take points off Ferrari.

The potential for a protest could deter the likes of Red Bull from using their flexi-wings. Depending how accurate Hamilton’s ‘six tenths’ figure is, they may deem the benefit they gain from running their wings does not justify the risk of being protested, which could lead to them losing all the points they gain this weekend. The vocal complaints from the ‘have-nots’ is no doubt intended to add pressure on their rivals to play it safe and leave their “bendy” wings in the garage.

The more outlandish possibility remains that Mercedes or another team in the same position has decided ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, and produced a ‘softer’ wing as a one-off for this race. In which case, of course, don’t expect to see a protest from them. But in a season where teams are constrained by a financial cap for the first time, this is clearly the less likely outcome.

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Can Verstappen extend his advantage?

Verstappen holds a slim, four-point lead
Max Verstappen may have taken only two wins to Hamilton’s three so far this year, but his more consistent points-scoring has put him ahead in the standings. Baku presents a good opportunity for him to put a little more daylight between himself and the reigning champion.

While Mercedes should find Baku is more favourable to their car than Monaco, they have not been as competitive of the softer rubber so far this season, and Pirelli has brought its softest tyre mix again this weekend. How well Red Bull’s Honda power unit matches up against the Mercedes on the straights – plus, of course, the role played by those ‘flexi-wings’ – will be decisive.

Power games

Baku is the biggest test of outright power unit performance so far this year. It also comes slightly later in the season than usual – most drivers will be on their sixth race with the same unit – so we could see some making early switches to fresh hardware to ensure optimal performance at this power-sensitive track.

Previously manufacturers used this race to introduce upgrades, as Honda did in 2019. However teams are unable to do so this year due to rules changes – the next opportunity to revise their hardware comes at the start of next year, when engine specifications will be frozen.

Following their switch to the class-leading Mercedes power units this year, McLaren will be one to watch. After Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix, Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jnr talked up the performance of Lando Norris’ McLaren on the straights, calling it a “rocket”.

Queues in Q3

Screenshot: Vettel passes the Mercedes
Analysis: How Mercedes duped Vettel into running alone in qualifying
Baku’s long straights means running in the slipstream of another car is essential to set the most competitive lap time possible in qualifying. But of course not all drivers can necessarily do this at the same time, especially when there are just 10 cars on track in Q3, and anyone unable to follow another rival around the lap will be at a disadvantage.

In F1’s last visit to Baku, Mercedes played a strategic masterstroke in qualifying which put their main rival Sebastian Vettel at a disadvantage by duping him into running without the slipstream of another rival. Watch out for any similar shenanigans on Saturday.

Leclerc’s qualifying slips

Part of the reason Vettel was left running on his own in qualifying two years ago was because his team mate Charles Leclerc had crashed out in the second round. Leclerc also crashed during qualifying at the previous race in Monaco – though that secured him pole position, rather than costing him it.

Like Monaco, Baku’s limited run-off means yellow and red flags are triggered easily, so qualifying could be disrupted again by a driver making a mistake. Don’t be surprised if the debate over merits of IndyCar’s qualifying rules resurfaces again on Saturday evening.

As for Leclerc, with Ferrari locked in a close fight with McLaren for third place in the constructors championship, he may need to rein it in to avoid another costly qualifying crash at a street circuit.

Perez’s time to shine?

When the season began, Sergio Perez said it would take him around five races to get up to speed in the Red Bull. This is round six. Moreover, he has delivered some excellent results at Baku in the past, including podium finishes for Force India in 2016 and 2018.

Although Perez is looking forward to a return to more typical grand prix circuits to master the RB16B – especially the recently-announced double-header at the Red Bull Ring – Baku should be a stronger venue for him. However he may discover his Saturday job is ensuring Verstappen gets a tow in Q3.

Another drain drama?

George Russell, Williams, Baku City Circuit, 2019
A drain damaged Russell’s Williams at Baku’s last race
Baku’s temporary track is one of Formula 1’s newer venues. Its last race weekend got off to a less than ideal start when George Russell clouted a loose drain cover, causing huge damage to his Williams. It wasn’t the first such problem at the track – in 2016 Valtteri Bottas (in another Williams) also picked up damage due to a broken drain during practice.

Having had a year off last season due to the pandemic, hopefully the organisers have been able to eradicate any such operational problems this year.

Last fan-free grand prix?

Will the Azerbaijan Grand Prix be the final time a Formula 1 race held behind closed doors due to the pandemic? After this weekend the championship returns to Europe, where race organisers expect to be able to allow at least limited numbers of spectators into their races.

After this weekend, hopefully the days of races without fans can be put behind us.

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Over to you

Who do you think will be the team to beat in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix? Have your say below.

And don’t forget to enter your predictions for this weekend’s race. You can edit your predictions until the start of qualifying:

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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24 comments on “Will anyone protest the ‘flexi-wings’? Eight Azerbaijan GP talking points”

  1. The approach to T1 is the only part where the season’s highest top speeds get achieved. Otherwise, only Monza and Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

    Mercedes might protest even if they’d finish ahead (the same for Mclaren) because this way they might gain 44 points over 0 for Red Bull, so I wouldn’t rule out a protest in any case unless both Red Bull’s DNF or finish outside the top ten for whatever reason.

    I wouldn’t regard Baku at this time of year later than ‘usual’ because it was in the early-season phase twice only before returning to the original month of June. Nevertheless, some PU element changes may happen.

    I don’t expect queue issues in Q3. Remember, this isn’t Monza, so while running close might be beneficial on the 2+ km full-throttle run, the rest of the lap would suffer because of corner frequency. Therefore, better to stay a bit further behind.

    Perez’s time to shine? – Hopefully.

    I don’t expect drain cover problems either, but not an impossibility.

    Last fan-free GP? – Maybe, maybe not. Premature for definitive judgment.

    1. The chance on losing points is zero to none. Protesting will open a can of worms.
      Maybe a appeal will has some effect late in the season but the stewards will follow the FIA guidelines.
      For now they are legal and its only mind games at play here.
      And of course Wolff will be going for the underdog. He probably is the only one who believes this BTW.

      1. @erikje Valid point.

      2. They are only technically legal because they circumvent the test. It is certainly possible that the wings will be protested and it is possible that an infringement could be highlighted. The teams could indeed ask for tests to be carried out after the race to determine if they flex under certain loads. After all other infringements in the past have slipped past the stewards and the teams have ended up being punished as far as I know.

        1. They are conform the current tests and as such legal for now. The FIA gave the okay for it and 1 month to adapt to the new tests.
          Even Brawn agrees with me :)

          1. Exactly. They are technically legal and don’t even circumvent the test. They pass the current test. I’m quite sure that is why Brawn has said he doesn’t think a protest would go anywhere. What “legal” leg does FIA have to stand on when their own tests have been passed?

          2. The answer is simple – it is not just a binary “yes/no” answer, but it also depends on how they are getting the wing to pass the test.

            The FIA can still penalise them if the team is using some sort of mechanism to pass the test that does breach a different part of the regulations. Just passing the test doesn’t mean that different parts of the regulations don’t also apply.

            That is exactly what happened back in 2014 in Abu Dhabi, when the team was excluded from qualifying. The front wing might have passed the load deflection tests, but it was only by using a clearly illegal mechanism, making the wing as a whole illegal.

  2. Flexi-wing protest coming? No, Merc need to address internal issues first, so that would be unwise. If they do, it will indicate they havent got their priorities lined up and are subject to losing this years championship

    Can Verstappen extend his advantage? No, merc straight line speed will deliver them a 1-2 victory

    Perez’s time to shine? Not really, will be trailing the other 3 who are always upfront

  3. I’d anticipate a counter protest from Red Bull over Mercedes front wing flexibility should Mercedes protest Red Bull…

    1. The problem is that it appears that RBs front wing also bends the same amount as Mercs…

      1. Not really, there are some compare videos on YouTube. Regarding Portimao.
        Merc wings flex a lot more.
        Still within the test parameters when under testloads.

  4. 6/10ths. Who needs wind tunnels when there are such brilliant engineers available.

    1. Didn’t you know? 87.45% of the stats in internet websites are made-up

      1. Colour me confused: my good friend Barney Stinson always says it’s 83%.

  5. The concept of Mercedes or anyone else protesting the more flexy rear wings of those running them only after they see how they do by the checkered flag is interesting to me. Horner had the class to ‘protest’ if you can call it that (he has called it asking for clarification) DAS ahead of whatever race it was last year, so that it could be cleared up and not become part of the politics of the weekend. He asked, was told it was legal for the one season only, and they all moved on with the race weekend and the rest of the season. It would seem to me a bit of a cheap move to protest their wing only if they lose to RBR. I mean, it just seems odd to me that if they beat RBR they might not protest the wing, like everything this year hinges on a rear wing that flexes a bit more than some others, and perhaps the same as some others too. Mercedes wing flexes too, just not as much, as does their and others’ front wing elements.

    TW claims the issue goes back to last year, and of course we all know it has been going on for a few decades, so is it just that last year Mercedes was so dominant in spite of RBR’s supposed advantage from their wing, that they would have looked the fool protesting on top of that? As long as we’re winning it’s no bother, but start challenging us and then let’s bring the FIA into it? I suppose that’s just part of the game. Well, I know it is. But it ain’t pretty. And that’s ok too. That’s F1 for you.

    1. @robbie the reason why Horner was “asking for clarification” ahead of the first race of the season was because the regulations state that Red Bull could not initiate a formal protest until the first race of the season.

      Horner wasn’t being “classy” – his “requests for clarification” were because he wasn’t allowed to formally protest at the time, but could use “requests for clarification” as a means to lobby the FIA and to try and glean information on how DAS worked. The decision to file the protest on the first weekend was because that was the first chance they had to do so, and they filed it at the very first moment that they could – it was also more with the objective of trying to maximise the damage to Mercedes, as the intention was to protest at a point where it might force Mercedes to miss the opening race, and possibly even the second race too (given it was a week later, and it might not be possible for Mercedes to modify their car if the second race was so close to the first one).

      With regards to filing a protest after the race – wouldn’t Mercedes basically be doing what most other teams have done? Renault waited until after the 2018 Italian GP to see where the Haas cars finished before protesting them, even though they knew back in July that Haas would be using that floor at the Italian GP – they also only launched a protest against Grosjean, even though both cars used the same floor, because only Grosjean finished ahead of them.

      Similarly, we had Renault’s self-adjusting brake bias system, where Racing Point waited until the 2019 Japanese GP to protest, even though they knew about it much earlier in the season – and, indeed, that system had been used for years, potentially making.

      You might not like it, but it’s hardly as if other teams haven’t done the same – and, equally, we had Red Bull effectively getting Ferrari penalised in 2019 through the use of “requests for clarification”, without the team formally protesting Ferrari at any point during that season either. You could say that it might be “a bit of a cheap move” that Red Bull was relying solely on that route and deliberately didn’t go for a formal protest against Ferrari…

      As for not protesting last year, with the FIA having informed all of the teams last year that they would be instituting a tougher load test for the rear wing and that they were in the process of developing that new load test, is there an incentive for Mercedes to protest when the FIA was supposedly taking action of its own accord anyway?

      If anything, the surprise might be how the FIA has been comparatively slow to act when compared to other changes they’ve done in the past. The FIA’s changes on engine maps in 2020 pretty much all went through in a couple of days, whilst when issues with the front wing deflection tests cropped up in the past, the FIA was capable of altering the tests within a couple of weeks, or even within a couple of hours in some cases.

      1. Interesting last point there about FIA slowness; were one cynical, one might think it has something to do with not potential hobbling the not-Mercedes one of the championship contenders too much ;)

  6. And about advantage Verstappen. At the moment he is the more consistent driver with less mistakes.
    If the red bull keeps on pace with Mercedes he will prevail.

  7. They won’t protest but they’ll leave the threat out there to get the press to bombard Red Bull with questions about it all weekend and try and put them off their game. If Red Bull are clever about this, they’ll release a statement prior to the race weekend and then answer every question they get asked about their wings with “please refer to our statement. Next?”

  8. Simple solution for Mercedes: run your own flexi-wing that meets the current test protocols. And provide the wings, free, to McLaren. Then nobody can complain.

  9. Cristiano Ferreira
    3rd June 2021, 1:59

    More than “Perez’s time to shine” i think it needs to be Ricciardo’s time to shine instead.

    McLaren needs him or else they will lose their 3rd place at the end of the season.

    1. Good point, I guess the daily report about Ricciardo having been busy in the simulator shows both he and McLaren are quite aware of it too. Yes, at the top I am sure Perez will want to shine, but Ricciardo really needs to do so as well.

      Now on that topic Alonso is able to fly a bit under the radar because the car has been a back-of-midfield contender, but he probably also feels some tension. And Vettel probably needs to reinforce the impression of progress that Monaco gave to keep Aston Martin in the fight.

  10. The Dolphins
    3rd June 2021, 3:09

    It looks to me, from watching the flexi-wing footage many times, that the rear wing isn’t so much bending back as it is the front edge of the rear wing “curling” up… so in Red Bull’s defence maybe they pass the rear load test and they exploited the rules from the other side. Clever if what I’m seeing is correct!

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