The best witness to the balance of the 2021 World Cup is the frantic search by both sides to prevail over the rival team on every battle front. Although by its very nature the competition in Formula 1 has always been held on numerous fields, the events of the ongoing world championship challenge constitute the best image of the interdisciplinary nature of motorsport. The narration in the first part of the world championship duel on the design, evolution and management of the single-seaters is followed by the remaining facets of the confrontation between Mercedes and Red Bull, on which the motorsport and strategic competitions stand out.
Brixworth versus Sakura
Mercedes is not only the protagonist of the challenge between teams with Red Bull, but also of the confrontation between motorists with Honda, which has returned to the top of the category after the long rise in recent years. Following the decision of the Japanese engineer to abandon Formula 1 at the end of the current season, in 2020 Sakura’s technicians risk a bold choice, that of concluding the development of the new power unit initially scheduled for 2022 in time for the 2021 championship.
The RB16B is thus equipped with a deeply updated power unit, one year ahead of the original debut date. The heat engine boasts a different valve angle and a revised combustion chamber, improving the fuel combustion process. The elements of the timing chain and actuation of the valves at the head of the engine are compacted and lowered, thus helping the engineers of Milton Keynes to design a less bulky bonnet, to the advantage of external aerodynamics. Sakura is placed great attention also on the hybrid, whose management is profoundly improved. After years of motoring supremacy of the Silver Arrows, Honda thus manages to present itself at the beginning of the season with a power unit comparable to that of Mercedes.
The Silver Arrows, on the other hand, benefit from the work carried out in Brixworth on the intake system, useful for inducing a greater quantity of air and therefore fuel in the engine, to the advantage of the power released. The interventions mainly concern the plenum, the volume from which the cylinders cyclically suck in the air for combustion, characterized by a distinctly rounded design to accommodate the different orientation of the intake horns of the cylinders themselves. “Our friends from HPP [High Performance Powertrain, n.d.r] have made a considerable effort to redesign the plenum and the intake system, recalibrating the engine around it and consequently squeezing much more horsepower from the power unit “he declares James Allison, pointing to the bulge in the hood recognizable on the W12 and Aston Martin.
Parallel to the development of the single-seaters, during the season the two engineers undertake a power unit upgrade program. Honda in particular opts to postpone the debut of the second unit of the season by two weeks compared to Mercedes, which instead uses the new engine starting from the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Taking advantage of the extra 14 days available, the Japanese technicians manage to complete the power unit upgrade in time for the trip to Paul Ricard. Although the technical regulations prevent the development of the engine during the championship, interventions are still granted to improve reliability, promptly carried out by Honda.
“Really very small improvements, almost negligible, but if I used this term our engineers working on the development could get angry”, declares about it Toyoharu Tanabe to FormulaPassion. Although the hypothesis is denied by those directly involved, it is safe to assume that the improved reliability allows Red Bull engineers to adopt more aggressive engine mappings, thus enjoying a slight increase in power.
At the turn of the Silverstone and Budapest appointments, Mercedes appears galvanized on the straight by the competitiveness of the power unit. The impression is that the W12 enjoys the work done in Brixworth on the management and delivery front of the hybrid, previously announced in June by James Allison. Overall, the narrative of the confrontation between the two engineers is sufficiently rich to deserve a separate discussion (link below).
Comparison of tactics
The challenge between Mercedes and Red Bull therefore sees the factories engaged in the development of the cars, the engineers intent on optimizing the power units, the technicians on the track called to refine the set-up and the drivers determined to capitalize on the package available. A significant contribution to the run-up to the title is also provided by the pit walls, whose decisions on more than one occasion prove decisive for the outcome of the weekend, although the definition of the race strategy is actually largely the responsibility of the engineers in the remote control room at the factory. The preparation of the tactical strategy is also strictly interconnected with the set-up strategies, since the feasibility of the various plans depends on the set-up choices.
In Bahrain, Mercedes opts to anticipate the Red Bull stops, favoring the position on the track over the overall race pace. Although the RB16B appears faster in the final thanks to the delayed tire change, Brackley strategists’ decision puts Lewis Hamilton in a position to exploit the controversial episode of Max Verstappen’s attack beyond the limits of the track to win the first win of the season.
TO Barcelona comes the third success for the British champion thanks to another decisive call from the wall. The Mercedes strategists take their rivals by surprise by making a second stop without allowing time to react, putting the W12 in a position to recover twenty seconds on the Red Bull leader of the race, and then take the lead with six laps to go. The episode also testifies to the close link between tactics and set-up choices, since Hamilton’s comeback is facilitated by the heavier set-up than the RB16B, which limits tire wear despite the consistent sustained pace of the third stint. and facilitates overtaking by facilitating the close pursuit of the third sector technician.
A similar strategy is being implemented by Red Bull in the French Grand Prix, but in a context of greater uncertainty as to which is the best plan, whether the double or single stop. Despite being in command of the race, Verstappen is called back to the pits to anticipate a possible two-stop Mercedes plan. At that point it is the Dutchman who finds himself in the position of having to recover twenty seconds, coming to overtake Bottas first and then Hamilton on the penultimate lap on the Mistral straight.
The battle front of the race strategies, however, does not only see exemplary tactical moves, but also major mistakes, especially on the part of Mercedes. TO Montecarlo Lewis Hamilton is stopped early in an attempt to overtake Gasly’s AlphaTauri, but this exposes the Englishman to the overcut of Perez and Vettel as well as Gasly himself, losing two positions. TO Baku the Mercedes wall tries the undercut this time on the leader of the race, with the result of being subjected again to the overcut of Sergio Perez in third position. In France finally, an error in the estimation of Verstappen’s exit times after the first stop compromises Hamilton’s race, forced to give the first position to the Dutchman after having suffered the undercut, while lastly there is the failure to call the pits in Hungary to mount the dry tires during the restart after the red flag.
The importance of preparation
Another front on which the two rival teams compete for the world title is that of factory preparation for the race weekend. Overall, Red Bull demonstrates a fair consistency throughout the first half of the championship and although in some events it appears to have difficulty in seeking the optimal balance, Verstappen always has a car able to position itself at least in the wake of the Silver Arrows.
Mercedes, on the other hand, on more than one occasion comes to the start of the weekend with a car in great difficulty, closer in performance to the center-group rather than to Red Bull. On city tracks, the W12 accumulates delay in low-mileage curves, but above all it suffers from the critical issues in being able to send the tires up to temperature in the dry lap without being able to take advantage of the high-speed curves to transfer energy to the tires. Monaco and Baku thus highlight the limits under certain conditions of a car initially conceived to work with the DAS, the system of variation of the toe-in of the front wheels used in 2020 to accelerate the temperature setting of the tires and prohibited with the new regulation.
In the double trip to Austria both the Silver Arrows again appear far from their usual performances. Despite the efforts made by Brackley to correct the problems during the week between the two races, in the second weekend the picture appears even worse, with the Mercedes closer to the times of McLaren than to the Red Bull of Max Verstappen. Although the difficulties encountered in Munich, Baku and Zeltweg are partly associated with the congenital limitations of the car, the preparatory work carried out in Brackley was however not able to stem the shortcomings of the W12 on such occasions, outlining a greater average effectiveness of Red Bull in this field.
The second half of the season is therefore announced as a complete challenge, the outcome of which will depend on the progress of the various battle fronts such as exploitation of the power unit, strategies, set-up choices, factory preparation and, last but not least, the human factor embodied. by the drivers, while the comparison in terms of car development can be considered to a large extent already closed. The run-up to the 2021 title is also the best possible conclusion of the current technical cycle before the advent of the new generation of cars in 2022, with the hope that the balance can continue until the end of the season.
FP | Carlo Platella
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