For the first time since the advent of the hybrid in Formula 1, Red Bull’s competitiveness has seriously questioned the technical superiority of Mercedes. Ferrari also managed to worry the Silver Arrows and take the lead in the World Championship in 2018, but the dynamics of the 2021 championship appear even more worrying for the reigning champions. Red Bull is back from a four-game winning streak, which he outlines a trend of increasing competitiveness and superiority on the part of the Milton Keynes team. The subversion of such a trend is even more difficult in the current scenario, due to the concentration on the 2022 project of the resources normally dedicated to development.
The RB16B prevailed with Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez on four radically different tracks such as Montecarlo, Baku, Paul Ricard and Red Bull Ring, demonstrating an excellent balance and competitiveness in every area, from mixed to straights. The streak of consecutive successes has subverted the hierarchies observed in Portugal and Spain, where Mercedes showed a decent margin, particularly over the long haul.
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During the championship it was stressed several times how, with the limited resources available for the construction of new parts, lo development in 2021 focused mainly on data analysis and vehicle understanding, coming to define increasingly effective arrangements. However, it is undeniable how concrete updates have continued to play an important role in the evolution of the cars.
In the leading duo, Red Bull stands out for the extensive evolutionary work carried out on the RB16B. On the occasion of the Portuguese Grand Prix, the car was equipped with a new aerodynamic package, including bottom, diffuser, bargeboards, deflectors, turning vanes and front brake air intakes. The innovations were not enough to immediately prevail over the Mercedes, but we must not overlook how often the understanding of the updates requires some races to be able to adjust the set-ups and exploit their full potential.
In Montecarlo the Anglo-Austrian stable had introduced a diffuser with a serrated upper edge on the side. The serration helps to induce aerodynamic micro-vortices in the rear, thus optimizing the pressure field in the environment behind the car to improve the process of extracting the flows from the diffuser and with it the load generated by the bottom. This feature seems to have brought tangible advantages, to the point that for last weekend in Austria the serration was extended to the entire upper edge of the extractor.
It had finally debuted in Baku a new rear wing, characterized by the vertical strips of the endplates simplified through the removal of the external appendages and the inverted S-blows, to further reduce the resistance to advancement on the fastest tracks. The same aileron was also used in France, while in Austria the thinning of the air at the 700 meters altitude of the Red Bull Ring led to the use of the previous specification with greater load.
Mercedes, work is being done on the power unit
Mercedes, on the other hand, has not made any concrete updates since the beginning of the championship, with the exception of some aerodynamic details. The work of data analysis and optimization of the assets had initially contributed to a significant growth compared to the evident difficulties highlighted in the pre-season tests, but the margins for improvement gradually thinned, while Red Bull continued to progress.
On the one hand, the problems accused by the Mercedes in Monaco and Baku are attributable to the difficulties in warming up the tires in the atypical slow corners of the city tracks, while in France the two W12s were able to keep pace with Max Verstappen before the change of strategy of the Dutch. However, the important defeat remedied in the Styrian Grand Prix cannot be interpreted in any other way than by recognizing the current state of inferiority of the W12 compared to the RB16B, both in the straight and in the corners.
The Mercedes leaders are thus in the difficult position of having to devise a sustainable development plan with the work in progress in view of 2022, without subtracting excessive resources from next season’s car. During the official podcast of the Circus F1 Nation, James Allison anticipated the news in the pipeline in Brackley and Brixworth: “I don’t think Toto Wolff has ever made it clear that the W12 will not be updated […] We are planning updates both in terms of aerodynamics and as regards the power unit in terms of ‘delivery’. The engineers are working to allow the power unit to express something more “.
Allison encourages Hamilton: updates on the W12 are coming
Before the summer break, the W12 should therefore be equipped with the only seasonal aerodynamic updates, while a further gain could be sought in the power unit. The third engine of the season will make its debut in all probability in anticipation of the trips to Spa and Monza and, as per regulations, it cannot be evolved. In Brixworth, however, they will be able to make limited changes to improve the reliability of the power unit, which would allow the adoption of more aggressive and performing mappings.
Even before the introduction of the third power unit, Engineers will also be able to improve the performance of the current unit, without making any structural changes. As stated by Allison himself, by working only on the software part, it will be possible to optimize the “delivery”, that is the strategy of supplying the electric power during the acceleration phase. In 2021 it was seen that there is a great diversification among the teams in the timing of the release of hybrid power, in search of the best compromise between the stress on the rear tires, acceleration and speed at the end of the straight.
Another possible degree of freedom available to Brixworth engineers lies in theoptimization of the parameters of the heat engine in function of a better behavior of the hybrid part, as also done by the Honda technicians in preparation for 2021. For example, by working on the ignition timing of the spark plug to ignite the fuel, part of the combustion efficiency can be sacrificed for the benefit of greater residual energy in the exhaust gases, which can be exploited by the ‘MGU-H to regenerate electricity through the turbine. The goal is the search for the optimal compromise between the power of the thermal engine and an electric regeneration that allows prolonged use of the hybrid component.
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Mercedes therefore still has some weapons to try to close the technical and ranking gap from Red Bull. It seems difficult to hypothesize that the innovations announced by Allison can debut already for the second race at the Red Bull Ring, while it is more likely that they can arrive in Hungary or Silverstone, where they will also be introduced the new stiffer rear Pirelli, another potential variable in the world championship fight.