Mercedes tested a new Red Bull style Front Wing in Sochi
The Hamilton – Verstappen 1-2 at the Russian Grand Prix was perhaps the least expected of this season – result of a correct strategy call in the most chaotic moment of the race, when the rain made its appearance and drivers started exchanging track position in every corner.
Despite being in line with what we have seen so far in this season, the result of the Russian Grand Prix hides that it was a difficult race for both Mercedes and Red Bull.
Both teams inadvertedly highlighted how difficult it is to race in the midfield, and how these cars seem to struggle when following another car, especially when in a pack of them.
The “dirty air” that hits the car following behind another car negatively affects the correct fluid dynamics of these single-seaters, with more than 60% of the downforce being lost when the gap is less than a second.
This issue is expected to be contained by next year’s ‘ground effect’ single-seaters, which will receive downforce mainly from the Venturi ducts located under the floor. The simplified aerodynamics of the 2022 Regulations should prevent the easy formation of “trains” of cars, as seen in Sochi – a situation which greatly affects the cars following, even when their race pace is potentially 1.5 seconds faster per lap.
This was particularly detrimental last Sunday for Red Bull and Mercedes.
Lewis Hamilton, who surprisingly has only led 11 laps in the last seven races (post-France – not counting the non-running event at Spa), has won 2 of them (Great Britain and Russia). Verstappen, on the other hand, has led 207 laps, winning four Grand Prix (Austria, Styria, Spa and The Netherlands).
Hamilton’s race in Sochi was a two-sided affair; the real potential of the W12 only came to light during the second stint of the race, with the track in front of him clear and on the hard compound tyre. During the first stint, however, the reigning champion was stuck behind slower cars on track, highlighting how difficult it is for drivers to overtake in the “train” – because the car in their slipstream also happens to be in DRS range of the driver in front of him.
His teammate Valtteri Bottas, on the other hand, was never really able to get going, and ended up being stuck in the lower midfield for most of the race. Compared to Hamilton, Bottas also struggled in showing his aggressiveness – as usual when it comes to any overtake that is not a straight DRS overtake – with the W12 suffering perhaps from their high downforce setup.
The Brackley team tested two aerodynamic configurations over the Russian weekend, collecting data on Friday morning as is often the case. The setup choice for the race ended up being the same for both drivers, with a high-downforce rear wing.
Hamilton and Bottas used two different flap configurations in free practice, with the Englishman working with a shorter flap.
The regulations this year have imposed restrictions on the number of rear wing configurations that can be used, limiting it to two DRS flap specifications. Mercedes has often been testing both during a weekend, just as they did in Sochi (or Portugal, and Azerbaijan), using the free practice time to compare data from both the shorter and the wider flap configuration, adding a nolder in the upper wingtip if needed.
Due to the rain expected on Saturday and the confidence of an easy claim of the front row in qualifying, reinforce by the absence of Max Verstappen (relegated to the back of the grid due to changing his Power Unit), the Brackley team opted for a higher downforce configuration.
This however affected their top speed, and the added load made it more difficult for the two W12 drivers to overtake on track come Sunday.
Mercedes also tested two Front Wing configurations on the friday, again a different one for each driver.
Indeed, Sochi saw Mercedes debuting a brand new Front Wing, used by Valtteri Bottas in FP1 and FP2, and then discarded for the Saturday.
The new specification looks similar to the solution adopted by Red Bull. The central shape is less pronounced than what we have seen so far on the RB16B, but with a similarity in the outer part where the angle of attack is more aggressive compared to that of the old specification, which they then used in qualifying and the race.
Mercedes then also went on to change Bottas’s Power Unit yet again on Sunday morning before the race (he had just taken a new one in Monza).
Strategy to slow down Verstappen or a technical problem?
According to Mercedes, officially, it’s the latter.
After discovering some anomalies on Bottas’s Power Unit in Monza, Mercedes observed signs of potential new issues and decided to have Bottas qualifying on one of his backup Power Units – one that, according to Mercedes, due to its mileage would have not been able to complete the race.
For this reason, and after a rather disappointing qualifying which saw Bottas only taking P7, Mercedes decided to swap the parts for some new elements, fitting the fifth ICE, turbocharger and MGU-H to the Finn’s W12. Bottas would start ahead of Max Verstappen anyway – so it’s no surprise that, before the race, he called this a “strategic” call.
This was the team’s official explanation. However, although Hamilton and Wolff have shown some concerns regarding the Mercedes Power Unit, this does not seem to worry the engineers back in Brixworth.
As for Red Bull, in Sochi the team from Milton Keynes has opted to once again diversify the setups between Verstappen and Pérez, with a lower downforce configuration seen on the car number 33. Knowing in advance that Verstappen would have had to start from the back of the grid after taking his fourth Power Unit, Red Bull decided to fit him with a rear wing with less drag in order to favour his comeback through the field.
Verstappen’s rear wing configuration is in fact less loaded compared to the one on Pérez’s car, especially in the endplate area. The movable flap on the RB16B number 33 has a greater angle of incidence (more load), but it’s fitted with a nolder which increases downforce when the DRS flap is closed and, at the same time, reduces drag when it’s open.
Red Bull’s setup proved to be more efficient in the first half of the race, especially considering that Bottas was starting ahead of Verstappen and could not proceed as far nor hold him back for too long. However, the RB16B struggled once it came to getting ahead of decently paced cars such as Ferrari, Alpine and Aston Martin, which were all packed in a “DRS train”. Nevertheless, on a track where Red Bull was expected to be behind Mercedes, Verstappen’s second place finish (after starting from P20) surely felt like a victory.
Verstappen was indded able to limit his point loss in the WDC, despite the penalties that came with changing his Power Unit, and thanks also to a perfect strategy call of his race engineer Lambiase, who told him to switch to Intermediates at just the perfect time, securing the Dutch driver a gain of 5 position with one stop – from P7 to P2 in one and a half laps.
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