How Mercedes created the fastest-ever Formula 1 car

New aero rules introduced to cut down on downforce ahead of 2022's new-concept cars mean that Formula 1's 2020 machines will probably go down as the fastest ever.

Mercedes will unleash its new W12 on Tuesday, which will be a continuation of last year's title winning W11.

Originally intended to be the last of its generation, the Mercedes team poured its resources into the W11 as it not only refined its own concepts, but also incorporated others too. It also featured an innovative solution that courted a wealth of attention from F1's fans and the rest of the paddock too.

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Perhaps it's a fitting time to delve under the covers of the W11 and explore the inner workings of one of F1's most dominant machines.

Mercedes-AMG F1 W10

Mercedes-AMG F1 W10

Photo by: Mercedes AMG

Mercedes AMG F1

Mercedes AMG F1

Photo by: Mercedes AMG

Compared to Mercedes' W10 from 2019 (above left), the W11's sidepods had received considerable attention over the off-season. Mercedes had been the last to adopt the concept that Ferrari first showcased in 2017 and required the crash structures on the side to be shifted down low in order to improve the car's aerodynamics.

The 2017 season was the first time since the side impact structures had been introduced in 2014 that the teams really had any latitude in terms of where they could be placed. Ferrari took advantage of this and repositioned them, improving flow around and through the car, which also enabled it to reduce the size of its radiators.

Mercedes followed suit, opting for the higher-up sidepod inlets to reduce the interruption of airflow entering the radiators from the suspension.

 

The W11's smart DAS innovation

Pre-season testing is always a great opportunity to see the new batch of cars put through their paces for the first time, and to study the different development directions that the teams have gone in. As testing was being broadcast to viewers at home, the cars were also equipped with their onboard cameras. For Mercedes, this meant that a system it had been working on for some time would be uncovered in an instant.

Footage captured from onboard the W11 showed the Mercedes drivers pushing the steering wheel back and forth along the back straight, coinciding with a change in the toe angle - uncovering Mercedes' dual-axis steering system (DAS).

This had all been made possible by a new steering assembly that had required some innovative thinking from the team.

Mercedes had the system in mind for some time but had to jump through several hoops before the FIA would consider it legal. For example, a previous iteration of DAS that the team presented to the governing body was activated by a button on the steering wheel. The FIA, in communication with the team over the operational parameters of the system, insisted that the steering function must be paired with an input related to the movement of the steering wheel.

Undeterred, the team set out to find a way to do this whilst also being wary of increasing the weight of the system to the point where the system's potential would be neutralised.

Allowing the drivers to heat up the front tyres more quickly, owing to the increased movement of the tyre rubber, the system perhaps proved even more invaluable over the course of the season than they had originally envisaged, with what seemed like a higher frequency of safety car and red flag restarts than would ordinarily be the case – possibly owing to the revised calendar.

Alongside those new inclusions, the W11 was peppered with new and interesting features.

 

More than meets the eye

A design that it was especially proud of heading into 2020 was its decision to alter the lower rear suspension wishbone geometry, with the rear leg fixed at a point much further back on the crash structure than usual.

The primary reason for this was to improve the aerodynamics, with the arm moved into a more desirable position for the passage of airflow in the channel next to the diffuser at the outboard end. The inboard mounting point was also positioned to reduce the airflow bottleneck where the diffuser ceiling is raised up to meet the underside of the crash structure and gearbox.

This comes off the back of the team having already raised the inboard mounting point of the pullrod in 2019 for similar reasons.

In preparation for 2020, Mercedes had also paid considerable attention to its front brake assembly, looking at ways to further its aerodynamic needs. This had come about as a response to the lack of aerodynamic furniture allowed on the front wing, owing to the new rules introduced in 2019.

Mercedes had not used a blown axle under the old ruleset when it had been allowed, but it looked at ways to replicate this effect nonetheless, knowing that it could reduce the wake turbulence created by the front tyre.

In order to do this, it expanded upon the design of its brake bell, altering the shape of the drill holes to enable more airflow to escape out through the wheel face. Allied to a larger inlet scoop and a very deliberately shaped crossover pipe, the airflow captured could be more accurately dispensed in order to alter the turbulent wake created by the tyre.

The upshot of these changes would be the ability to make alterations to the bargeboards and floor, all the features of which built on the designs implemented in the car's predecessor.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W11

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W11

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Triumph over adversity

With the Australian Grand Prix cancelled, it would take a few more months than originally planned for the cars to turn a wheel in competitive anger. This helped Mercedes out of a bind, having encountered issues with its powertrain during testing.

Having been able to enact a fix ahead of the eventual season-opener at the Red Bull Ring for the Austrian Grand Prix, Mercedes was assured of better reliability – but there were still issues to iron out.

Known for its aggressive kerbs that have broken more than the odd front wing, the Red Bull Ring is also around 700m above sea level which has an impact on brakes and power units.

Although the manufacturers conduct many hours of testing of their power units on dynos, the rarified air means that teams have to sacrifice aerodynamic performance for extra cooling. But another factor that looked set to trip up Mercedes at the opening event, was the vibrations from the kerbs that upset their gearbox and the sensors attached to it.

The drivers were told by the pitwall to avoid the kerbs at all costs during the first race of the season. This cost them a considerable amount of lap time and it did result in the field catching up in the closing stages. This led to Hamilton being demoted to fourth after the race following a five-second penalty for his collision with Alex Albon, despite finishing the race second on the road.

As a short term solution, given the Styrian Grand Prix was coming just a week later at the same venue, the team rerouted and shielded some of the cabling running through the gearbox.

Again, the drivers were warned to stay off the kerbs. Although this came with a lap time penalty, Mercedes took a 1-2, finishing 20 seconds up the road from the closest Red Bull.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG F1, 3rd position, and Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes-AMG F1, 2nd position, congratulate each other on the grid after performing donuts

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG F1, 3rd position, and Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes-AMG F1, 2nd position, congratulate each other on the grid after performing donuts

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Mercedes halts developments early

Developments were still fed through the opening races but, relatively speaking, Mercedes stood still. Meanwhile, Red Bull, which was seemingly throwing the kitchen sink at the RB16, appeared to catch up with its rival, which probably gave a false sense of where both are heading into this season.

Furthermore, using more of its time to develop the W12 ahead of schedule will undoubtedly give it more headroom when it comes to the 2022 challenger, especially as this year it will be hit by the new sliding scale for windtunnel and CFD usage.

As champions, Mercedes will only have 90% of the allotted time, whereas its competitors will have progressively more depending on how far they finished down the order. Only time will tell how much this will blunt its progress in both the short and long term, with the aim of the rule change to try and narrow the performance deficit for the entire field.

All said and done, the W11 can be considered the fastest F1 car to have graced the championship so far. But could the reduction in downforce bought on by the new regulations have spurred Mercedes onto further greatness?

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Series Formula 1
Author Matt Somerfield
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