Mercedes exploit gray areas of new F1 regulations

Image for article titled Mercedes is already exploiting the gray areas of new Formula 1 technical regulations

Photo: Giuseppe CACACE / AFP (Getty Images)

Today marks the first day of the second pre-season test for Formula 1 and, as expected, the teams have started to introduce sweeping design changes based on data collected during the previous test. One of the biggest changes came from the Mercedes team, which introduced a wacky new sidepod design on its W13.

Let’s break it down. This year, regulations allow vents to be cut into the sidepods to allow better airflow to both cool the power unit and channel air away from competitors following in this car’s wake. It’s all part of F1’s desire to get closer to the races.

But Mercedes went even further. Where most other teams have continued on the traditional path of keeping the side bridge and side impact structure – the parts of the car that protect the driver in a T-crash – as a single cohesive unit, Mercedes separated them.

The regulations dictate where the side impact structures (SIS) have to be, but the rest is vague, and those SISs don’t really have to really to work because F1 no longer imposes side impact tests. Teams were expected to continue down the conventional path – but that’s racing, and when there’s no rule specifically prohibiting a design feature, then that’s about fair.

To help put this change in context, let’s take a look at some history. In 2014, F1 required every car to have two SISs on each side of the car. It started out as a way to reign in the wild pontoon design shapes that were popping up, cutting costs and throwing a bone at laggards teams who couldn’t afford it.

Now, however, the regulations only state that the SIS must be placed 50mm higher than it was in the past – a crucial change, as most teams followed Ferrari’s lead in 2017 by placing the Sis upper bottom and in front of the air inlet. Raising the upper SIS disrupts the aerodynamic airflow around the pontoons, so the teams had to completely rethink their design strategy.

Nobody did what Mercedes did, though. Here’s a bit more about the exact changes, via Motorsport.com:

Decoupling the upper SIS from the pontoon bodywork then allowed the team to think laterally about the size, shape and orientation of the internal components, the intake and the bodywork that wraps them tightly.

The sidepod itself is also pushed back from the SIS when viewed from the side, allowing the team some room to include bottom wash chassis canards in front of the entrance (arrows red). This one has been turned 90 degrees, with a tall, slim opening allowing it to minimize the width of the pontoon.

These SIS changes drastically changed the rest of the W13’s design, resulting in a wider body from the rear halo to help channel airflow more precisely and provide better cooling. And there’s nothing in the rules to say Mercedes can not do all of this.

To help illustrate what I’m talking about, here’s a side view of the new W13, which is absolutely to cut:

Image for article titled Mercedes is already exploiting the gray areas of new Formula 1 technical regulations

Photo: Giuseppe CACACE / AFP (Getty Images)

And here’s the Haas, which seems to have had an obscene amount of pasta every night since COVID began:

Image for article titled Mercedes is already exploiting the gray areas of new Formula 1 technical regulations

Photo: MAZEN MAHDI/AFP (Getty Images)

Perhaps the most delightful part of this saga is the fact that Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner has claims that Mercedes’ changes go against the “spirit of the regulations” – a truly rich sentiment for a team used to working well in the undefined sections of F1’s regulations. (Red Bull, for its part, vehemently denied that Horner had any discussions with the media.)

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like these changes have helped much against the porpoising that has occurred for these new cars during testing. As they pick up speed, the cars appear to hop or bounce due to wobbly airflow – making the car much harder to drive. From the limited coverage we’ve seen from testing today, this issue still seems to be causing trouble for the Mercedes team.

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