According to Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin, their 2021 challenger might not have an advantage over Red Bull's car. Despite Lewis Hamilton’s victory at the season opener in Bahrain by a fine margin, Shovlin feels the ‘lead may be short-lived' if they don’t improve.
Speaking after the Bahrain Grand Prix, the Mercedes engineer said:
“It's great to walk away from here leading the championship but we're under no illusions that this will anything other than an incredibly difficult championship to win.”
Shovlin also spoke about the package of their direct rivals, Red Bull:
"We've made good progress in the last week or so, but Red Bull have the better package at the moment and if we don't improve, our lead may be short-lived.”
In a sport where the law of diminishing returns reigns supreme, teams need to extract all the performance they can from the car. This becomes more important when teams are locked in a championship battle. Mercedes and Red Bull look destined to fight for the title this season, making it imperative that teams maximize their performance returns.
Speaking about the race, Shovlin claimed:
“We don’t really have any strengths relative to them – is what I would say – and we’ve had a lot of years where we’ve been able to rely on straight line speed or high-speed cornering or interconnected corners. But you look at it here [in Bahrain] and we weren’t taking any time out of them anywhere.”
Comparing Red Bull to Mercedes during qualifying trims, Shovlin explained:
“There were a couple of corners they took chunks out of us in qualifying – the high speed, also Turns 9 and 10 – they were very strong there. And that’s really the main thing. Qualifying, they’re just bang on the pace in our best corners, and they’re just quicker in others; so we need a faster car, simple as that.”
Does Red Bull have a better package than Mercedes?
With budget caps and restrictions on developing engines, Red Bull Racing might have beaten the Silver Arrows by producing a more competitive package, both chassis and engine wise. According to Shovlin, Mercedes might be challenged to develop their package further because of the limitations placed on teams.
The current Mercedes car W12 is designed around a low rake philosophy, while Red Bull Racing’s RB16B is a high rake chassis design. The rake level affects the layout and aerodynamic philosophies and is directly linked to the choice of wheelbase, which translates into the overall downforce generated from the floor of the car.
The 2022 regulations demand the length of the chassis to be slightly shortened at the rear, a concept teams were made aware of last season. However, the shortened car length at the rear hurts cars with a low rake design layout. A low rake design requires a longer wheelbase compared to a high rake car which can use a shorter wheelbase, making cornering easier and downforce generation effortless. The current Mercedes car has struggled with balance and rear stability since the pre-season test.
With limited development tokens to be spent, changing the current design of the Mercedes would mean starting from scratch, especially for the rake design. Shovlin explained:
“We can't do anything about that now. What we certainly can't do is suddenly say we're going to lift the rear of our car 30mm and work with that, because that would write off the season. We would lose so much in doing that - to recover it, it's just not practical.”
The restrictions limit Mercedes' ability to make any drastic changes to their package. Explaining how the restrictions have hurt Mercedes this year, Shovlin said:
“Normally you’d look to the wind tunnel to try and just put on a bit of downforce over the course of the year. You’d also look at the power unit to try and put on some power, but both of those are restricted this year by the regulations, so we have very little time with the wind tunnel. Dyno is also heavily restricted – we can’t develop the engine performance this year – so we’re having to look at more subtle areas to do with drivability characteristics.”
Speaking about the tight duel between Mercedes and Red Bull, Shovlin said:
"I think this season – this championship – is actually going to come down to the fine margins more than normal."
Lewis Hamilton echoed the engineer's statements:
“It’s going to take everything and more for us to put in performances [Bahrain Grand Prix] like this.”
With every inch matched closely between Mercedes and Red Bull's cars, this season might be the one Formula 1 fans have been waiting for. After much criticism over Mercedes' dominance in recent seasons, and proper title fights being denied, 2021 might serve up a treat, with more wheel-to-wheel action between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.