Mercedes are now in a difficult spot to keep up with Red Bull in the championship fight this year.
Mercedes are locked into the most brutal championship battle they’ve experienced since the start of the turbo-hybrid era in 2014. The all-conquering, dominant Constructors’ Champions trail Red Bull by 44 points in the standings. They’ve also not won a race since the Spanish GP in early May. Since that race, Red Bull have dominated by winning five consecutive races. Mercedes are now getting pushed to the limit by a team with a superior package. As the series heads to Silverstone, the team’s question is this; can they claw their way back to level terms with Red Bull? The answer is not a straightforward one.
The Golden Opportunity
The first element lies within the competitor’s garage. After a long championship drought, Red Bull is desperate to bring glory back to Milton Keynes. That desire got highlighted when Red Bull brought five trucks worth of parts and upgrades to the Red Bull Ring. After years of slow starts and various problems, the team came into 2021 on a level footing.
A relentless push to develop the car is driving Red Bull’s march to the championships. As Helmut Marko pointed out in Auto Motor und Sport, the team view 2021 as a golden opportunity; “We don’t want to make the same mistake as BMW in 2008 when Kubica had a realistic chance of winning the championship, but the business plan said to switch early to next season.”
Red Bull has also got a lot of help from engine supplier Honda. The Japanese marque announced last October that they’d leave F1 after the 2021 season. In doing so, Honda opted to hasten development for the 2022 power unit into the 2021 season. Honda sought refuge from Red Bull in 2019 after the failed McLaren partnership. A re-configured split-turbo concept allowed Honda to find some reliability in the early stages of the relationship.
This year, Honda reverted to their ‘size-zero’ concept that initially hampered them at McLaren. With a redesigned cylinder head, lower camshaft layout and increased power from the MGU-H and MGU-K, the Honda powertrain is arguably the class of the field. Only in 2019, when Ferrari illegally gained an advantage, did we see Mercedes lose out in the powertrain stakes.
Mercedes elevating their power unit in 2020 forced Honda to embrace the competition and get more staff involved with the 2021 project. Head of power unit Yasuaki Asaki explained earlier this year, “I believe that we were able to implement everything that we have to compete with Mercedes. We had a lot of cooperation from Red Bull, making sure that we could get the most from this new compact engine.”
A desire to bow out of F1 on a high also pushed Honda to chase and develop the best powertrain possible for 2021; “I had acknowledged in some ways that it was an incredibly challenging target. But I think our engineers have had both the understanding that yes we’ve only got a year left, but also we’ve got a full year left, and we have to do something with that time, and they’ve worked hard during the time that we have had.”
The Budget Cap
The F1′ arms race’ can define seasons. In previous years, Mercedes could spend unlimited amounts of money to bring upgrades to the car. The Brackley-based team did it brilliantly in 2018 when the car was a bit of a diva. They upgraded and upgraded to overhaul Ferrari in the second half of the season. In 2021, Mercedes can’t do that. The implementation of the first-ever F1 budget cap will limit the team’s ability to claw their way back into the fight. The £104 million spending cap already challenged a big team like Mercedes. The Emilia Romagna GP where Valtteri Bottas suffered a massive crash, and Lewis Hamilton damaged a front wing pushed Mercedes to another level of difficulty. The Bottas crash came with a £1 million bill.
Andrew Shovlin explained after the race at Imola, “If you have a series of these kinds of large accidents that are doing significant damage, and this has been bad for us because we’ve had a front wing with Lewis as well, then that will definitely exceed our allocation for what we have available to spend on the parts.” Shovlin elaborated on how it can impact in-season development; “So it is really a factor of the cost cap, and the money has got to come from somewhere. Ultimately if it becomes a big problem, it can start to hit your development budget. So we do need to be mindful of that moving forward.”
Despite the financial constraints, Mercedes will arrive at Silverstone with an upgrade package. Some will come on the power unit side, and there is an emphasis on the car’s floor. The floor is where Mercedes has lost some aerodynamic performance compared to last year. The team are cautiously optimistic; however, Lewis Hamilton believes it won’t change the order.
It is one of the final upgrade packages that Mercedes has to bring to the table this season; Toto Wolff has confirmed plenty of times that Mercedes switched to their 2022 car a long time ago. Indeed, the development pipeline is not full for the Brackley based team. The budget cap is tying their hands, add a significant rule change in 2022, Mercedes can’t spend their way back. After winter testing in 2019, Mercedes brought a new car to Australia as they looked slower than Ferrari. That won’t happen in 2021. With a 2-3 tenths deficit to Red Bull, Mercedes are stuck in a difficult spot.
Looking Forward to 2022
Arguably the biggest problem facing Mercedes is the regulation change in 2022. Rule changes can violently shake up the order in F1. 2005 cut Ferrari’s dominance and ceded power to Renault. 2009 famously gave the advantage to Brawn and Red Bull. And lastly, 2014 gave rise to Mercedes and their amazing v6 turbocharged power train. 2022 offers another reset for all the teams. Mercedes’ forward-thinking set up their success in 2014. After F1 announced new engine regulations in 2011, Mercedes started their work long before anyone else did. They even had a multitude of test rigs and dynamometers set up in early 2013.
Mercedes know better than any other team how vital planning is. With a budget cap in place, starting slowly in 2022 could inhibit a teams chance to catch up. Pair that with the new sliding scale wind tunnel allocation and teams like Ferrari and McLaren get more wind tunnel time than Mercedes. For Mercedes to stay on top, they must get the 2022 car correct.
It might’ve been different if star driver Lewis Hamilton was going to walk away after 2021, but the Briton signed a new contract to extend his tenure with the team. Hamilton and Mercedes don’t wish to race in the midfield next year. That is why the shift to 2022 is now the main aim for everyone at Brackley. Maybe, just maybe, after winning every championship in the turbo-hybrid era, Mercedes don’t mind losing out on one year if they ace the 2022 regulations.