How Ferrari and Red Bull finally trumped Mercedes

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In modern Formula 1 aerodynamics is the bread and butter for every team. Not taking anything away from power units, suspension design, tyre understanding and perfect set-up, F1 cars from 2017 are even more in need of good aero than before. So, from this perspective – how exactly did Ferrari and Red Bull finally outsmart Mercedes in the quest for the fastest car for the first time since 2014.

Once upon a time...

... there was a Silver team, a Red team and a Bull team. The Silver team had the strongest power unit for some time and they were happy with it. The Red team were coming close to them a few times, but they were still too slow. The Bull team also came close, but sometimes they were really, really slow. So the Red team and the Bull team had to do something. Something big and brave, something Silver team would never think of! And they did, of course, do it this year, finally.

In Formula 1 it’s rarely about huge changes, radical design and paradigm shifts, it’s more often about steady improvement all the time. Mercedes came to their dominant position exactly this way – they worked on and improved their initial 2014 power unit design for a lot longer than Ferrari or Renault (for Red Bull of course). With Schumacher - the Red Baron – Todt, Brawn and Byrne, Ferrari steadily improved their car from 1996 to 1999 to be ready to dominate the sport for the next five years. The same for McLaren with Prost and Senna, for Williams in the 90s etc.

Mercedes have turned out to be the masters of this and the rest of the grid couldn’t catch them for three years, the gap was always there and it wasn’t small. Mercedes used this approach and perfected it so good, that there was a need for a radical change to beat them. This change came in 2017 with different aerodynamic regulations, but no one expected to see Mercedes start the season badly – their car was faster in corners during their dominance from 2014-2016, so they had a good aero package, or this wouldn’t have been the case.

However, their approach hadn’t changed with regulations – they stuck to their well-known design and improved it as much as rules allowed to begin the 2017 season. What those rules primarily allowed are bigger car width and an option for a lot longer floor – which Mercedes used to full extent. This brought with it a few handling and set-up issues – the car was too heavy early in the season, there was no option for proper balance set-up and tyres were hard to bring up (or down) to and keep at optimum temperature. Other features of 2017 car can, in a way, be considered as an evolution from 2016 – especially the barge board area, where Mercedes was well ahead of the field.

Figure 1 – rough comparison of 2016 and 2017 Mercedes F1 cars in Sepang, Malaysia, photo credit Sepang Circuit

Compared to that, Ferrari brought a completely new car and new design. This was especially the case with side pod design, featuring that huge, radical new solution that was needed to beat Mercedes. Raised side pods allowed the team to bring a lot more air above diffuser, making it work harder and in turn – making the floor, barge boards and front wing work slightly harder as well. Even the F1 aero-guru, Adrian Newey, needed some time to process Ferrari design. In 2018, he successfully implemented it. Another perk of this design was ability to lower side impact structure, lowering car CoG a bit as well. Compared to the rest of the grid, Mercedes and Ferrari seemed well ahead in their development.

Figure 2 – rough comparison of 2016 and 2017 Ferrari F1 cars in studio photos, photo credit Ferrari

Throughout the season of 2017 some patterns emerged:

  • Ferrari's car had more overall downforce
  • Mercedes' car was still able to achieve greater top speeds
  • Mercedes' car was quicker in qualifying, overall
  • Ferrari's car was slightly faster in races, overall
  • 2017 cars proved very hard for overtaking (as many experts predicted even before rules were written in final form)

Those patterns told a very similar tale trough the year and, even with some struggles to set the car up, Mercedes kept their car at the top - it was a better car overall. Both these cars had some strong points and some weak points, which teams have set to correct for season 2018. Red Bull was working hard throughout 2017, but was lacking overall a bit. Of their 3 victories, at least 2 were arguably a result of circumstances during those races.

Ferrari had to make their car faster, meaning more efficient downforce – so they introduced longer wheelbase and floor, much the same way Mercedes did in 2017. Other than that, they reduced frontal surface of side pods, especially frontal radiator inlet (and enlarged the top inlet). There are some other areas that suggest their clear desire to reduce drag in almost every way (it’s worth noting they reduced the number of surfaces causing strong vortices in barge board area from 6 to 3) and they also abandoned diffuser design from 2016 and 2017 for a design similar to Red Bull. They also needed to make it faster in qualifying – the result is 3 pole positions, one additional front row start and two front row lock-outs in first four races of 2018.

Figure 3 – rough comparison of 2017 and 2018 Ferrari F1 cars in studio photos, photo credit Ferrari

Red Bull began their 2017 campaign with a fairly basic car they upgraded extensively trough the year. Their 2018 launch car was an improvement in almost every area over the final RB13 spec. One major difference was present – side pod design, having adopted a solution similar to the Red team. Other than that, they shrunk them further since 2017, into a unique shape similar to the one seen on their championship winning cars in early 2010s. Ferrari and Red Bull cars now share a number of similarities – fairly low drag design, narrow side pods, raised radiator inlets, highly complex front wing, aggressive tapering of bodywork in coke-bottle zone, high rake angle and a similar diffuser philosophy.

Figure 4 – rough comparison of 2017 and 2018 Red Bull F1 cars in studio photos, photo credit Red Bull

Some of those features are also seen on 2018 Mercedes car, but some are notably missing - front wing complexity is lower on Mercedes, side pods aren’t as narrow and inlets are standard design. There are some differences on these cars and it’s obvious the Red team and Bull team have some different ideas compared to Silver team. For example, Mercedes have a unique cape under the nose, serving a number of purposes including some downforce generation. Mercedes refined their 2017 car and brought the 2018 version, featuring some details seen on Ferrari and Red Bull in 2017. However, after 4 races, it’s starting to look like missing on some key details is hurting them (in spite of their recent victory in Baku):

  • High rake design
  • Raised side pod inlets
  • Narrower side pods overall
  • Front wing flow conditioning

Figure 5 – rough comparison of 2017 and 2018 Mercedes F1 cars in studio photos, photo credit Mercedes

The problem Mercedes faced between seasons was getting their car to work better in a wider range of conditions. The speed was there in 2017, just not a solid consistency early in the season and often on very hot tracks. They focused extensively on suspension redesign, both front and rear, choosing to stick with some well-known aero concepts for another year again. This is not a bad decision, teams need some stability to find the problem and fix it as fast as possible. The problem is, this left them vulnerable and in no position to change their basic car concept too much (side pods and rake angle mostly), while competition improved what were already cars that gave the Silver team some big headaches. Team admitted in China that they were too conservative with their goals for 2018 car, even though they did meet them. However, team did improve their race pace, as they are seemingly as close to Ferrari in races now as Ferrari was close to them in 2017, meaning qualifying advantage of Ferrari hasn’t transferred straight to race-pace advantage as well.

Figure 6 – rough comparison of 2018 Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull F1 cars in Azerbaijan GP, photo credit XPB Imagest

What is probably the most striking characteristic of 2018 cars is top speed – Ferrari were on top of Mercedes in 3 out 4 qualifying sessions this year and Red Bull is closer than ever. This is suggesting that Power Unit differences are no longer that big and we could probably say that it’s close enough to not make a big difference – slight power deficiency can be overcome with slightly better aero.

A turn-around of this kind was expected last year, mostly by Red Bull, the team known for their top aerodynamic design for quite some time now. In the end, it was Ferrari that made the final step to catch-up to Mercedes and get them out of their comfort zone and Red Bull decisively followed. Tyre issues Mercedes face now aren’t new for them – this was regularly the case before 2014 – so it’s hard to say if they solved them during their dominance period, or if their power advantage masked these problems. Whatever it is, tyre problems are back in the spotlight and are a part of the Silver car so far in 2018 – and they will have to overcome those problems and outsmart the Red team and the Bull team if they want to win their fifth consecutive title.