Are Mercedes so committed to the zero-pod they’ll die on that hill?

Michelle Foster
Lewis Hamilton in Mercedes zero pod W13. Bahrain March 2022

Ross Brawn is right in saying Mercedes are “not idiots” and to suggest otherwise is a disservice to the rest of the grid given the Brackley squad handed them their arses in seven of the last eight seasons.

So where has it gone wrong for Mercedes this season? Is it as simple as saying they went with the wrong concept when it came to their sidepods?

It’s not, it takes more than one piece of aerodynamic structure, even one that’s as big (or in Mercedes’ case as small) as sidepods to dictate a car’s performance.

But it definitely doesn’t help if you’ve got that part wrong.

With all-new cars in play this season, Formula 1’s powers-that-think-up-rules believed we’d see a grid of 20 very similar cars, after all they had rule-busted for weeks to eliminate any grey areas.

Yet when it came down to it we had three different sidepod concepts alone – downwash, upwash, and the where-are-my-sidepods-wash.

Mercedes surprised the paddock at the second of the pre-season outings when they put a W13 that basically didn’t have any sidepods on the track.

Straying away from the more conventional design, their zero-pod concept creates outwash low down while still guiding the air flow from front to rear.

But while it is safe to say Mercedes went with that philosophy because they believed it would be the best, it has been blamed for many of their problems especially porpoising.

As Mercedes bounced from one grand prix venue to another, 1996 World Champion Damon Hill was the first to suggest the zero-pods weren’t helping the team’s cause as they aren’t able to stabilise the floor.

“If you look at the Mercedes,” he said, “there is a vast area because they’ve got such slim sidepods, there is not much there to hold the floor up and it could be that they’re getting more of this flex which is creating a problem to control the aerodynamics at the back of the car.”

It has been reported that in order to minimise the porpoising, the reigning World Champions had to shave away parts of the floor with the consequence of that being a loss of downforce.

Toto Wolff, however, has kept faith with the design.

“We need to give all of our people who have produced great race cars in the past the benefit of the doubt, and we believe this is the route to go down,” he said after Miami.

Throwing in a “we’ll continue to grind away” a month later, two months after that it was still “trial and error” as Mercedes took two steps forward and one back in understanding the car.

Lewis Hamilton celebrates his third position at the end of the race. Montreal June 2022

Wolff is determined to understand, or at least know that his designers do, “where did this one go wrong” – if of course it has.

“What is the goodness of the concept and what is the badness of the concept?” he said.

“And that is a question you can only respond to yourself, but I would be asking ourselves to get an answer, because that’s the real correlation we have.

“And then, we’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror and say: ‘did we get it wrong or not?’”

The results would suggest they have, the team going from winning championships to being 16 races into a season without a single grand prix win on the board.

With only five months to go until the 2023 cars hit the track, Mercedes are hopefully closing in on a decision even if they aren’t telling us.

Mercedes’ trackside engineering director Andy Shovlin recently stated they are “still exploring different concepts” with the Briton conceding that as things stand “you’d always say that the fastest car is the one that’s got the best concept, so, you know, today that’s going to be Red Bull”.

But next year the floor rules are being tweaked, the edges raised by 15mm, and many are predicting that will have a big knock-on when it comes to the chassis.

The Mercedes W13 of George Russell sporting a tribute logo. Belgium, August 2022.

As Shovlin added, “where that goes into next year it’s difficult to say”.

It has been suggested by former F1 driver Marc Surer that Mercedes have already made the call to scrap their zero-pods, the 71-year-old claiming “they’re going to do a Red Bull copy next year, conceptually at least, and then they’ll be back”.

That, though, is also not without risks as not only will Mercedes be a season behind Red Bull in understanding the concept but, as said earlier, a fast Formula 1 car depends on more than just the sidepods.

With 2022 having not gone to plan, no matter what Mercedes do for next season there is a risk. Either they risk playing catch-up or they risk 15mm being the game-changer when it comes to making their zero-pods work.

But as Brawn said, they’re “not idiots, they will get it right”…

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