After promising results in Austin and Mexico, the Mercedes team quickly dashed hopes of catching up to Red Bull in terms of performance in Brazil.
Brazil was undoubtedly their worst race of the season, so it raises the question of what went wrong and how things changed so rapidly for the worse. Is this just a one-off bad weekend, or will poor performances continue?
Let’s take a look at Mercedes from a technical perspective and try to answer these complex questions.
The tyre problems
Already on Saturday in the sprint race, we could see that Mercedes was unusually slow. They had a clear tyre wear problem, especially evident towards the end of the sprint when Hamilton dropped to seventh place, 35 seconds behind the leader Max Verstappen. It seemed like Mercedes would find a solution to this problem, improve the car’s setup, and make things better on Sunday.
However, the situation worsened further during the main event in Sao Paulo. We could see Mercedes drivers struggling with the rear end of the car, which was causing the tyres to wear out more quickly.
The W14 is recognisable for its larger rear wing, which plays a role in maintaining the car’s aerodynamic balance. Engineers couldn’t design a more efficient underbody and beam wing for the car, and thus, they had to “search” for aerodynamic downforce in other places. This is why Mercedes’ car has more drag and struggles with top speeds.
This theory was confirmed in Brazil, where it was obvious that Mercedes lost the most time in the third sector, which features a long straight with a slight incline. This is a pure aerodynamic issue, given that other users of Mercedes’ power units, like McLaren and Aston Martin, don’t have a similar problem – but more on them below.
The matter becomes even stranger when we add to that the fact that Mercedes was definitely the fastest in Brazil last year, when they also had the same problems.
PlanetF1.com’s recommended reading
Raised floor also to blame?
The potential biggest culprit for the disastrous performance in Brazil could be the raised floor of the car. The new design that Mercedes brought to America seemed very successful, as the results confirmed. However, after disqualifications, the team had to pay more attention to the car’s ride height to stay within the rules.
Lewis Hamilton also shared a similar opinion after the Brazil race, saying: “My guess is that the floor’s not working. Then we’re pushed to go to a higher wing, and we’re just massively draggy on the straights.”
But how is it possible that such small changes in the car’s ride height can have such a significant impact on performance?
The underbody design is crucial for generating downforce in modern cars. Today’s cars have underbodies designed to mimic tunnels through which air flows. The tunnel’s height decreases, the airspeed inside increases, and local pressure sharply drops, creating differences in pressure above and below the car. This generates a significant amount of downforce, providing the necessary grip to the car.
One of the most complex parts of this story is the car floor’s edge, which separates the low-pressure area beneath the car from the external air. If you increase the car’s floor height enough and allow external air to enter beneath the car, you disrupt the entire concept, and aerodynamic efficiency significantly decreases.
If this isn’t the main problem behind Mercedes’ poor performance, then it must be something more serious that could impact the remaining races on the calendar.
A word on Mercedes’ customers
Aston Martin, one of Mercedes’ customers, has shown that they shouldn’t be easily dismissed. The races in Austin and Mexico were probably their worst of the year, but Brazil provides hope that things can be different.
Aston Martin has used the last few races to experiment with various floor and floor edge designs, which had been a challenge for them throughout the season. They have also brought back some old aero packages, combining them with new parts, in the hope of finding the perfect combination. It seems that the British team has finally managed to understand their issues and address them correctly.
El nuevo fondo de Aston Martin
New Aston Martin floor pic.twitter.com/wWEceruPOB
— Albert Fabrega (@AlbertFabrega) October 20, 2023
This could be a significant turning point for Aston Martin, especially in preparation for 2024. Understanding their car and its aerodynamics is key to improving performance. For now, besides Red Bull, it seems that McLaren is the only team that fully understands how their car functions. Although they seem to be just a few percentage points behind Red Bull, closing that gap requires a significant effort.
It’s fascinating to see how teams using the same power unit have different philosophies and results on specific weekends. It’s worth noting that besides the engine, Aston Martin also purchases the gearbox and other essential components from Mercedes this year.
What’s certain is that all three teams face a challenging winter, which represents the most crucial part of performance development. Now that some teams have started to grasp the concept of the underbody, the chances of an exciting season in terms of the battle for the top spot are increasing with each passing race.