Giorgio Piola's F1 technical analysis
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Giorgio Piola's F1 technical analysis

The five tech punches Red Bull and Mercedes traded in 2021

Formula 1's COVID-forced adoption of an interim car design for 2021 has resulted in some fascinating battles on and off track this season: and a very different upgrade war.

The five tech punches Red Bull and Mercedes traded in 2021

Formula 1's COVID-forced adoption of an interim car design for 2021 has resulted in some fascinating battles on and off track this season: and a very different upgrade war.

Rather than each team having the choice of going for a clean-sheet design, it has been a case of searching for a way to tip the scales in their favour even if they haven't been able to right some of the wrongs of their original 2020 chassis.

The closest of these battles is right at the front of the pack, with Mercedes and Red Bull, plus McLaren and Ferrari duking it out respectively for first and third in the constructors' championship.

Thrown into the mix too were regulation changes, which focused their efforts on reducing the amount of downforce that could be generated. They required the teams to tweak their floor, rear brake duct and diffuser designs, with the long wheelbase lower rake cars seemingly affected more than their shorter, higher rake counterparts.

Let's take a look at the enveloping technical war between Mercedes and Red Bull.

1. Red Bull finds its edge with new regulations, Mercedes struggles

The Mercedes W12, being from the low-rake school, fell back in terms of performance - with the Aston Martin AMR21, which also follows that design philosophy, clearly disadvantaged by the regulation changes too.

In the face of this adversity, and with a car that seemed to suffer from its fair share of instability during pre-season testing, Mercedes remained steadfast in its approach. It used a pragmatic approach to dial back performance and find a set-up that would put it in the hunt alongside Red Bull, while largely sticking to its usual plan of introducing upgrade packages at key waypoints during the season.

Mercedes W12 early-season floor

Mercedes W12 early-season floor

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Red Bull on the other hand, which has often been slow out the blocks in terms of development, opted for a piecemeal approach for 2021, with a constant stream of updates arriving at almost every race and some larger update packages thrown into the mix for good measure. This came on on top of its decision to spend its two development tokens at the rear of the RB16B to help unlock aerodynamic and mechanical performance that its predecessor did not have on tap.

This redesign of its gearbox carrier meant the team could change its rear suspension, adopting a similar layout to the one seen on the Mercedes W11. It raised and pushed back the lower elements, in order to clean up the space beneath to improve the pathway for the airflow as it makes its way to the rear of the car.

In contrast to Mercedes, it had been unable to mount the lower rear suspension element as far back, as that would have also required the crash structure to be redesigned, at a cost of two more tokens, which it didn't have at it disposal.

However, Red Bull was able to relocate the upper inboard suspension elements, placing them much higher and rearward than had been the case with the RB16. The hollow upright extension that the team introduced in 2020 that not only facilitates the high position but also allows air to move rearward without being encumbered, like it would be if it were a solid structure.

Red Bull RB16 and RB16B suspension comparison

Red Bull RB16 and RB16B suspension comparison

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Resolving some of the RB16's aerodynamic inefficiencies was still high on its list of priorities and so a new skirt was added to the section of the nose cape that lies beneath the chassis for 2021.

It had been one of the teams that had tested a 2021 specification floor during 2020, utilising a tapered design much like the regulations had intended. However, this was quickly cast aside as it installed a Z-shaped floor that we'd seen elsewhere and paired it with an outwardly angled strake.

Before the pre-season test was complete it followed this up by adding two more, slightly shorter strakes, just ahead of the rear tyre, in order to work with the angled strake already present just ahead of the rear tyre.

2. Early Imola development helps Mercedes cure its ills, Red Bull hits back in Portugal

For the second race of the season, at Imola, Mercedes made some small changes to the W12's floor ahead of the rear tyre and the diffuser.

These optimisations were likely in response to the instability issues that the team had been fighting during pre-season testing, as it took the data collected and used it to find a practical solution to the revised flow structures being created by the new aerodynamic features and tyres for this season.

Mercedes W12 floor cut-out

Mercedes W12 floor cut-out

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

In the meantime, Red Bull's development assault really got into full swing when the teams arrived in Portugal, with alterations made from front-to-back on the RB16B.

The bargeboard cluster and sidepod deflector array was given attention for the first time in 2021, building on the changes that the team had made in the back end of 2020, while also paying attention to their effect on the changes forced upon them by the new regulations downstream.

This resulted in the fins mounted on the bargeboard's footplate being adjusted, while both vertical elements in the deflector array were modified.

The forwardmost of these two elements was moved further forward to sit on the leading edge of the floor, and a slot was added to help better influence the airflow. Meanwhile, the lower section of the old forward element was retained, along with the two forward reaching winglets.

Updated Red Bull RB16B bargeboard area

Updated Red Bull RB16B bargeboard area

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

At the rear of the deflector assembly, the vertical element, which had previously hung above the floor, was now mounted to it, and the slats that made up the Venetian blind-like section were all adjusted to suit their new surroundings.

At the rear of the car the team deployed a new diffuser, with a much slimmer central section that took advantage of the slimline keel created by the new gearbox carrier.

3. Mercedes accelerates development for Monaco, as Red Bull continues to up the ante

Monaco provided the backdrop for the first major update that we'd seen from Mercedes during 2021 and it was a planned performance upgrade made specifically for the tight, barrier lined, street circuit.

It was permissible within the scope of the homologation system without the need to spend any tokens either. So, with Mercedes having struggled at this sort of circuit in the past, it made sense for the team to expend some of its resources to try and alleviate its shortcomings.

Mercedes W12 front suspension comparison

Mercedes W12 front suspension comparison

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

As can be seen in this comparison of the car from above, the track rod and lower wishbone were redesigned in order that they met the upright further forward than they had before.

The changes made to accommodate a revised track rod and wishbone layout are made clear by the bulkier flexure for the track rod where it connected to the brake duct.

This also meant that, to get a similar volume for the section of the inlet that's meshed off, the team had to sacrifice the rest of the inlet and make changes to how it was partitioned.

This also goes to show how the brake duct is used both as a way of cooling the brakes and as a medium for moving airflow through the assembly for aerodynamic gain. The latter was sacrificed to maintain the required level of cooling for the street track.

Red Bull RB16B diffuser serrations

Red Bull RB16B diffuser serrations

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Red Bull, meanwhile, had a few new tricks up its sleeve too and even took a leaf out of the Mercedes playbook, as the outer edges of the diffuser were treated to some serrated edges. This is an aerodynamic trick we've seen from Mercedes in various places over the course of the last few years.

At the front of the car a new front wing was also at its disposal, with a revised outboard section utilised to help redistribute the ratio between the amount of downforce that can be generated and how much emphasis is placed on creating 'outwash', whereby the airflow is directed around the front tyre.

4. Flexi-wing furore adds fuel to the development fire

A flexi-wing storm that had been brewing behind the scenes was laid to rest in Azerbaijan when the FIA doubled down on new load and deflection tests that were to be introduced at the French Grand Prix by also requiring teams to add reference dots on their wings in order that the governing body might monitor footage collected by the rear facing camera's onboard the cars.

This led to an interesting side narrative to emerge over the course of the next few races, as teams not only fell in line with the new tests but also looked for ways to find the necessary performance they needed for the given circuit.

Red Bull RB16B flexing rear wing

Red Bull RB16B flexing rear wing

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

This has frequently led to teams having different approaches, with their drivers even forced to take a different route depending on how they found the car balance during Friday's free practice sessions.

More optimisation followed at the Styrian Grand Prix for Red Bull, as the serrated edges that had been added to the trailing edge of the Gurney-like diffuser flaps in Monaco were extended across their entire length and added to the curved section of the uppermost flap beside the crash structure.

Then, just a week later, at the Austrian Grand Prix, Red Bull deployed two more updates, as it looked to improve the performance of the front wing and sidepod deflectors.

And, in keeping with a practice that had been established early in the season, Max Verstappen's car received the new parts, while Sergio Perez would receive them a race later.

Mercedes' largest aerodynamic update of the season arrived at the British Grand Prix, when the team unveiled a revised mid section for the W12.

The rollout included the forward vertical deflector being cut down, which in-turn allowed for the Venetian blind-like slats to be extended forward. The main vertical deflector was also detached from the sidepod's leading edge wing, removing the arched section that had previously framed the sidepod's shoulder.

Mercedes W12 floor and bargeboard updates

Mercedes W12 floor and bargeboard updates

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

The 'wave' floor section which had been an imposing feature on the W12 since the start of the season was also tuned and the single, more prominent floor scroll, was replaced by a pair of scrolls instead.

Behind this, two pairs of four angled fins were added, in order to course correct the airflow that moves around the sidepod.

It's at this point that Toto Wolff suggested that Mercedes was done for the season in terms of upgrades.

Although Mercedes would later arrive at Monza with a track specific low downforce rear wing, it was actually a rehash of the wing used in 2020 in any case.

Red Bull continued to pile on the pressure at Silverstone too though, as it added a step ladder-like winglet on the edge of the floor, removing one of the two shorter strakes added during pre-season testing, as the structure butts up to the point where it was located.

The slotted wing is also angled in the same direction of the strakes, and fans the airflow outward, reinforcing the existing flow structures designed to push airflow across and around the rear tyre.

Red Bull Racing RB16B front brake comparison

Red Bull Racing RB16B front brake comparison

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Another tweak was made to the RB16B's front brake inlet scoop for the Hungarian Grand Prix, as the designers expanded the lower section to create a more squared-off and symmetrical design that not only has an impact on the lower section of the scoop but also the upper corner too.

It's unclear if this has a direct correlation with a need for more brake cooling or whether the team felt the need to add some additional aerodynamic support, as while the Hungaroring clearly puts an emphasis on the former, the team has continued to use the design at less demanding circuits too.

5. Mercedes slows down development to focus on 2022

As both teams once again tried to strike a balance between the downforce and drag levels required to conquer Spa-Francorchamps, another revision was made to the RB16B's floor.

Red Bull not only revised the pre-existing strake mounted on the corner of the Z-shaped floor cutout, but it added another, creating a more defined path for the airflow to follow.

This highlights the stark contrast of where both teams started in terms of their floor designs too, with Mercedes starting its campaign with one of the most complex designs in the field and in some ways having to dilute its original intent in order to find a more consistent performance level under real world conditions.

Red Bull RB16B Z-floor update

Red Bull RB16B Z-floor update

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Meanwhile, Red Bull started out with a more conservative arrangement, similar to what the FIA intended with its new regulations, but added performance as it went along.

Despite suggestions from the team that the upgrade package unveiled at Silverstone would be its last major push for the season, Mercedes introduced a new front wing at the Russian Grand Prix.

However, it has not been raced yet. Having been tested during free practice at the last two races it apparently has not supplied sufficient improvement to make it onto the car when it counts.

This unraced design sees the ratio of the immovable outer portion of the wing and the outermost section of the upper flaps altered, suggesting the team is looking to trim some of the wing's downforce level, beyond an angle adjustment, while also altering the 'outwash' effect the wing creates.

Mercedes W12 late-season front wing comparison

Mercedes W12 late-season front wing comparison

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

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