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Why abandoning zeropods brought no immediate F1 gain for Mercedes

When Mercedes brought a major upgrade to its W14 Formula 1 car at the Monaco Grand Prix, the biggest talking point was its change of sidepods.

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

After more than a season of Mercedes going it alone in pursuit of its zeropod concept, it finally abandoned the idea as it pursued the growing trend for what has become known as the downwash solution. 

The fact that Red Bull had been so successful from the off with its downwash design inevitably prompted suggestions that Mercedes’ change of tack would bring some immediate and automatic gains. 

However, the reality of Formula 1 car design is that things are never as simple as that. 

In Mercedes’ case, the new direction for the sidepods was a bold move to make because, rather than the shift to downwash delivering an instant uptick in form, the squad was left facing a solution that, at best, delivered no benefit and at worst actually cost it lap time.

That is because although the zeropod design had come in for a lot of flak since the start of 2022, the idea was a good one in producing notable performance.

If we rewind to the original idea, the aim of the zeropod was quite simple. By separating the chassis structure and relocating the side impact bars to a specific area, Mercedes was able to reduce the sidepod size to an absolute minimum.

This had the double benefit of reducing drag and also, through the shaping of bodywork to make it effectively work like wings, help deliver extra downforce.

It has been suggested that in a straight side-by-side comparison, the zeropod was worth just more than 0.1 seconds over the downwash version that other teams have run with.

Mercedes W14 technical detail

Mercedes W14 technical detail

Photo by: Roberto Chinchero

Abandoning that clear advantage then for a solution that it knew was a step backwards may seem to be pretty counterintuitive, but there were actually pretty clear reasons why the team did it.

First of all, amid Mercedes’ bid to find answers as to why its car was no match for Red Bull’s RB19, and at that time had fallen behind Aston Martin, it needed to remove debate about its sidepods off the table.

Although it felt there was a clear downforce advantage to its solution compared to the downwash idea, there were question marks about it triggering unintended consequences for the rest of the car package.

That meant uncertainty about whether sacrificing the isolated benefit of the zeropods could open up potential to find bigger gains elsewhere as car development moved on. 

This was an answer that could only be realised by making the change, committing to it and seeing what new performance avenues were made available. 

Furthermore, there was also the issue of development potential – in that, while the starting point of the downwash solution was a drop in performance, the change gave the opportunity to deliver much more once the team got to grips with how to extract performance from it. 

And that is in effect what has happened. For while it swallowed the hit from the Monaco Grand Prix, its second iteration of sidepod solution that appeared in Belgium last weekend delivered a bit more performance – and there will be more to come, especially as the team bids to make a big leap this winter.

As Mercedes’ chief technical officer Mike Elliott explained about the performance coming from the downwash sidepods now: “I think when we brought the first version, it was pretty much a level change.  

“It wasn't something that brought lots of extra performance but there were opportunities to look at something different. We've sort of moved forward. 

“We're always evolving, constantly trying to bring more performance. So, this is a little bit more. The next version will bring us a little bit more and hopefully we'll keep developing over the winter.” 

Mike Elliott, Technology Director, Mercedes-AMG

Mike Elliott, Technology Director, Mercedes-AMG

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

The decision by Mercedes to stick with the zeropod for the start of this year came under Elliott’s watch, as he was the team’s technical director at the time. 

He explained that the reasoning for not going downwash last winter was quite simple; that the design did not deliver any step forward in performance. 

“Over the winter we looked at various different concepts of bodywork and didn't find a solution that was better than the one we had,” he said. 

“I think with what we've done now, we've clearly not jumped completely to where they are or to where anybody else is. What we've tried to do is to take what we've got and adapt it.  

“Therefore, you don't sort of take the same hit. And hopefully with time it evolves and we'll end up in a better place.”

What the sidepod debate has done inside Mercedes is prompted it to question both itself and its processes – something that may well prove extremely beneficial this winter as it looks to create a race-winning W15.

As rivals come to grips with a Red Bull car that appears to have no single element of greatness, but is instead just good in every single area, so too Mercedes has been looking hard at itself to ensure it turns things around.

As Elliot said: “You question everything. You question whether you have got the right fundamental philosophies, you question whether you've got the right processes in the way you're looking at the data.

“You'd like to think there's some silver bullet you could find, or something that's wrong that you can fix. But I think generally speaking, it's all about hard work.

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, leads George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14

Lando Norris, McLaren MCL60, leads George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

“If you look at where we were last year, with a car and the issues that we faced, we took quite a few big steps backwards to get ourselves out of some of the positions we were in. Then, once you're there, it is just catch up.

“I think if you look at where we are performance-wise, I think Aston made a good step over the winter but we've got ourselves into a decent position. Unfortunately, we've seen McLaren also make a big step.

“I think you have to sort of look at that and say, on the one hand, it's disappointing for us, but on the other hand, it shows us there are opportunities to make good steps.”

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