Why Mercedes’ F1 concept switch goes far beyond new sidepods

When Mercedes rolls out new sidepods at Imola as part of a major update package for the W14 Formula 1 car, it will renew focus on its change of concept. 

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14

With the team open to the fact that it has gone down the wrong path with the design of its 2023 F1 car, it is inevitable that the most visual of changes will be the biggest evidence of it doing things differently. 

But amid plenty of chatter about ‘concepts’ in Formula 1, Mercedes has been eager to emphasise that there is a big difference between a shift in how a car looks and a proper philosophical step-change. 

Earlier this year, Mercedes trackside engineering chief Andrew Shovlin admitted that the team had been guilty of linking the word ‘concept’ to its sidepods too much. 

“Perhaps we've adopted the word concept to mean sidepod,” he explained.  

"This car is an evolution of the car that we had last year, and a lot of that is tied around where we've got the side impact structure. So now we're looking at bigger departures because it's evident that this hasn't given us the performance that we'd like. 

"Saying that, there's other areas of the car that we know we need to improve as well. It would be very misguided to think if we go and put a different-looking sidepod on it, all of that gap is going to vanish. 

"The reality is that the vast majority of that gap is going to have to come from other performance areas."

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

As work continues for the Imola changes, Mercedes has now offered an interesting explainer to shed some light on exactly what it believes a concept change is and isn’t – with it being crystal clear that things go far beyond the visual looks of its minimalistic sidepods.

Where the lines have perhaps been blurred is that the Mercedes zeropods were not the critical aspect of the car concept. Instead, they were just one element of an holistic philosophical approach about where the team’s downforce was delivered. 

One rival team said that it also evaluated the zeropod idea because it could see the tremendous potential in peak downforce levels that could be produced from having a larger floor area exposed – especially if the car could run extremely close to the ground. 

However, this outfit backed away from the idea as it believed it would be difficult to achieve such downforce levels in the real world because of floors flexing, bumpy track surfaces and the risk of porpoising – something Mercedes found out to its cost in 2022. 

It is how and where an F1 car produces its downforce that appears to be central to ‘concept’ thoughts, rather than the shape of the sidepod that we can all see. 

In this respect, last year Mercedes paid the price for chasing peak downforce by running the car as low to the ground as possible – something that could not be delivered because of bouncing/porpoising. 

This year, the team has gone too far the other way, chasing downforce with the car as high up as possible. It quickly found that it hit an aerodynamic performance ceiling – which is what has prompted the ‘concept’ shift. 

Andrew Shovlin, Trackside Engineering Director, Mercedes-AMG

Andrew Shovlin, Trackside Engineering Director, Mercedes-AMG

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

As Mercedes has now explained: “When we talk about aero, we’re not just talking about the shape of the car and the bodywork.  

“It’s also about how we use the car, how we control the car, how we evolve the balance and set-up to work with the aero package. Because those factors also impact the aerodynamic performance on track.” 

And while some aerodynamic performance does come from visual elements like the wings (front and rear) plus the sidepods, the biggest gains are found by how airflow is managed underneath the car and through the diffuser. 

So that is why changes in that area – like the venturi tunnel designs, where the car runs in relation to the ground, its rake and its ride platform – are far more critical than changing the shape of an engine cover or sidepod. 

Mercedes added: “When bodywork or aerodynamic upgrades are brought to a car, is the team therefore bringing a new ‘car concept’? 

“Well, the answer is… no. And that’s because a car is constantly changing and evolving. It’s much more than what you see.  

“We may start with theories over the best possible direction. Each department has an idea of what is required, and we bring those different aspects together. The aim: to get a car that the team can extract the maximum amount of performance from. 

“From that starting point though, it’s a constantly developing picture. With every step of the design, test, and manufacture process, we’re learning. Every lap completed on the track enables us to build our understanding and our development.  

“The result of that process is a car that combines hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas as it moves from initial launch to crossing the finish line in Abu Dhabi.” 

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And while there has been plenty of talk of the F1 grid falling into three concept groups – the Red Bull-style downwash solution, the Ferrari inwash solution and the Mercedes zeropod – things are not quite as simple as that. 

Indeed, the true differences between the teams are far more to do with the direction they take in chasing the perfect set-up and aerodynamic platform. 

As Mercedes said: “‘Car concept’ therefore is less about what you see physically on track. It’s the theory and understanding of what all the elements are to produce the fastest possible car. And this is always a moving target.  

“We don’t simply start off with a concept and that’s it. The game is to learn as much as possible, faster, and in more depth than our rivals.” 

So, when Mercedes takes to the track at Imola with its new sidepods, it will mark not the final answer to its change of concept but more the first step towards what it hopes will eventually be a race-winning car. 

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