Designing the Perfect F1 Car: Challenges Faced by Top Teams Mercedes, Ferrari, and McLaren
As the 2023 Formula One season kicks off, it is clear that some of the top teams have not met expectations with their cars. Mercedes, Ferrari, and McLaren have all faced significant challenges, causing frustration for their drivers and fans alike.
The 2023 season has just begun, and it appears that Mercedes, Ferrari, and McLaren have not fully met expectations with their cars. While Bahrain is the only race that has taken place so far, it provides an opportunity to examine these teams and the possible factors contributing to their performance.
Although the regulations have remained relatively stable from 2022 to 2023, creating a detailed specification and meeting objectives for a new car design is a difficult task. It is an ongoing process, and if the goals are easily attainable, they may not be ambitious enough. Teams should strive to set targets that are just beyond their reach, pushing them to constantly search for the next improvement.
Teams have access to vast amounts of GPS data that allows them to compare their on-track performance with that of their competitors in great detail. This enables them to determine their performance offset relative to other cars and set their performance targets accordingly.
The process of designing, researching, and developing a new car typically begins in earnest during the middle of the previous season, and it is an extremely stressful time for any team. Every day, the team must make crucial decisions about which direction to take. Although it may be easy to make progress when results from the wind tunnel continue to improve, this is not always the case. In reality, no team knows exactly what makes a car quick or gives the driver the confidence to push harder and more consistently.
While many people call for more downforce, the reality is that a racing car is a complex machine. It is never in a steady-state and is always in a state of transition. The driver needs to know what the balance of the car will be just prior to inputting the next action.
The driver needs a stable rear end without locking during braking. They need to be able to turn in on the brakes without the front locking and without the rear becoming unstable or experiencing understeer. They also need to avoid the car snapping into oversteer when it rolls and determine how much they can ride the kerbs. Additionally, they need to be able to get back on the throttle without the rear end stepping out and control the amount of throttle they apply before losing traction. Finally, they need to avoid understeer when applying the throttle off the corner.
These are all questions that drivers ask themselves during every corner of every lap. The more consistent the car’s performance is between low-speed and high-speed corners, the more confidence the driver will have in attacking each corner and pushing their limits.
The drivers of Ferrari, Mercedes, and McLaren were all frustrated with cars that did not perform at the level they expected. Let’s take a closer look at each team’s performance in detail.
McLaren was the biggest underperformer in Bahrain, or rather, it failed to perform at all. The pre-season test at the same circuit was also problematic, with continuous issues with the front wheel brows that hampered the car’s running on various occasions. Despite these setbacks, we know that Lando Norris is an excellent driver who can push a car to its limits, especially in qualifying. However, even he could not make it to Q3 in Bahrain.
At the end of last season, McLaren was fourth on the performance list and was battling hard with Alpine. However, at the first event in Bahrain, it has dropped to seventh overall, and the performance deficit to the fastest car has doubled, increasing by 0.926%. This is a significant drop in performance, and McLaren needs to address the issues that are causing it to fall behind.
In addition to the poor performance, both McLaren cars encountered problems during the race. Lando Norris had an air valve leakage problem, which required multiple pit stops to top up the system. While it is part of the Mercedes power unit, there are also systems on the car that service those air valves, so it could also be a chassis issue. Meanwhile, Oscar Piastri retired early from the race due to an electrical problem that caused the steering wheel to stop communicating with the rest of the car.
Overall, McLaren is not fast enough, and this has been evident over the last couple of seasons. Even Daniel Ricciardo struggled to adapt to the driving style required to get the best out of the McLaren, which ultimately led to his early replacement. However, we all know that Ricciardo can deliver impressive results when he has a car that suits him, as we saw during his time with Red Bull.
While Norris was usually able to extract a decent lap from the McLaren, it is his only experience in F1, and he does not know what a truly exceptional F1 car feels like. Even Carlos Sainz, who left McLaren for Ferrari, commented that the McLaren car was a peculiar beast to drive.
The issue with a car that is on a knife-edge, as the McLaren has been for the past two or three seasons, is that it only takes a slight deviation in the wrong direction to tip it overboard. Technical Director James Key has acknowledged that the team was caught off guard by the raising of the sides of the floor and the floor’s throat area, and it was realized too late that the team was heading down the wrong path to overcome these regulation changes. However, these regulations were introduced at the same time for all the teams, and they all knew when the first race was scheduled. Therefore, they all had the same amount of time to get their heads around them and come up with the best solution.
The success of McLaren’s Baku package will be crucial in demonstrating that the Bahrain performance was only a temporary setback and that McLaren has not thrown away potential points from the first three races. However, if the upgrade does not come through, the team will need to consider its next steps.
In my opinion, McLaren may be missing some of the critical characteristics that I previously mentioned. For instance, an aerodynamic center of pressure shift with steering lock could be a potential culprit. Although this is a challenging and time-consuming issue to research, it is crucial to the car’s performance.
If the aerodynamic center of pressure is shifting rearward with increased steering lock, it would result in understeer instead of gaining front grip when the driver applies more steering lock to combat it. Consequently, this would require the driver to add even more steering lock, causing the car to understeer even more. This type of response to the driver’s input can quickly confuse the driver and require the car to be perfectly balanced from the start. Additionally, it means that one of the driver’s tools just does not work for them.
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- Hamilton’s Criticism of Mercedes Raises Questions About Future Prospects
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Mercedes has not only lost some pace in relative terms since the end of last year, but it has also been surpassed by customer team Aston Martin. In Bahrain, Mercedes was 0.145% further off the pace than its average across the last four races of 2022.
Mercedes had been on top from 2014-2021, but in the past year, it has lost its way. Even Lewis Hamilton has suggested that the team did not listen to him when he told them the direction they needed to go in this year.
We can assume that Mercedes has a strong enough structure to take what it has and, within its design objectives, improve upon it. It should also be organized and confident enough in its tools to set its development direction and deliver performance.
However, somewhere along the process of defining what a new car should achieve, Mercedes’ design specification may be incorrect, or its tools may not be adequate. This suggests that the process of signing off on the development direction may not be correct.
It will require significant self-reflection for Mercedes to change the visual direction of the car. So much has been made of the “zero sidepod” solution and its potential that reverting to a more conventional concept will be a difficult decision. However, the potential for success should outweigh the discomfort of admitting fault.
We can expect to see the first changes with the Imola package in May, which has been in the works for some time and will reportedly include visible changes to the sidepods. However, it will take more than that to get Mercedes back on track.
Change is only positive if it leads to improvement. That’s why all teams have tools to help them make decisions. They need to keep an open mind and absorb as much information as possible from every race weekend.
With the budget cap and aerodynamic research limitations, teams cannot afford to go down every path until they find the correct one. They need to set a plan and optimize it to achieve the desired results. Mercedes has simply made some incorrect decisions.
It’s essential to remember that it’s all been done before. For example, the Red Bull zero sidepod solution from 2020 shows that innovative concepts can lead to success.
Although Ferrari is performing better on the track than Mercedes, it has even more significant issues to address. It has also lost some ground to Red Bull, but the biggest concern stemming from last year’s troubles is the reliability problems that were supposed to have been fixed.
A car can have all the attributes mentioned in the Mercedes section of this article, but if it cannot complete a race due to reliability issues, all the effort is wasted. Reliability needs to be factored into the overall car design. Cooling some components more effectively can significantly impact a car’s performance. It is safe to say that Ferrari has not made much progress in eliminating engine reliability issues.
Despite the change in leadership to Fred Vasseur, Ferrari’s leadership seems to be continuing with the same pattern as last year, telling themselves that everything is fine and that they only got it wrong on the day. However, this is not a constructive way to move forward. Teams need to acknowledge their problems, buy into them, and ensure they do not happen again. Constant personnel turnover will not miraculously solve the problems either.
The sudden resignation of head of vehicle concept David Sanchez this week highlights the fragility of working for Ferrari. This is not a positive situation within any team. Teams need to focus on motivating their staff and getting the best out of everyone, especially when things are not going well.
Ferrari was not fast enough to qualify ahead of the Red Bulls and experienced greater tire degradation than Red Bull and Aston Martin. To make matters worse, one of its cars did not finish the race. That is the reality of the situation. The team needs to return to Maranello and make the necessary improvements; otherwise, it will be another disappointing season.
Designing the Perfect F1 Car: Challenges Faced by Top Teams Mercedes, Ferrari, and McLaren Designing the Perfect F1 Car: Challenges Faced by Top Teams Mercedes, Ferrari, and McLaren Designing the Perfect F1 Car: Challenges Faced by Top Teams Mercedes, Ferrari, and McLaren Designing the Perfect F1 Car: Challenges Faced by Top Teams Mercedes, Ferrari, and McLaren Designing the Perfect F1 Car: Challenges Faced by Top Teams Mercedes, Ferrari, and McLaren
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- Mercedes seeks inspiration from Aston Martin
- Bahrain Dominance: Red Bull’s Seasonal Blueprint or a One-Off Phenomenon?
- Norris and McLaren see silver lining in Bahrain despite setbacks
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