How Mercedes' chassis change sparked a baseless F1 conspiracy theory

When news emerged on Thursday that Mercedes had swapped its drivers' chassis ahead of this weekend's French Grand Prix, Formula 1 found itself hurtling towards its latest wild conspiracy theory.

How Mercedes' chassis change sparked a baseless F1 conspiracy theory

A planned switch of the monocoques on Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton's cars has become one of the biggest talking points of the race weekend. As is often the case with modern-day F1, through the chase to ham up stories in a search of controversy, the debate has quickly been exhausted.

In short: it became a thing that isn't a thing.

Walking the story back to Thursday, news of the chassis swap emerged after Bottas's press conference appearance. Earlier this year, the FIA added a fan question section to the format, giving the chance to local children to ask questions to the drivers. While entertaining, yielding answers about favourite movies or superpowers, they have proven largely useless to journalists.

Not this time though. When Bottas was asked by a young fan if he always drove the same car, the Finn said: "Sometimes we might change the chassis. I think I have a different chassis this weekend. So it's not always the same car."

This comment got the ball rolling. Bottas added that it was "always planned for me to change to a different chassis at this point", with Mercedes then adding detail that he had swapped chassis with Hamilton, moving from #4 to #6 in a move linked to mileage and lifing of the cars. Bottas had driven chassis #5 at the start of the year, but this is yet to re-enter circulation after the crash at Imola.

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes in the Press Conference

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes in the Press Conference

Photo by: FIA Pool

Chassis swaps are common in F1, but in the context of Bottas's difficult start to the year, and particularly after his struggles in Azerbaijan two weeks ago, it became a point of intrigue. This was only furthered when Bottas had the upper hand on Hamilton in practice on Friday, finishing ahead in both sessions and over two-tenths clear in FP2. Hamilton had commented over team radio at one point that "there's something not right with the car". He later revealed the team had been "chasing its tail" on set-up throughout practice, perhaps explaining his comment.

Bottas said after FP2 that it was "hard to say" if the chassis change had helped him, but Hamilton was quick to downplay it playing a role. "Very rarely do you have any differences between the chassis," Hamilton said. Asked if he felt anything significantly different with his car compared to Baku, Hamilton said: "I don't think so."

But this didn't stop the narrative in some corners. The fact Hamilton was using the chassis Bottas had been on course to finish second in Monaco with was ignored. No, it simply was the one that Bottas had struggled so much with in Baku, meaning of course that's why Hamilton was behind on Friday…

Toto Wolff pointed out the chassis had been "splendid" in Monaco during an interview with Sky Sports on Friday, but made clear that if there were any proper concerns about the chassis, Mercedes would of course make a change.

In the lead-up to qualifying, the story still wasn't being let go. Bottas again outpaced Hamilton by a couple of tenths in FP3, allowing for more lazy observations to be spooled up. The fire was stoked further by former Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg, who was quoted as saying on Sky Sports that chassis swaps were not standard in his time at the team.

Yet Rosberg's comment was quickly disproved. In a tweet from 2018, Mercedes' official account had written about chassis #1 of the Mercedes W06 from 2015: "Lewis Hamilton drove this car for the first half of 2015 before it became Nico Rosberg's for the second half."

 

Qualifying finally saw the debate get put to bed. Both Hamilton and Bottas were quick throughout the session, regularly featuring at the front. While Max Verstappen took pole for Red Bull, Hamilton secured second on the grid, edging out Bottas in third by just over one-tenth of a second.

"I've been generally unhappy in the car this weekend," Hamilton said in the post-qualifying interview with Paul di Resta. "I saw you come up with some myth, and so I was happy to be able to prove it wrong - the quality of our engineers work, you know, all the cars are exactly the same."

It was a strong statement back from Hamilton that he was asked about in the press conference after qualifying. "I think I heard yesterday that Paul was saying something about the chassis," Hamilton said. "I think he said there was a press release… I don't know." (Mercedes' Friday press release simply listed the chassis number used, as is standard).

"And then just creating the question about whether our chassis were the same, and as you can see, today, I managed to do a great job with the same car, so it's no different."

Wolff faced further questioning about it on Sky after qualifying, being asked to "clear it up". He again outlined that it was standard procedure, and that all chassis go through rigorous testing to ensure there are no big differences.

"The drivers were informed midweek or towards the race weekend that there is a chance to swap and there wasn't even a comment about it," Wolff said. "It's in a driver's mind, of course, if things suddenly don't feel right, and that is absolutely fair enough, and we also offered a chassis change overnight. But no, we stuck with what we have."

Again, had it been an issue, Mercedes would have accommodated a change for Hamilton, but the seven-time world champion saw no reason for one.

Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes AMG

Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes AMG

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

As Wolff came to complete his final media call of the day, the topic had been done to death. Mercedes even warned tongue-in-cheek ahead of the session that there would be a "penalty point" for any journalists saying the words 'chassis swap', such was the team's boredom over the matter. The first question - predictably - was then about the chassis swap.

"So which camp are you?" Wolff asked. "The one that thinks Lewis is at a disadvantage, or the one that thinks Valtteri is at a disadvantage?"

Our colleague clarified he was just trying to understand what happened, prompting Wolff to explain how Mercedes was managing its chassis allocation. The team has four in use at the moment: #3 which is in a box as the spare chassis at the moment; #4, which is being used by Hamilton in France; #5, which is being patched up after the Imola crash; and #6, being used by Bottas."

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"We have four chassis, four carryover chassis, and probably if you investigate with the other big teams, Ferrari and Red Bull, they should also have carryover chassis rather than producing a new one because the new one would be too expensive," Wolff said.

"So we are carrying over four chassis. One had a bit of an oops in Imola. These were all chassis that won races over the last few years and chassis that have been utilised by everybody, by both drivers.

"There's a plan at the beginning of the season, which chassis goes where, if there's one with the damage, when can we patch it up? When does it come back in a box as a spare chassis? There is no other thinking behind it.

"In the modern day and age, when those chassis come back to the factory, they're laser scanned. They are checked for stiffness. And if there's the slightest deviation, the chassis is not being utilised."

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Myth well and truly busted. But there is one final question: if two drivers are absolutely content with their chassis, why would the team make a straight swap instead of keeping them in the same chassis for as long as possible?

A tweet sent yesterday from a Mercedes composites designer offered one idea: “I think it’s just a business decision - chassis are worth more if Lewis has won in them!” It is worth noting that Hamilton has already won in the #4 chassis - in Spain and Belgium last year - thanks to the carryover from 2020 to 2021.

It makes sense. To be able to highlight the success of a chassis across two drivers would undoubtedly make it more valuable, with the 2018 tweet about the W06 proving exactly that by noting the record for the most poles taken by a single chassis.

Should Hamilton fail to beat Bottas in the race today, then it's possible the chassis swap may be highlighted as a reason why by those looking for a lazy explanation.

But were it truly an issue, with the margins as fine as they are in the title race, Hamilton would already have made it known, and Mercedes would have swiftly acted. Neither can afford to let any bit of performance slip right now.

So let's put the tinfoil hats away, and hopefully never give oxygen to this non-story again.

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