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Is Mercedes in trouble or is it part of a plan?

Judging the accurate performance of the Formula 1 field off the back of pre-season testing has always been a bit of a fool's errand.

Is Mercedes in trouble or is it part of a plan?

There are all manner of variables unknown to anyone but the teams themselves, and that can throw a real spanner in the works of even the most educated of guesses.

Nonetheless, speculation on who sits where in the pecking order is always fascinating, and none more so this year that what is really up with Mercedes and its W12.

As seven-time champion, it was always going to be the team thrust into the spotlight during the pre-season test, as it has the furthest to fall if anything goes wrong. It is also the team that has the most to lose by any rule change, of which it has had a few thrown at it in recent years.

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But where it genuinely stacks up against main rival Red Bull, which won the season finale in Abu Dhabi last year, has been hard to gauge because both teams have been plotting different paths

In reality, Mercedes and Red Bull have two very different development programmes, and whilst the results on track in the tail end of last season had started to favour the Milton Keynes based outfit due to its continued pursuit of improving the RB16, Mercedes had long switched its focus to the design of their 2021 and 2022 machinery.

This was undoubtedly a conscious decision taken to alleviate the transition into the cost cap and take into account the impact of the performance weighted sliding scale for CFD and the wind tunnel that came into effect on January 1st, 2021.

Internally, it would have been hoped that this would give Mercedes the kind of headroom it needed to study the effects of the regulation changes and find ways to recoup the associated losses.

But, dogged by a gearbox issue on the first day of the test that put it on the back foot and limited its overall mileage, it just seemed off kilter when compared with its rivals. Meanwhile, footage clearly indicated an instability in the W12 that was not present in its 2020 challenger.

So what's changed? Is the Silver Arrows really in trouble or has it been deliberately hiding its potential until the first race?

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

B-Spec behaviour

In both 2017 and 2019, when the sport was also undergoing rule changes, Mercedes opted to arrive at the pre-season test with a basic car that didn't have the latest bells and whistles, but did enable it to collect aero and tyre data, run simulations and get a real feel for how the car behaved from an operational standpoint.

Of course this approach didn't give it a true read on the ultimate performance of the car, but that was never really the plan. Its intent was to balance resources back at the factory that would enable it to arrive at the first race with the most up-to-date version of car possible.

After all, the development of an F1 car is not entirely linear, with an increase in the car's performance contingent on all of the links in the chain being installed. For example, a large item like a front wing or floor will take much longer to manufacture than the likes of an element for the bargeboard cluster.

And, with each of these items reliant on the other to unlock the maximum amount of performance, it means that if you were to install one without the other, you might encounter instability issues.

This feeds back into Mercedes' plan to have the most advanced version of its car available to it for the first race of the season, rather than drip feeding bits through. This also allows it to stay on target for any track specific upgrades that might be in the pipeline for the opening races too.

"The hair in the soup" to borrow a phrase from Toto Wolff, is that pre-season testing for 2021 was just three days long, which didn't afford the team the usual time to bank the baseline knowledge from its opening gambit and then come back with a more performance oriented programme for a second test.

So, does that mean it didn't run a baseline set-up during this year's test and traded its usual position for a more risky strategy?

Well, we will only know this for sure when the W12 rolls out of the garage for free practice on Friday.

However, there is one thing that's bugging the technical community that might offer us some insight as to its plans: Where has Mercedes spent its tokens?

Token teaser

The token system was introduced by the FIA in order to allow teams to modify aspects of their car that would otherwise be baked in by an homologation process that sees a large percentage of last year's car carried over to 2021.

In order to give teams scope to rectify what they believed to be their biggest weaknesses, they were each granted two tokens and given a matrix of what could and couldn't be changed from one season to the next.

For the most part we understand where the rest of the grid have spent their tokens. Red Bull, Alpine and Ferrari made changes to their gearbox carrier and rear suspension to more closely align themselves with the design Mercedes had in 2020.

Aston Martin changed the design of its monocoque. Alpha Tauri and Alfa Romeo both opted for a new nose, while Williams hasn't spent a token in 2021 having already used one in 2020. Haas opted to carry everything over and not spend their allotment at all.

Mercedes can be considered an outlier though, as it has not offered the information freely, as some of its rivals did. Nor is it obvious where the tokens may have been used.

James Allison, Mercedes technical director, has also been unusually coy, refusing to divulge where the Silver Arrows may have made improvements.

"We have spent our tokens, but we won't reveal how we used them just yet," he said at the car launch. "That'll become clear in good time."

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

This mystery potentially feeds back into the theory that the W12 we saw during testing was a shadow of the one that will be unleashed at the first race of the season, with a long lead time item given as much birth as possible before arriving at the circuit.

The obvious candidate for its token spend is a new nose assembly, as not only would it require it to spend both of its tokens, it would also need to pass a crash test, which is yet another obstacle that would have to be vaulted if it wanted it on the car in time for the first race.

Interestingly, Mercedes has run a variation of the same nose concept since 2017, as it became the first team to utilize the now ubiquitous cape solution.

A change of this magnitude could have a significant bearing on the aerodynamic performance of the car, something we know the team struggled with during the first test as the car snapped from the rear under certain situations.

The team appeared to have dialled some of this out to help complete its test programme but it was clear to see that the car wasn't on the nose in quite the same way as say the Red Bull on turn in.

The W11, the foundations upon which the W12 is built, clearly didn't have these weaknesses though. So what's changed?

Forced facelift

Regardless of whether the W12 used during the test was capturing baseline performance or was an accurate representation of the one we'll see at the first race, it did afford us a look at the areas of the car that were hidden at the launch.

And, as the car rolled out onto the track for the first time, it became immediately apparent as to why Mercedes had been reticent to show off its homework, as the car features some of the most mature solutions seen so far.

Mercedes AMG F1 W12 floor
Mercedes AMG F1 W08 sidepod detail

This starts with the wavy section at the front of the floor, which is being used as a way of mitigating the loss of fully enclosed holes that have been used there over the last few years (right, highlighted in yellow).

The solution appears to allow some of the airflow from the upper surface of the floor to interact with the surplus airflow on the underside of the floor that's flicked up and outward by the raised edge of the floor.

This pressure collision will result in its own sort of turbulence that offers some further protection from the more erratic wake turbulence created by the front tyre, which should have already been influenced by the bargeboard cluster ahead and sidepod deflectors above.

Teams are always looking for ways to improve the relationship between all of these aerodynamic surfaces, which is why we often see small iterational changes to tune the overall flow structure and efficiency.

In that respect, the biggest change to the sidepod deflector array from last year is a return to having five slats in its Venetian blind arrangement, whilst the main vertical flow diverter now mounts to the floor and twists around its axis rather than being hung above it.

The floor also features the notch that we've seen other teams favour with their 2021 designs. But Mercedes hasn't gone as far as to combine this with floor vanes in this region to help drive the airflow here as some of its rivals have.

However, if we look at the floor section in front of the rear tyre, the team has gone much further than the rest of the field when it comes to the overall design scope of its solutions.

Not only does it have three strakes where ordinarily Mercedes had two, it also has a much larger piece of aerodynamic furniture on the floor's periphery than anyone else (outline in white).

Mercedes W12 floor detail

Mercedes W12 floor detail

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

The additional strake (red arrow) is twisted on both its horizontal and vertical axis, suggesting that it wanted to be aggressive with routing the airflow towards the gap between the rear tyre and the diffuser.

Meanwhile, the edge furniture looks like a beefed up version of the floor flap used before (inset), with the upper surface given an interesting serrated shape (very Mercedes-esque...) and extra guide vanes housed within to help channel the airflow across and around the face of the rear tyre.

Mercedes W12 and Mercedes W11 diffuser comparison

Mercedes W12 and Mercedes W11 diffuser comparison

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

In terms of the diffuser, the team has clearly made the necessary change to its diffuser strakes, albeit with the slots now extended all the way to the diffuser ceiling on the innermost strakes.

Meanwhile, there's some subtle changes to the outboard section of the diffuser, with the Gurney-like flaps that run around the periphery of the main body altered slightly, whilst the strap that holds them together in the outer corner is now divided into two.

This alteration is likely due to a change in the expected load, with those straps responsible for maintaining the gap between each flap.

It's apparent just how much effort Mercedes has put into the design of the areas affected by the regulations. But without the installation of the latest parts elsewhere around the car it could have been the cause for their aerodynamic instability during the test.

Operational obstacles

The W12's bodywork is like a well tailored suit, it fits in all the right places. The problem with the tailored suit is that when you need to get your elbows out, you find it may be a little restrictive and that's where Mercedes may have found an issue in Bahrain too.

The size of the rear cooling outlet is normally altered by the teams depending on the temperatures and conditions at the given circuit. This change sacrifices some aerodynamic performance but allows the power unit to stay within its operating parameters.

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Mercedes arrived at the test with a tiny cooling outlet at the rear of the W12, much like the one seen when it launched the car. And, although other cooling apertures on the car were altered during the three days, the main cooling outlet didn't appear to be resized.

This once again feeds back into the suggestion that Mercedes plan to have the most up-to-date and track specific variant of the car available to it for the first race. However, that does mean it may also have sacrificed some performance long runs, with the team unable to keep the power unit turned up without running into issues.

Onboard footage of the Mercedes powered cars suggested that limiting full power runs was on the agenda in any case, as those teams were not always using eighth gear when it might ordinarily be expected for them to do so.

Multiple misery

The worst case scenario for Mercedes is that it is heading back to Bahrain with more than one issue to solve. But, based on its reactionary speed when it has had issues over the last few years, you would write Mercedes off at your peril.

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