Giorgio Piola's F1 technical analysis
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Giorgio Piola's F1 technical analysis

How Mercedes has turned the corner on its knife-edge W12

Mercedes arrived at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix after a bruising pre-season Formula 1 test and some warning signs about Red Bull’s potential in the Bahrain race.

It had to face up to the reality that new regulations had appeared to hamper the low rake runners more than their high rake counterparts.

However, while fellow low rake runner Aston Martin has continued to struggle to maximise its package in response to this, Mercedes has made clear progress with its car.

For although the W12 has still been labelled a bit ‘knife edge’ by Lewis Hamilton, the car has noticeably got more stable as time has progressed – and that has drawn it closer to Red Bull.

The team's development and setup focus has clearly been at the rear of the car, with the team evaluating two rear wing options during Imola’s Friday free practice sessions.

Both had slightly different downforce levels but perhaps more importantly they sported different support pillar designs. 

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes W12

This is not a new tactic for Mercedes, as it spent a good chunk of last season conducting similar tests in an effort to understand which trade off would suit their requirements for qualifying and the race, with the effect on DRS one of the factors.

Another area where the team looked to improve its stability issues was with a revised strake design for its diffuser.

The layout of the strakes had largely been carried over from last year's design, albeit with the lower 50mm cut off to comply with the new regulations.

However, for Imola a change was made to the secondary line of strakes, with the L-Shaped design used in Bahrain exchanged for a full length version (highlighted in green, below).

Mercedes W12 diffuser comparison

Mercedes W12 diffuser comparison

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Meanwhile, it would appear that the surface coating of the diffuser transition has also been modified for the second race of the season, perhaps in an effort to keep the flow attached and stabilise the performance of the central section of the diffuser.

Mercedes AMG F1 W12 diffuser comparison

Mercedes AMG F1 W12 diffuser comparison

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Red Bull 2021 nose tweak

Red Bull spent a significant amount of its time fighting a correlation issue in the early part of last season, as it discovered that its real world performance didn’t match with the information provided by its simulation tools.

One of the major changes the team had undergone during this phase was a shift in nose design philosophy, with the team switching to the almost universally adopted cape solution.

The team switched back and forth between a narrow and wide pillar mounting position during this period but the rest of the assembly remained relatively unchanged.

Red Bull Racing RB16B front wing

Red Bull Racing RB16B front wing

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Having spent its development tokens on the rear of the RB16B, you’d be mistaken for thinking that the nose hasn’t seen any action, but a sizeable section of bodywork has been placed on the cape behind the nose box.

Once placed on the car, this section of the cape slides in to meet the chassis, with the new bodywork filling in some of the void that you’d have previously found the airflow rushing to fill.

Red Bull Racing RB16B front nose comparison

Red Bull Racing RB16B front nose comparison

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Z-shaped Floors

A regulation change always seems to provide us with varying technical solutions to the same problems, and this year that comes in the form of two different floor cutout concepts.

On one side of the fence falls a group of teams that have followed the intent of the regulations and utilise a fully tapered floor edge, whereas on the other side we have a group that are using a Z-shaped cut out.

After testing there was a 60/40 split in favour of those using the fully tapered solution. However, at just the second race of the season, that split became 70/30 in favour of the Z-shaped solution, with Alpine adopting it in Bahrain and Ferrari and Williams arriving with their own version at Imola.

Ferrari SF21 floor

Ferrari SF21 floor

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Ferrari’s adoption of the Z-shaped cutout has seen the team ditch, at least in the short term, the trio of winglets mounted midway along the cutout. However, to coincide with the Z-shaped section of floor, a large strake has been added upstream (arrowed).

This combined strake arrangement is used by all of the teams, albeit with some having split the strake into shorter sections (more like fins), as it looks to influence the direction of the airflow across the top surface of the floor, coercing it outboard and into the path of the airflow that’s created by the cutout. 

The upshot of the Z-shaped cutout is that some of the floor is returned parallel to the car’s centreline, giving the aerodynamicists a similar behaviour to the previous set of regulations, albeit inboard of where it would have been. 

Of course this gives up some of the total floor space available but, if that floor space is misdirecting the airflow and pressure distribution, then it’s of no benefit anyway.

The cluster of fins and strakes that are finding their way onto the section of floor beside the sidepod (such as the ones added this weekend by Alpha Tauri, below) are helping to mitigate the loss of the slots and fully enclosed holes found in this region previously but outlawed for 2021.

AlphaTauri AT02 floor detail

AlphaTauri AT02 floor detail

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Interestingly whilst Ferrari ditched its trio of winglets midway down the floor when it introduced its new design, the other team to make the switch to a Z-shaped floor cutout at the second race of the season didn’t. 

This goes to show how different each interpretation of the Z-Shaped cutout is, as their length is very different, meaning the taper ahead of the rear wheel is also a different length too.

Williams, with its longer tapered section at the rear of the floor, still need that trio of outwardly angled winglets to get the desired aerodynamic effect.

Meanwhile, at the point where the cutout is formed, the team did adopt the strake method, albeit with Williams opting to split theirs into three smaller fin-like sections.

Williams FW43B floor detail

Williams FW43B floor detail

Photo by: Giorgio Piola

Of course, there’s still subdivision in the way each of these teams are handling the Z-shaped cutout and the various aerodynamic tools that line the edge of the floor, as we can see in the image below with the yellow line highlighting how different each team's approach is.

You’ll note that some teams have a longer section that tapers at the front of the floor, some have a larger cutout in the middle and some have a longer section that tapers out at the rear of the floor.

Overall it appears the Z-shaped cutout has won out, with the three remaining teams likely working on their own interpretation for the coming races in order to further improve their performance levels.

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