Why Hamilton’s fresh Mercedes F1 engine was a game changer

The new power unit installed in Lewis Hamilton’s W12 at Formula 1’s Sao Paulo Grand Prix helped catapult the Brit to a memorable win. We take a look at the power gains a fresh unit provides, which helped Mercedes strike back.

Why Hamilton’s fresh Mercedes F1 engine was a game changer

Fitting a replacement ICE didn’t come as much of a surprise, with Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, having already mounted a sixth one a few races before.

The behaviour is surprising when we consider Mercedes’ almost bulletproof reliability during the hybrid era though.

But, perhaps it should have been expected in a season where the FIA has set what seems to be an optimistic target of just three ICEs to cover the entire 23 race calendar.

And, even with the calendar having shrunk to 22 races, it’s only the Ferrari customer teams of Alfa Romeo and Haas that have been able to reach that objective.

The deployment of additional power unit components has become a strategic side hustle too, as the reduction from a ten-place grid drop to just five, after taking the first penalty, can make it worthwhile for the associated performance benefits.

This was clearly a considerable factor in Hamilton’s performance in Brazil, with the Mercedes power unit packing much more of a punch when it’s fresh.

This is especially true when compared with the Honda, whose power unit appears to have a much flatter degradation curve.

Furthermore, we have to consider that the power units are normally run with their performance compromised in order that they can perform for a given number of races.

This is something that Hamilton’s new ICE, as one element in that pool of parts, has a considerable advantage in.

It remains to be seen how long the performance advantage created by Hamilton’s new ICE holds, but we should consider that it is ordinarily designed with a seven to eight race schedule in mind, whereas now it only needs to complete just four races.

This shorter lifespan required at the end of the season opens up the possibility of pushing it harder and for longer than usual, albeit there will be an associated risk of over-stressing it and the other components in the pool.

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DRS problems

Mercedes AMG W12 rear wing Lewis Hamilton, Brazilian GP
DRS open detail

Having used the advantage created by the new power unit in qualifying, Hamilton’s Brazilian weekend suddenly got a whole lot tougher though, as the FIA found the DRS slot gap on his W12 exceeded the maximum gap of 85mm needed to comply with the technical regulations.

Unusually the FIA impounded the wing following the failed inspection, and didn’t come to its conclusion regarding the disqualification until after FP2. By this point, Mercedes had installed another wing of the same specification.

The wing, which opened just 0.2mm more than the regulations permit, resulted in the FIA disqualifying Hamilton, requiring him to start the sprint from the back of the grid.

The FIA concluded that there was no intent on Mercedes’ behalf to run a wing specification that didn’t comply with the regulations, and that the additional deflection was likely due to additional play either in the DRS actuator or the pivots at the end. This could have been a fault with the mechanism, incorrect assembly of the parts, or damage caused by the bumpy track.

As a result of the penalty, there’s been comparisons drawn with Red Bull’s behaviour over the course of the last few races.

For the Milton Keynes-based team had to make repairs to its rear wing at the United States Grand Prix and Mexico City Grand Prix.

The question posed by Mercedes was why its rival was allowed to make repairs under parc ferme conditions, and it wasn’t given approval in order to comply with the regulations too.

One of the key distinctions between these cases, though, relates to when the car is seen by the FIA, as Red Bull conducted its repairs ahead of qualifying and prior to the scrutineering process. 

Rear wing detail of Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B
Sergio Perez, Red Bull Racing RB16B

In a season where the two title protagonists are locked in a titanic battle, such politicking is set to ramp up as the rewards for it can be just as rewarding as those offered on track.

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