Understanding the Mercedes diva: Can this W08 really win an F1 title?
Sky F1's Mark Hughes analyses Mercedes' W08 troubles in detail and why Ferrari could hold a 2017 advantage for some time yet...
Last Updated: 06/06/17 6:20am
Toto Wolff referred to the Mercedes W08 in Monaco as 'a diva' and that's a pretty fitting description of its unpredictability and very high-maintenance behaviour.
It's a car that at its peak is extremely fast - maybe even the fastest - but which falls off that peak very sharply. It doesn't warm its tyres evenly front-to-rear and these tyres are themselves extremely sensitive and diva-like. It is therefore difficult to find a sweet spot of set up for the car, especially one that works for more than one compound of tyre. At Monaco that problem was made worse by how little energy is fed into the tyre by the circuit's low-grip, slow turns and un-abrasive surface.
These would simply be traits rather than problems were it not for the Ferrari SF70H, a car that can seemingly turn on any compound of tyre almost immediately and which has a super-wide set-up window that allows the drivers to simply get out and go.
Much has been made of the Merc's much longer wheelbase and at Monaco that probably was a factor. The reduction in Pirelli's minimum pressures on the eve of the weekend also didn't help. In fact, those two factors could be linked.
The Mercedes is generally a more softly-suspended car than the others. Teams do an analysis called 'wheel top' whereby they look at in-car footage of rival cars travelling down a straight and measure how much and how quickly the chassis sinks relative to the wheel tops as the speed and downforce increases. This reveals suspension stiffness and travel. And the pattern of the last couple of years has been that the Mercedes consistently runs softest of all.
If a car's aerodynamic platform can tolerate it (ie the downforce remains reasonably consistent as the car rolls, dives and pitches around softer suspension) then soft is better. It facilitates better traction, increases mechanical grip in general and allows the tyres to work better. The limit to how soft you can go is usually the aero platform. A car with downforce that works only within a very narrow ride height and attitude range will necessarily have stiff suspension.
But at a track like Monaco, where softness would be an additional boon because of the slow corners and emphasis on traction, it actually brought Mercedes a problem. Because around such tight corners, with such big steering movements, the cars rolls, pitches and dives so much that the aerodynamics are upset.
To keep the car within the aero window that works required stiffer suspension than ideal. The tyre sidewalls are part of the suspension and the higher the pressures, the more the tyre can lend support by resisting the unwanted roll etc. Conversely, the lower the pressure, the greater the tyre's mechanical grip. The Merc would still go faster on low pressure tyres than high pressures - but not by as much as the Ferrari.
Pirelli reduced the minimum pressures from 19psi front/18 rear to 17/16.5 in the build-up to the weekend. Which gave the Merc a few problems. Stiffening the suspension to compensate for the reduced stiffness of the tyres had the car locking wheels and understeering. Its long wheelbase probably contributed to that small window of workable suspension stiffness. The longer the wheelbase, the slower the weight transfer, making the front tyres more reluctant to load up on corner entry and the rears more likely to spin on acceleration. Which would give under-temperature fronts and over-temperature rears. Which was why it was so difficult to prepare for a qualifying lap.
They were the Monaco-specific problems. Add those to its generic problem of its weight (even in lightened Barcelona-onwards spec it's still believed to be heavier than the physically smaller Ferrari), which means there is less scope to vary the weight distribution to give the balance needed. Generally it has too much weight on the back, not enough on the front. So it takes the front tyres too long to load up and, when they do, the rears are overloaded.
The problem is more acute on slow corners and low grip surfaces. On high speed sections the car's greater bodywork and underfloor area probably gives it greater downforce than the Ferrari.
Next we go to Montreal which is essentially a selection of low speed, low grip corners connected by long straights. Not ideal for Mercedes on paper. Might it be Silverstone before we again see a silver arrows outpace the Ferraris - and can the team's championship challenge withstand the histrionics of such a diva?
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