Driving F1's title-winning Mercedes W10: The inside story
Christmas came early for Sky F1's Karun Chandhok earlier this year, when he drove the car which has taken Mercedes to a unique sixth-successive world championship double. Here, he tells the story of an unforgettable Silverstone day...
Last Updated: 25/12/19 4:35pm
The phone rang and it was our Head of Sky Sports F1, Scott Young. "Do you fancy driving Mercedes' current car at Silverstone for a day?" He obviously knew what the answer would be!
Every racing driver in the world, in any category, watches Formula 1 and thinks: "I wonder what the car that's winning the championship must be like to drive?"
F1 has been the pinnacle of our sport now for 70 years and the fact that only half a dozen drivers today get to race a top car capable of winning races makes for a lot of jealous racing drivers around the world.
Now, we've got to give a lot of credit to the Mercedes F1 team. They are in the middle of an extraordinary run of success since 2014. They don't really need the publicity of inviting someone other than their existing drivers into the cockpit. But amazingly, the team was completely open to the idea of letting me - someone who has never driven one of their cars before - have a go and experience what Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas have had at their disposal to deliver an amazing sixth consecutive constructors' world championship for the team.
What made Mercedes' 2019 car special?
The W10 was a very good car this season.
The only weaknesses it showed were some cooling issues in the hotter races and a shortage of top speed in qualifying against their rivals in red. In 2018, Ferrari arguably had a faster car for more races than Mercedes but it's safe to say that across the 2019 season, the small army of people in Brackley and Brixworth delivered another gem.
Sure, statistically Mercedes hasn't been as dominant this year as compared to its early years of success in this V6 hybrid era, but the opposition weren't as strong between 2014 and 2016. Mercedes had to bounce back from a tricky start at pre-season testing and did so in style with an unprecedented five consecutive 1-2 finishes at the start of the season.
Victory in the constructors' standings with four races to go showed that the W10 has certainly been the best car of the 2019 F1 season.
Considering this was one of the race cars, and not just an old one used for show runs, I felt a real sense of responsibility to drive it properly and fast enough to experience it, but also to give it back in one piece. Having the Hamilton fan club hurling abuse at me for damaging his car was not something I looked forward to, let alone an awkward conversation with team boss Toto Wolff!
Fortunately for me, despite the fact that I don't have a full driving programme in place this year, I've kept up a reasonable level of fitness training and driven various other cars this year. I did some panic-induced neck training for the three weeks between the phone call and the day at Silverstone because I learned early in my career that being unfit doesn't only affect your performance, it also means you can't really enjoy the experience of driving as much.
Preparing for Silverstone
The team in Brackley was very good at preparing me for the day.
Despite the fact that for them it was a filming day and should essentially have been a bit of a jolly, everyone took it very professionally. The Sky Sports F1 team and I had the chance to spend a couple of days sorting out the seat fit and also spending time in the simulator which they were happy for us to film, unlike a lot of other teams who are very secretive when it comes to their sims.
My seat fit turned out to be a fairly straightforward process thanks to a mix and match of Valtteri's seat, Lewis' steering wheel and steering column, and Esteban Ocon's pedals. Easy peasy! I then had a session with the engineers, running through all of the controls on the steering wheel and getting the chance to look through all of the options in terms of the power unit, brakes, differential as well as the reliability side in case we had an issue on track.
What came across was the attention to detail that they put in. Yes, the team has nearly 1000 full-time staff now in Brackley and therefore it can throw people at problem-solving, but the reality is they have to still think of the possible areas to gain performance, think of a way to implement a tool to gain that performance and then execute it in a way so that the driver can actually gain that lap time on track.
It would not be right of me to divulge the exact details of what they get up to, but every phase of the weekend is studied and solutions offered to find a bit of performance. Things such as how to get the brakes and tyres into the right temperature, how to find an extra couple of metres on the brakes when coming into a pitstop, how to get the pitlane limiter running as smoothly as possible without any oscillations, how to battle against the dreaded tyre degradation by getting the electronic brake balance to be optimised for every phase of the braking and also for every level of grip that the tyre offers.
The list is endless but just a couple of hours talking to the engineers gives you an idea of how the mindset of the whole operation is tuned to search for these marginal gains.
It was off to the simulator next and a chance for me to get an idea of what the car would be like on track and also to practice doing some of the procedures and changing the settings on the steering wheel.
After driving the sim, I found it hard to believe that the real car would be that quick, to be honest. I spoke with fellow Sky Sports F1 man Anthony Davidson, who does a reasonable amount of sim work at Mercedes (you may have seen the excellent feature he made in the sim during the Italian GP weekend) and he said that he thought the same thing before the British Grand Prix. However, in reality, when they looked at the data after the weekend, it pretty much matched up.
Now I was properly excited!
The most recent F1 car I had previously driven was the 2017 Williams. It was a decent midfield car that season, allowing the team to run regularly in the points and finish fifth in the championship. Crucially, it had the Mercedes hybrid power unit so at least I had some experience of that.
What's the Mercedes like to drive?
As dawn broke over Silverstone, I was totally relieved that the weather gods had been kind to me. It was cloudy but there wasn't much wind and it was going to be a dry day. We were running on the International Circuit at Silverstone which, despite being about half the distance of the full GP circuit, would still give me a chance to experience the car in fast corners like Abbey and Stowe, as well as medium and slower speed corners such as Club and Village. (Side note - I like corner names and hate saying corner numbers!)
Mercedes had a put together a programme for me within the mileage limit that the rules allow, which would mean that I could do a couple of short runs just to dial myself in and then also experience a longer run with a full race fuel load and a short run with low fuel at the end. This would give me a really good overall picture of what the car was like in different configurations, as well as give me enough laps to have a play with some of the tools in the cockpit to help to tune the balance.
I was certainly a bit nervous before I got in the car but, as the call was made to take off the tyre blankets and release the car, the TV presenter part of the brain got turned off and the racing driver part of my brain got activated. The nervousness disappeared and was replaced by total curiosity and excitement because I knew that I was going to be driving something special.
As I got dialled in, the first thing that struck me was just how good the traction and power delivery was. With around a 1000 horsepower on tap, you would imagine that controlling the wheelspin is one of the biggest challenges and I certainly treated the loud pedal with a degree of caution on the first couple of laps. But very quickly I realised that, actually, the rear of the car stays very planted when accelerating out of the corners and I could commit to the throttle much more than I had expected.
The amount of power itself doesn't feel like it's changed a great deal since 2017 but the driveability and user-friendliness of the torque curve, combined with the chassis ability to squat and deliver the power to the road without breaking traction, was very impressive. In this current era of F1, where managing the rear tyres during a GP is vitally important, this is particularly handy for the drivers.
The drivers both have different springs that adjust the level of stiffness of the throttle pedal but that's purely a driver comfort thing. What's crucial is to make sure that they have the right amount of control with that pedal to deliver the torque demand when coming out of the corner and balance the wheelspin. The car's suspension design and rear aero package clearly work well in terms of offering the grip needed and that is a really crucial aid for Mercedes on a Sunday.
I expected the car to be impressive in the high-speed corners and of course it was. As I started to lean on the car on the corner entries, I soon realised that I was so far behind the limit, it was almost laughable. With every lap, I started carrying more and more speed in and the only limiting factor seemed to be the tyres, which started to grain even within the first five laps. We had planned to swap back and forth between a couple of sets of tyres to try and eke out the mileage on them and that allowed me to build up speed in the faster corners.
The grip level was as staggering as I expected it to be, although experiencing it first hand was something very special. As one of my heroes Mario Andretti would say - "it feels like it's painted to the road". My 'emergency neck training' felt useless as the G-forces built up but I was loving every second of it. With every lap, I was charging through Stowe faster and faster.
What was interesting is how you can feel the downforce and resultant drag in the first two flat-out corners. As soon as you wind on the steering lock, the drag really kicks in and you can really feel the reduction in the rate of acceleration. Downforce really is a driver's best friend and at probably 80 per cent of the circuits on the F1 calendar, you would gladly take the penalty of drag versus having more downforce.
As brilliant as the W10 was in the high-speed corners, it was actually the performance in the medium and slow speed corners that surprised me. All season long, rivals such as Ferrari talked about how good the Mercedes seems to be on entry to these types of corners and now I can fully understand why.
As I got braver and braver on the brakes into Village, I was blown away by just how deep I could brake and also how much I could trail the brakes into the apex.
One of the trickiest things in the Pirelli era since 2011 has been the ability to load the front tyre with both braking and steering load but Mercedes seems to have nailed that with the W10. You can really pitch the car and turn in to the apex of the corner on the nose and the most impressive part is that the rear of the car doesn't feel like it's going to lose any stability.
The combination of the level of downforce, aero balance, the brake migration maps (where the brake balance is adjusted between the front and rear through the entire braking phase) and the electronic differentials all work in conjunction to give the drivers the ability to really attack those corner entries.
That first phase of a corner, when you hit the brakes and start to turn the wheel is so important. It sends the messages of how much grip the car's got to your brain and you then adjust the speed and steering lock accordingly until the apex before picking up the throttle.
Having a car that's confidence-inducing is very important in any category of motorsport and the W10 is certainly that. The fact that even someone like me, who hasn't really driven a modern F1 car in two years, can feel confident to attack the entries at corners such as Stowe or on the brakes into Village within a handful of laps is a sign of a great car. It doesn't do anything unpredictable and that's one of the big reasons why, across the 21 races of the season, the Mercedes has been a competitive package.
It was really interesting to load the car with a 110kg of fuel and see just what it would be like for the drivers at the start of a GP. The team did its usual adjustments in terms of aero balance for me to really experience it properly. Of course, you can feel the extra weight of the fuel, but that's no different to when I raced in F1 or in any other category frankly. The change of direction gets lazier and everything just happens slower - braking, accelerating and obviously cornering speeds.
What surprised me was how much the extra weight affected the tyres in terms of graining. All through this season, we've heard drivers talking about having to manage and control their pace, particularly in the first stint of the race with a full tank of fuel. Singapore was perhaps the biggest example where, with 23 corners, the race pace was at times an astonishing 13 seconds slower than the qualifying pace.
It's a pretty frustrating way to drive a race car, to be honest. As soon as you feel the front start to slide a little bit on the corner entries, you need to slow down because that graining is just going to get worse and worse and similarly, as soon as you get a little bit of wheelspin on the rear, you know you're on a slippery slope.
This is why the drivers all have to drive so far below their limits on a Sunday and also why we rarely see them look exhausted after a race. These supremely fit athletes are not being physically tested, but instead their minds and senses are on high alert for any form of extra energy being put into their tyres.
The weight is an interesting point because, if you actually consider that this year's cars weigh 743kg, that's a 138kg more than what they were in 2004. Yes, the W10 is unbelievably quick but it has so much downforce and weight that you don't feel it as a brutal, violent beast in the way the V10 cars from the mid-2000s were.
I've been lucky to test Juan Pablo Montoya's 2004 Williams-BMW and that was an incredibly brutal experience that had me on edge the entire time. The extra weight we have now not only adds about five seconds of lap time, but it also has a major effect on tyre wear and graining so I do have some sympathy for Pirelli in that respect.
What's good about the W10 is that, in whatever condition, the car is balanced and predictable. This means that the drivers can just adjust their speed to the level of grip offered by the tyres and for the weight without it having any unusual shift in balance.
The downforce, braking stability and amazing traction mean that they can often manage their tyres better than others on the grid and this means that even on weekends where they may not have had the fastest car during qualifying, they can keep the pressure up on their rivals during the races and capitalise, such as in Sochi.
My day at Silverstone was a truly memorable one. I've been very lucky to drive some incredibly special pieces of F1 history over the years - the W10 is the seventh different championship-winning F1 car that I've been privileged enough to drive.
For me, the Nigel Mansell FW14B from 1992 was emotionally the most special car I've driven, the 2004 Williams FW26 was the one that attacked my senses the most, and the 2011 Red Bull RB7 was the most responsive and sharp. Perhaps it's the very nature of the sport that with evolution and knowledge gained, the cars get better and better, but overall I've got to say that the 2019 Mercedes W10 is the best race car I've ever driven.