Mercedes W14: Failure of the ‘zeropod’ concept is confirmed

30 Mar, 2023

With  Red Bull comfortably leading the championship,  the fight for second in the Constructors’ is becoming one of the more contested battles in F1. The Mercedes W14 has struggled at the start of 2023, proving incapable of competing with the Red Bull RB19s.

These issues are largely unsurprising (we reported many of these concerns after the W14 launch), with Andrew Shovlin – director of trackside engineering – admitting that the team saw the weaknesses of the Mercedes W14 in the wind tunnel.

These were identified even before Mercedes arrived for pre-season testing. However, the former F1 Champions left Jeddah relatively pleased with the W14’s performance – in large part because they had the pace to finish ahead of both Ferrari’s.

Hamilton suffered from a poor set-up choice in Jeddah

George Russell qualified over six-tenths behind pole-sitter Sergio Perez in Jeddah, while Lewis Hamilton was a further four-tenths behind.

Red Bull continued to dominate in the race, one second per lap faster than the rest of the field:

“If I look at the last race, I think the result was decent given the pace disadvantage we had in qualifying,” 7-time Champion Hamilton explained in Saudi Arabia.

“Obviously, George has done a fantastic job all weekend, putting the car exactly where it was supposed to be. I, on the other hand, struggled more with balance,”

Following up on his initial set-up concerns in Jeddah, Hamilton elaborated on this issue in qualifying:

“We made a wrong decision between Friday evening and Saturday regarding the mechanical set-up of the car. It’s a change you have to make at that time of the weekend, and after that, you don’t have time to go back .”

“My engineers and I worked hard on Friday night, and we thought our direction, even compared to that taken by George, was the best one”. It seems that a sacrifice was made to favour rear stability under braking at the expense of front-end grip.

“The thing I was missing in the race was a lot of front end,” concluded Hamilton.

The Mercedes ‘zeropod’ concept has failed

The poor handling characteristics that Hamilton mentioned in Jeddah were mainly set-up related. Generally speaking, the W14 seems an easier car to drive compared to last year’s iteration.

This is partly because the Silver Arrows have eliminated the porpoising that made last season’s car so problematic. With that said, there are other weaknesses that remain:

“Last year, the car was very strong on the front axle and weak on the rear. This year, we have improved the rear a bit, but not as much as we hoped,” Hamilton has outlined.

This has proved a significant problem, which has prevented Lewis Hamilton from extracting the maximum potential from the W14, as well as from the W13. 

Another area to consider is the very forward position of the cockpit, ie where the driver sits in the car. The technical regulation allows the cockpit to be moved forwards or backwards by 10 cm, which seems minimal but can have a very significant impact.

The Mercedes W14 in the pits of the Melbourne circuit
The Mercedes W14 in the pits of the Melbourne circuit

The unique ‘zeropod’ concept at Mercedes comes with very aggressive technical choices. These include a hollowed-out frame to store the car’s radiators and a very advanced cockpit position – designed to strengthen the structure exposed to side impact.

Lewis Hamilton has now explicitly requested for Mercedes to bring his seat back to a more ‘conventional’ position:

“I listened to the team and trusted because that was the direction they told me they wanted to go. But now we clearly know that it needs to be changed in our future projects,” Hamilton explained.

Since it is a feature that comes from the chassis, this feature cannot be fully eliminated this season – due to the restraints of the budget cap. 

The Mercedes W14’s aerodynamic centre is too far forward

“Last year, I reported the problems with the car to the engineers. I’ve driven many cars in my career, so I know what a car needs,” Hamilton said after Bahrain.

The seven-time World Champion, amongst other team members like Toto Wolff, was just waiting for on-track confirmation of the potential at Mercedes.

Over the winter, Mercedes gave a last chance to those who believed strongly in the ‘zeropod’ concept, including technical director Mike Elliott, partly thanks to Russell’s victory in Brazil. Unfortunately, the start of 2023 has made clear that a change is needed.

However, the recent poor performance on track has been important to bury any hopes at Mercedes of reviving this concept – including Hamilton himself.

It is no coincidence that after the Bahrain GP, ​​there was a meeting where technical director Mike Elliott was given something of an ultimatum to revive the ongoing project.

Focusing on more technical areas, the Mercedes W14 is badly affected by the aerodynamic centre of the car moving too far forward.

This problem is especially pronounced under braking, partly because of the forward position of the cockpit.

Another contributing factor is that the mechanics of the W14 are much more conservative than Red Bull’s front anti-dive and rear anti-squat. These features have been crucial in the RB19 generating so much stability under braking.

The further forward a driver is seated, the more reactive and sensitive the front end of the car will feel. Another consequence of this is significantly reduced sensitivity at the rear

In the braking zone, the driver will feel as though they are losing grip – even if this is not necessarily the case.

The W14 is front-limited, struggling under braking and cornering, something Mercedes is trying to address whilst improving read-end grip.

In short, the first two rounds have confirmed that the Mercedes ‘zeropod’ concept is a dead-end.

 

Author: Piergiuseppe Donadoni

Translation: Jaden Diaz-Ndisang

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