After more than a season of Mercedes going it alone in pursuit of its zeropod concept, it finally abandoned the idea as it pursued the growing trend for what has become known as the downwash solution.
The immediate success of Red Bull’s downwash design led to speculation that Mercedes would also see immediate and automatic benefits from changing their approach.
However, the reality of Formula 1 car design is that things are never as simple as that.
In Mercedes’ case, the new direction for the sidepods was a bold move to make because, rather than the shift to downwash delivering an instant uptick in form, the squad was left facing a solution that, at best, delivered no benefit and at worst actually cost it lap time.
That is because although the zeropod design had come in for a lot of flak since the start of 2022, the idea was a good one in producing notable performance.
If we rewind to the original idea, the aim of the zeropod was quite simple. By separating the chassis structure and relocating the side impact bars to a specific area, Mercedes was able to reduce the sidepod size to an absolute minimum.
This had the double benefit of reducing drag and also, through the shaping of bodywork to make it effectively work like wings, help deliver extra downforce.
It has been proposed that when directly compared, the zeropod had a slight advantage of just over 0.1 seconds compared to the downwash version used by other teams.
Mercedes W14 technical detail
Photo by: Roberto Chinchero
Choosing to disregard the evident benefit in favor of a solution that was recognized as regressive may appear counterintuitive, but the team had valid justifications for their decision.
First of all, amid Mercedes’ bid to find answers as to why its car was no match for Red Bull’s RB19, and at that time had fallen behind Aston Martin, it needed to remove debate about its sidepods off the table.
Although it felt there was a clear downforce advantage to its solution compared to the downwash idea, there were question marks about it triggering unintended consequences for the rest of the car package.
That meant uncertainty about whether sacrificing the isolated benefit of the zeropods could open up potential to find bigger gains elsewhere as car development moved on.
This was an answer that could only be realised by making the change, committing to it and seeing what new performance avenues were made available.
Additionally, there was the matter of potential for growth. Although the initial downwash solution resulted in a decrease in performance, it presented an opportunity for the team to enhance performance by understanding how to extract more from it.
This is essentially what occurred. Although it endured the setback at the Monaco Grand Prix, the updated sidepod solution introduced in Belgium last weekend provided a slight performance boost. Additionally, there are further improvements planned for the future, particularly as the team aims to make significant progress during the upcoming winter.
As Mercedes’ chief technical officer Mike Elliott explained about the performance coming from the downwash sidepods now: “I think when we brought the first version, it was pretty much a level change.
There were no significant improvements in performance, but we had chances to explore something new. We have made progress in a way.
“We are continuously progressing, consistently striving to enhance our performance. Therefore, this represents a slight improvement. The upcoming version will provide us with a bit more, and we aspire to continue our development throughout the winter.”
The decision by Mercedes to stick with the zeropod for the start of this year came under Elliott’s watch, as he was the team’s technical director at the time.
Mercedes W14 sidepods during Bahrain pre-season test
Photo by: Giorgio Piola
He explained that the reasoning for not going downwash last winter was quite simple; that the design did not deliver any step forward in performance.
“He stated that during the winter, we examined multiple bodywork concepts but failed to discover a superior solution compared to our existing one.”
“I believe that our current progress does not fully align with their level or that of others. Instead, we have attempted to utilize our existing resources and make necessary adjustments.”
“So, you don’t really experience the same negative impact. With time, it is expected to progress and lead us to a more favorable situation.”
The discussion about the sidepods has led Mercedes to reflect on its own performance and procedures, which could be highly advantageous in their efforts to develop a winning W15 car during the upcoming winter season.
Mercedes has been thoroughly examining itself in order to make improvements, just like their rivals who are trying to understand how the Red Bull car excels in every aspect without any standout features.
Elliot expressed the importance of questioning everything, including fundamental philosophies and processes when analyzing data.
“You’d like to think there’s some silver bullet you could find, or something that’s wrong that you can fix. But I think generally speaking, it’s all about hard work.
“If we consider our situation from last year, when we had a vehicle and encountered various challenges, we had to regress significantly in order to extricate ourselves from certain predicaments. After that, it becomes a matter of trying to catch up.”
“I believe that when considering our current level of performance, Aston has made significant progress during the winter. However, we have managed to secure a favorable position for ourselves. Regrettably, we have observed McLaren also making substantial advancements.”
“On one side, it’s disheartening for us, but on the other side, it reveals potential for positive progress.”