Issue 45: Formula 1 2015 Season Preview: Can Mercedes be Caught?


2 March 2015

Testing for the new Formula 1 season concluded on 1 March 2015. What have we learnt about prospects for the upcoming season?

This time last year, Formula 1 was on the cusp of a brand new era. The switch from normally aspirated V8 engines with limited energy recovery systems had given way to turbo-charged hybrid power. A shake-up in F1’s competitive order was in the offing…

A year on, and after a season of near-total domination by Mercedes, a new season awaits. Two questions about F1 in 2015 interest me:

1. What is likely to be the new competitive order?

2. To what extent have other teams caught up with Mercedes (if at all)?

The competitive picture at the end of 2014 

Before we can assess the likely changes in F1’s competitive order and whether the rest of the field have closed the gap to Mercedes, we need to determine where other teams stood compared to Mercedes at the end of 2014. The chart below shows the average deficit to Mercedes of Red Bull, Williams, Ferrari, McLaren and Lotus in the final three Grands Prix of 2014 when the rest of the field should in theory have been closest to Mercedes on pace. I have measured the deficit between the fastest Mercedes driver and the fastest driver from each of these teams.

2014 Baseline

The chart demonstrates the scale of Mercedes’ advantage over its competitors, if such evidence was needed. Williams is somewhat flattered by its average race deficit to Mercedes. In Abu Dhabi, Massa finished only 2.5 seconds behind Hamilton, thus considerably reducing the team’s average deficit. However, the Briton had decided to cruise home after Rosberg hit problems, allowing the Brazilian to close him down. Furthermore, in spite of the significant changes at McLaren and Ferrari since the end of last season (more on these later), look at how much ground they need to make up to challenge Mercedes on equal terms. Both need to find just under 1.5 seconds/lap in qualifying and between 70-80 seconds over a race distance to match Mercedes.

Staggering numbers.

What performance changes have occurred since 2014 that are likely to influence the competitive hierarchy in 2015?

There have been numerous changes since 2014. Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel’s transfers caught the lion’s share of attention, but plenty of other significant developments took place. Since the launch of the 2015 cars, there has been a flood of information and analysis about which teams have had a good or bad winter. It’s almost certain that every team will have improved its performance since 2014. However, it’s improvement relative to other teams that counts when establishing the new competitive order.

So how best to isolate the changes that matter and assess their probable implications?

I propose an indicator-led approach. This is a structured method of identifying developments that are likely to affect on-track performance and the competitive hierarchy. However, not all changes are open to scrutiny, especially given the lengths teams go to to hide their best innovations, so I’ll concentrate on observable changes.

1. Strategic technical changes

  • McLaren’s switch from Mercedes power to Honda power. Throwing away an engine as good as the Mercedes seems crazy. However, what McLaren has done is swap customer status for a works partnership with Honda. A short-term sacrifice on the expectation of long-term gain. The strategic benefit of works team status is preferential treatment for McLaren and a powertrain customised specifically for the McLaren MP4-30, an advantage that the 2014 McLaren did not enjoy. A greater level of integration between the chassis and powertrain is now possible, replicating one of Mercedes’ fundamental advantages.
  • Lotus’ switch to Mercedes power from Renault power. Given that the engine is such an important performance factor, Lotus’ switch to the benchmark power unit will undoubtedly push them up the competitive order. Pastor Maldonado and Roman Grosjean can look forward to superior reliability, driveability and more horsepower; Mercedes had as much as 75 horsepower more than Renault in 2014. Renault’s stated objective for 2015 is to halve that deficit, but by switching to Mercedes, Lotus will skip what will be an arduous development process for Renault to finally match Mercedes.
  • A closer technical partnership between Red Bull and Renault. This will mean that Red Bull’s requirements will be prioritised over those of Toro Rosso, the only other team using Renault power in 2015. Red Bull will therefore enjoy works team status in all but name, offering a greater opportunity to better integrate the chassis and power unit. Renault has also recruited the services of former Mercedes engine builder Mario Illien. Illien’s company, Ilmor, has specific experience with turbo-charged V6 engines, so expect Renault to gradually develop more horsepower throughout the season.

2. Tactical technical changes

A. Powertrain

  • Mercedes – The German marque has made the best powertrain in 2014 even better in 2015. F1 insiders report that the 2015 power unit develops an additional 50 horsepower over 2014’s but with a reduced cooling demand, as the absence of air inlets around the roll hoop on the 2015 Mercedes highlights. Moreover, Mercedes is likely to be best-placed to take advantage of new rules allowing variable inlet tuning. This enables differing air and fuel mixes in the combustion chamber, offering higher top-line speeds and greater traction in low- and medium-speed corners.
  • Ferrari – The worst powertrain in 2014 just got better. Kimi Raikkonen reported that the 2015 engine is more driveable with sharper throttle response compared to last year. Ferrari has reportedly found 80 horsepower over the winter and a repackaging of the turbo and Energy Recovery System – Heat (ERS-H) has improved heat recovery from the exhausts for extra ‘boost’ and lower fuel consumption in the race. Judging from pre-season testing, Ferrari appears to have overtaken Renault, but the Scuderia has focused mostly on qualifying runs rather than race simulations.
  • Honda – The unknown quantity so far in 2015. Honda’s new power unit has been blighted by electrical problems throughout testing. It appears that Honda has problems with both its ERS-H and ERS -K (Kinetic). This has severely curtailed McLaren’s running. And unlike Mercedes, Honda only has one team collecting data and finding the causes of its technical problems (in pre-season testing, Honda completed only 1,087 miles compared to Mercedes’ 11,413 miles). Jenson Button has reported that the engine has good driveability, However, the power unit has not been run on full power, so estimating how it compares is difficult.

B. Aerodynamics

  • McLaren – The biggest aerodynamic changes in 2015 are at McLaren. The Woking squad has introduced a completely new aerodynamic philosophy that has radically altered the front-wing, sidepods and engine cowling compared to 2014. The chassis is tightly wrapped, enabling better airflow to the rear wing and diffuser. The lack of front-end downforce that beset the 2014 McLaren also looks much-improved.
  • Red Bull – Like McLaren, Red Bull has been aggressive aerodynamically. The most noticeable improvement is the RB11’s smaller sidepods compared to those of its predecessor. According to @ScarbsF1, this is the result of better internal packaging rather than a reduced cooling demand for the Renault powertrain. For 2015, bulky intercoolers that cool the air going to the turbo have been moved forward to enable the best possible airflow to the rear wing and diffuser.

However, in spite of these aerodynamic gains, it is clear from testing that Mercedes has the benchmark chassis, while the Williams FW37 is highly competitive.

3. Key technical personnel changes

  • A new broom has swept through Ferrari. Gone are chief designer Nicolas Tombazis, engineering director Pat Fry and powertrain director Luca Marmorini. However, former Ferrari chief designer Rory Byrne, who oversaw the design of Michael Schumacher’s title-winning Ferraris, has returned in a consultancy role. The restructuring under technical director James Allison, which also simplified reporting processes in the technical departments, together with the return of Byrne will probably mean better chassis-powertrain integration and ultimately a more competitive Ferrari.
  • Peter Prodromou to McLaren from Red Bull. Prodromou is a highly capable aerodynamicist who served as Adrian Newey’s deputy at Red Bull during the team’s peak of success from 2010-13. To achieve success in F1 you need the best people and Prodromou is one of them. Moreover, his knowledge of the innovative concepts that Red Bull developed has enabled McLaren to build a chassis that produces more usable downforce with a more flexible performance window. It’s no surprise that Red Bull-style aerodynamic concepts have already appeared on the 2015 McLaren.
  • Jock Clear leaves Mercedes. Clear is a highly experienced engineer and his move to Ferrari will be a loss for Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton in particular (Clear was Hamilton’s performance engineer). Clear’s departure will deprive Mercedes of an experienced link between driver feedback on car handling and set-up and the technical telemetry data. Ferrari will not benefit from Clear’s knowledge of Mercedes until later in 2015, however, Hamilton will lose out from Round 1.

4. Tyre compound changes

  • Pirelli has made changes to its rear tyres for 2015. The Italian supplier’s new rear tyres will distribute heat generated more evenly through the tyre, which will offer “more consistent performance and better traction“. This change will probably benefit any teams that struggled with rear tyre wear in 2014. Williams is likely to be one of the main beneficiaries. Better traction from more consistent tyres will aid the FW37’s slow- and medium-corner performance at tight and twisty tracks. At fast circuits, Pirelli’s new compound will help to minimise the risk of the rear tyres overheating under load in fast corners, a problem for Williams in 2014, which meant their rear tyres dropped off in performance more quickly than their competitors.

5. Driver line-up changes

  • Sebastian Vettel leaves Red Bull for Ferrari. That Ferrari have gained a four-time world champion in place of a double world champion is, on paper at least, a bonus. In reality, however, Ferrari has lost the best F1 driver. Will Vettel be able to drag his Ferrari up the order in the way that Alonso did regularly? The jury is out. Moreover, what Vettel needs to prove is that he can truly adapt to post-2013 F1 cars that don’t have exhaust blown diffusers – to which his driving style was particularly well attuned – and achieve success.
  • Fernando Alonso leaves Ferrari for McLaren. Ferrari’s loss is McLaren’s gain. For all his apparent toxicity and baggage, Alonso is still the benchmark F1 driver. Relentless consistency and a habit of being in the fight even if the car is not up to the mark is what sets him apart. In 2014, Alonso’s average qualifying position was 6.9 place, yet he managed to finish on average, 1.5 positions higher each race, in spite of Ferrari’s horsepower deficit. Alonso will wring the neck of the MP4-30.

What do these developments signal about the likely competitive order in 2015?

Expect a stronger challenge from Williams, F1’s ‘phoenix from the flames’. Williams put a great team of people together for 2014 and have kept it unchanged. Continuity is good. Judging from the FW37’s behaviour in testing, the team appear to have increased rear downforce, one of the FW36’s major weak points, but kept the chassis’ low-drag profile, making the car very fast in a straight line. Additionally, I expect Pirelli’s new rear tyre construction will benefit Williams who struggled to control rear tyre temperature in 2014. Finally, the Mercedes powertrain will offer Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas more grip in low- and medium-speed corners as a result of harnessing variable inlet tuning, thus addressing the 2014 car’s second major weakness.

Williams has probably replaced Red Bull at the head of the chasing pack.

So what of Red Bull and Ferrari? Expect these behemoths to be battling hard with each from the get-go. Ferrari certainly has a better powertrain than in 2014, while Renault is still struggling for horsepower. Red Bull’s chassis is likely to develop more overall downforce than Ferrari’s, but Ferrari seems to have addressed their main aerodynamic weakness from 2014, a lack of front-end downforce. In testing, Raikkonen has reported sharper turn-in to slow- and medium-speed corners. Both teams will have Williams in their sights. However, Red Bull is at risk of sliding further down the F1 hierarchy. Ferrari is on its way up.

McLaren’s disruptive potential

McLaren is the joker in the pack in 2015. Their car is currently plagued by unreliability, but Honda and McLaren will fix this, thus releasing the car to run on maximum power. When that happens, expect the MP4-30 to unleash plenty of horsepower. However, Honda’s limitation in 2015 will probably be the efficiency of its ERS. While McLaren gets on top of its problems they are likely to be fighting with Lotus, behind Red Bull and Ferrari, but when they solve their unreliability, McLaren will move-up the competitive order to fight with Red Bull and Ferrari. The only question is when.

Has the performance gap to Mercedes decreased?

Short answer, no. If anything, the gap has grown. Even with the usual caveats about pre-season testing, Mercedes are probably 0.75 second faster per lap than their closest opposition. Mercedes will almost certainly continue from where they left off in 2014. For one thing, it would be almost impossible for any team or engine manufacturer to catch and overtake Mercedes inside a few months. It’s not only the scale of Mercedes’ lead that prevents others from gaining quickly, it’s also the obstacles inherent in the sporting regulations that prevent big performance gains: only 48% of the powertrain can be changed in 2015 while aerodynamic development using wind tunnels and computer simulations is limited to 25 hours of ‘Wind on Time’ per week or 25 ‘CFD Teraflops Usage’ per week.

Crucially, Mercedes’ fundamental advantages from 2014 have remained largely intact in 2015. First, Mercedes are still one of only two constructors to manufacture their own chassis and powertrain. This offers a level of harmonisation not open to most of the competition. Second, there is no reason to assume that Mercedes’ stipulation that its customer teams cannot use more powerful engine maps in the race will have changed, giving the works team a big advantage on power. Third, the Mercedes power unit is customised for Petronas fuel first, offering Mercedes superior combustion efficiency and horsepower. The fuel suppliers of Mercedes’ customer teams like Mobil 1 in McLaren’s case in 2014 have to adapt their fuel. Fourth, Mercedes has enjoyed relative stability in drivers and in key technical personnel. True, Honda has gone with Mercedes’ split turbo layout and many teams have now adopted Mercedes’ single element front suspension, but this will not be sufficient to catch the German marque.

What indicators are likely to signal changes in the competitive order during 2015?

  • Increased combustion efficiency and horsepower as a result of fuel development. There is war between the fuel suppliers going on to extract more energy from fuel burnt and thus more horsepower. The best visible indicator of this battle is speed trap figures.
  • Engine manufacturers decide to spend remaining ‘tokens’ to develop their powertrains. This applies to Renault and Ferrari in particular who have held back tokens for later in the season.
  • Substantial changes to cars’ aerodynamic profiles/concepts.
  • Further moves by top technical personnel, especially from Mercedes’ powertrain department or Red Bull’s aerodynamics department. Such transfers allow other teams to learn from successful operations, eventually narrowing leading teams’ competitive advantage.
  • McLaren-Honda solve their unreliability problems and begin to run the MP4-30 at full potential. This team can really disrupt the competitive hierarchy in 2015, but not until later in the season.

Read my prediction for the 2015 World Drivers’ Championship next week.