Lewis on what makes the W06 “The greatest car I’ve driven”
How do you make the best better? That conundrum must have vexed the talented and well-staffed brains trust at the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 team’s Brackley base, and its equally formidable engine development wing in Brixworth, all through last winter and a goodly slice of the championship-winning season gone. And yet, all in all, given the odd slip and stumble here and there, they’ve delivered.
“Last year  I had the best car I had ever driven and already this year it is the best car I have ever driven,” said championship leader Lewis Hamilton earlier this season. “It is quite unbelievable. I love this car.”
He’s bound to say that though, isn’t he? Cast an eye further down the grid and you’ll see the likes of Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso desperately accentuating the positive, even though they’re having a ghastly time of it with McLaren. With that in mind, we asked Lewis and the technical brains behind him to explain: how, and why, is the Mercedes F1 W06 Hybrid the best car a healthy budget can buy?
“I’m probably the happiest I’ve been for a long, long time,” says Lewis. “I denitely feel more comfortable in this car – I was comfortable in last year’s, but with this car more so – it has pretty much the same characteristics, it’s just better. And having had a year of experience I’m now better equipped to utilise them even more.
“As a driver I’ve had to improve in areas where perhaps I wasn’t the strongest last year. The car hasn’t changed that much, it’s just continued to climb on the same gradient as it was, getting stronger all the time – and the areas I might have had trouble with last season I’ve worked hard on with the engineers and the mechanics and the guys back at the factory to iron out.”
Last season’s W05 Hybrid was born of several years of pain as Mercedes struggled principally with tyre wear and the fall-out from the team’s rebirth. Having shed staff to cut costs during their previous incarnation as Brawn GP, they muddled through 2010 (remember that while Brawn dominated the rst half of 2009, they fell off dramatically as rivals outdeveloped them), then in 2011 through to 2013 delivered chassis that were sporadically quick, but weren’t sympathetic to the characteristics of the Pirelli-era rubber. Each car looked very different from the last as the team tried new solutions; look at Ferrari’s performance this year at the Spanish GP – where Kimi Räikkönen raced the old-spec SF15-T while Sebastian Vettel used a development spec in which 90 per cent of the aerodynamic surfaces were different – and you’ll see a team wrestling with the same challenges.
Having diverted resources early to the 2014 project, including the new hybrid power unit package, Mercedes dened the cutting edge throughout that season. It’s not too surprising, then, that at rst glance, the W06 Hybrid appears to share a family resemblance to its predecessor.
“What’s fantastic about working on F1 cars is that by denition, you bring out a car each year that you think is the best you could ever make,” says executive director (technical) Paddy Lowe in a tone of infectious enthusiasm. “And if it actually is the best car on the grid, then that’s justied and rewarded. Everybody has put 110 per cent into it. The amazing thing is that when you look at that car later, by the time it’s two years old it looks agricultural. We have a W05 in our reception at Brackley and it looks fantastic – in another year’s time it’ll look like a bit of a relic.
“You just keep moving the bar upwards. There are some big innovations that people come up with over the years, such as seamless-shift gearboxes, but in general the lap time is coming through bread-and-butter work, which isn’t that perceptible. It’s better decisions, thousands of small improvements.
“So you might be asked to save money by carrying over large parts of the car to the following year, because there’s not much performance in such and such a bracket or whatever. But
“Last year  I had the best car I had ever driven and already this year it is the best car I have ever driven”driven
the reality is, you have to keep working on everything – every single person designing every single bit is thinking about how they can make it two per cent better. It depends what your job is: if you’re an aerodynamicist, it’s about going point by point in the windtunnel; if you’re a structural engineer it’s about nding that little bit more efciency in terms of stiffness per weight. Even little packaging ideas – someone will come up with a better electrical connector and when you adopt it you save weight and volume across the car.
“Aerodynamics, for instance, is one of the major prot centres for performance, and most of it is not about the big, grand idea, it’s about constant hard work on lots of little bits. So on the front wing you may not notice many differences from race to race, but look over the whole year and you’ll see substantial change.”
Apart from the nose, then, which has changed substantially because of the revised regulations, the mechanical and aerodynamic changes from W05 to W06 are – from a visual point of view at least – matters of nuance. The conjoined lower front suspension wishbones are yet more extreme, so that all but the few centimetres nearest the tub are a smoothly blended whole. The brake ducts are a major focus of development and have changed much over the past six months, let alone from one season to the next. And the subtly different sidepods and rollhoop point to the hidden changes to optimise the cooling system.
While the W05 Hybrid was undoubtedly the best package in 2014, winning all but three races, it wasn’t invulnerable, nor
“It is quite unbelievable. I love this car”car
was it as absurdly dominant in terms of pace as the likes of the 1988 McLaren MP4/4 or the Williams FW14B (whose active suspension was designed by a team including Lowe). At the very rst race Hamilton’s car retired after the failure of a minor component; in Canada and Austria both W05s experienced brake trouble; and by the end of the season the chasing pack had substantially reduced the gap.
But that chasing pack were for the most part motivated by Mercedes power units, leading some – those saddled with less effective Ferrari and Renault power units, naturally – to declaim the state of competition. No less an eminence than Adrian Newey has attributed his decision to draw boats instead of racing cars to F1 becoming, in his words, “an engine formula”.
“That’s just nonsense,” says Lowe. “We had a period from 2007 [after the freeze in the V8 era] where the engine was no longer an area of active development. And people became accustomed to the idea that the engine shouldn’t be a differentiator, that it was just a commodity – which I thought was a tragedy for F1.
“I feel more comfortable in this car. It’s just better”better
“What we did as a sport in 2014 was to re-introduce the engine as a differentiator, but only one among all the others – chassis, tyres, brakes, aero, etc. Some people talk about it as though it’s 90 per cent of the lap time. It’s nothing like that, and I think the data makes that obvious when you look at the differences between various cars.
“If I were to pick a number, it’s probably about 30 to 40 per cent of the gain at the moment, and you’d put another 30-40 per cent to aero, with the rest in everything else – brakes, weight saving, fuel, and so on.”
Even so, the engine is mostly new for 2015, such is the scope of development permitted over the rst closed season. That window will narrow, year on year, but for now, given the scope of what can be done even with one of the 32 development ‘tokens’ enshrined in the regulations, there is a lot of additional performance to be found. That can be unlocked in-season now, since Ferrari drove a coach and (prancing) horses through the regulations by pointing out that the FIA had neglected to set a deadline for this year’s tokens to be used. Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains boss Andy Cowell wouldn’t divulge how many his outt have used, or what work has been done to optimise the occasionally wayward energy recovery systems from last year. What he will reveal is that a key target was to improve reliability of the power unit by 25 per cent, partly owing to the reduction of units per driver per year from ve to four, and partly because “last year we weren’t as reliable as we’d like to be”. There has been pressure from the likes of the Red Bull-Renault axis to revert to ve power units per season, but at a recent meeting, the Strategy Group rejected this move.
“It was a big internal challenge to increase the longevity of all the parts,” he says, “making sure we had more certainty that the power unit would complete the last race use and increasing the performance. We’re at about 40 per cent thermal efciency, with a throttle response of less than 100 milliseconds.”
Malign the relative absence of noise compared with the V8 era if you will, but it makes the internal combustion engines in F1 the most efcient on earth by a substantial margin. To reach that gure, the engine has to run as lean a mixture of fuel as possible while reducing ‘knock’, which is when the fuel ignites too early during the compression phase before the spark plug res.
“Knock in a highly boosted engine is a problem in both road and race cars,” says Cowell, “so you design everything from the fuel, the oil, the piston, the cylinder head and the crankcase to the fuel injector to minimise it. In development meetings we were looking at white papers people had written over the decades on this topic. We decided we had to be the masters of knock…”
“We’d created a completely new fuel blend for 2014,” says Petronas fuel technology manager Chan Ming Yau,
“tailor-made for the V6, which gave a 30 per cent improvement in efciency. It was different in a way we hadn’t anticipated – during testing we went through several hundred candidate fuels to get to the nal blend. It had a very good energy density. We’ve rened it again for 2015, aiming for better combustion, and greater cleanliness in the high-pressure direct-injection system, to give better drivability. It’s still closely related to road-car fuel – the same chemistry, just different proportions of it. You could use it in your road car, no problem.”
Fuel and lubricant development has also helped with aerodynamic optimisation by enabling the team to run smaller radiators, which are therefore less bulky (helping with weight-saving, too) and require smaller openings. As Cowell explains: “If you reduce the energy going to the lubricant through friction, there’s less heat going out through the oil pipe to the radiators, so the radiators can be smaller. It’s a beautiful virtuous circle where you spiral up in car performance.”
The result is a package that may look outwardly similar to its predecessor, but which has taken a quantiable step forwards in performance – although Ferrari, as demonstrated in Malaysia, use tyres more effectively in hot conditions. But it also seems to have enabled Lewis to nd a new level of condence, to explore the outer reaches of his craft and to be bolder with his choices. He talked recently about how the W06 has enabled him to be “innovative” with what he does on-track during a race weekend.
“Usually, on every race weekend you arrive and do pretty much the same thing,” he explains. “By ‘innovative’ I mean trying new things with the setup, new approaches, different approaches to techniques that you use. I’ve been putting new things in the mix to see if they work. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
“And when driving against competitors, it’s about not using the same patterns – nding different ways of getting around a corner or attacking, which I love.”
When Lewis is happy within himself, that’s when he’s at his most unbeatable. And as for the fastest car in F1 – well, as Paddy Lowe says with a twinkle in his eye: “There’s never an end to what you can nd…”
It looks similar to the W05, but the W06 has been extensively redeveloped. The nose is most obviously different, but work has gone into the suspension wishbones (top left) and brake ducts (top right)