Hamil­ton’s mega-Merc

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 [2014] 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 denitely 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 dened 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 deni­tion, 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 justied 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 [2014] 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 efciency 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 prot 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 outt 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 efciency, 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 efcient 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 efciency. 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 rened 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 quantiable 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 condence, 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)

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