Why are Mercedes GP struggling in 2010?

Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W01  Formula One World Championship, Rd 7, Turkish Grand Prix, Race, Istanbul Park, Turkey, Sunday 30 May 2010.

Mercedes GP duo Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg in Turkey

Jun.18 (Daniel Chalmers) Everyone expected Mercedes GP to have a major impact on the 2010 season but for a number of reasons it hasn’t materialised.

Brawn GP celebrate victory in the 2009 Australian GP

Brawn GP celebrate victory in the 2009 Australian GP

By this time last season the team (under the Brawn GP name) had already won six races and were leading both championships comfortably. Fast forward 12 months and two podiums is all the team have had to cheer about so far.

With Mercedes taking over what was Brawn GP, Petronas as a title sponsor, and Michael Schumacher reuniting with Ross Brawn fireworks seemed guaranteed.

So why are Mercedes only a distant fourth in the championship?

To start with there are a number of differences between the squad’s successful 2009 campaign and the current one, which can go some way in explaining the dip in form.

Firstly the team haven’t spent the same amount of time on the MGP W01 as they did on the BGP001. The team started that car back in 2007, and abandoned the 2008 season completely to focus on it. This then meant that they had much more time than everybody else to adapt to the sweeping 2009 aerodynamic changes, which turned out to be critical.

Jenson Button (GBR) Brawn Grand Prix BGP 001. Formula One World Championship, Rd 9, German Grand Prix, Practice Day, Nurburgring, Germany, Friday 10 July 2009.

The Brazwn BGP001 with Jenson Button at the wheel had the benefit of a long development programme

Red Bull’s Adrian Newey told F1 Racing: “No disrespect to Brawn, but they had a year more than us to develop the car.”

Ferrari and Mclaren were caught out by these rules as they were battling hard for the championship all the way till the end of 2008, and therefore didn’t have the same sheer amount of time to adapt properly.

Brawn GP’s huge head start on the 2009 project allowed them time to try different directions on the car and find the right one:

2008 Honda test driver Alexander Wurz said: “The car was taken in three different directions in the wind tunnel. Two directions were found to be wrong, so the team could just switch.”

At the end of 2009 the ball switched to the other foot. Brawn were fighting for the championship whilst Mclaren and Ferrari could switch focus to ensure they were back at the front in 2010. There wouldn’t be the luxury of a huge headstart to get the car right like the previous season.

After spending big bucks Honda abandoned Brawn at the wrong time

After spending big bucks Honda abandoned Brawn at the wrong time

The regulations going into 2010 were reasonably stable (excluding the ban on re-fuelling) so therefore there was less chance for Ferrari and McLaren to mess up again, and therefore not the same opportunity for the Mercedes team to benefit from major rule changes.

Budget is another crucial factor. Much of the process of designing and building the 2009 car was done whilst Honda still owned the team. Ross Brawn poured millions of Honda’s money into the project. So much so that the BGP001 is now considered one of the most expensive F1 cars costing around 500 million euros.

Wurz added: “The Brawn was probably the most expensive car with the lowest operating budget ever.”

Although Mercedes have taken over the team nowhere near that amount of money has been shed on the MGP W01. Remember that there is now the resource restriction agreement in force so all the teams are now spending less money than before. Mercedes also want to cut their F1 spending further.

It’s now a case of which team is most efficient, as opposed to an arms race. This was always going to be difficult for the big spending teams to adapt to.

Brawn Grand Prix BGP001 rear diffuser. Formula One World Championship, Rd 4, Bahrain Grand Prix, Practice Day, Bahrain International Circuit, Sakhir, Bahrain, Friday 24 April 2009.

Brawn BGP001 double diffuser

A key factor for Brawn GP in 2009 is that they were the first to pioneer a couple of the most decisive technical innovations that season.

They were one of the first to adopt the double decker diffuser which their car was built around, and became one of the biggest talking points of the year.

This gave the car a huge chunk of extra downforce worth in excess of half a second. This meant all their rivals had to try to adapt the concept to their cars.

The front wing was one of the other main areas for development in 2009, and Brawn GP were well ahead in this area at the start of the season with a very intricate front wing. This became known as the “outwash” front wing which generated low pressure on the outside of the front wheel.

Once their rivals had added these innovations to their cars they caught right up with Brawn GP, but by the time they had managed to do that the damage was already done i.e Brawn winning six out of the first seven races.

Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP MGP W01  Formula One World Championship, Rd 8, Canadian Grand Prix, Race, Montreal, Canada, Sunday 13 June 2010.

In 2010 Mercedes GP are playing catch up in the development war

In 2010 its Mercedes’ rivals instead who have come up with the must have technical innovations and left them behind. McLaren have come up with the F-duct which is worth up to half a second per lap.

Red Bull have their rear blown exhaust concept, which is rumoured to be worth around 0.7 seconds per lap.

Mercedes desperately need to have either/or both these innovations on their car to get themselves onto the pace.

Something that appears to be forgotten is that Mercedes still have many of the people from the Honda days working for the team. These are the same people that were responsible for the dogs produced in 2007 (RA107) and 2008 (RA108). Many catastrophic errors were committed when those two cars were designed, so it’s very possible that a few of these mistakes have crept back in.

(L to R): Ross Brawn (GBR) Mercedes GP Team Principal with Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP. Formula One

Ross Brawn with Michael Schumacher

Ross Brawn admitted that the team made a mistake with their weight distribution: “The problem was that we got the weight distribution wrong. When we got to start trying these tyres we realised we didn’t have the correct weight distribution. We immediately went to the limit of what we could achieve with the car.”

Another factor which shouldn’t be overlooked is the added pressure there is on the team this year. Last season nobody expected Brawn GP to do anything other than struggle at the back of the field, as the team had gone in the Honda guise the two previous seasons.

Anything else that could be achieved would have been a bonus and attracted huge praise from the paddock and world media.

Now with Mercedes on board anything less than regular race victories and championship challenges is unacceptable. The pressure is on to replicate the prestigious history of the team in Formula 1. Particularly their successes in the 1930s and then the 1950s when Juan Manuel Fangio was at the wheel.

Motorsports / Formula 1: Mercedes GP Petronas Car Launch, 04 Nico Rosberg (GER, Mercedes GP Petronas), 03 Michael Schumacher (GER, Mercedes GP Petronas)

Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher

Admittedly the finger has to be pointed at the drivers as well. The other three top teams have star drivers who are currently delivering the goods.

So far Michael Schumacher has struggled to find form during his remarkable comeback to Formula 1. Nico Rosberg has been doing a good job on the other side of the garage to try and compensate for this. However you have to wonder how much better the team would be doing if Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso were driving for them.

How many tenths is Schumacher difficult start to his return to F1 costing Mercedes compared to the other top driver pairings?

Furthermore the team have had to work hard to get the car to the way Michael likes it in order for him to perform at his best. As a result the team have perhaps been taking a sideways step in the development race as opposed to a forwards step.

Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP. Formula One World Championship, Rd 4, Chinese Grand Prix, Practice Day, Shanghai, China, Friday 16 April 2010.

With Michael Schumacher in the cockpit the team should start to deliver

Mercedes shouldn’t be criticised for trying to change the car to help Schumacher. He is after all their star driver and we all know what Schumacher can achieve in a car he feels at home in. That’s the sort of performance they need him to find in order to compete with Ferrari, McLaren and Red Bull.

The main problem was that Schumacher’s return wasn’t confirmed until very late in the development of this car. Had this all happened midway during last season the team would have had the time to design and build the car around Schumacher.

Probably the best thing that Mercedes can do now is forget about this season’s championship and switch focus to 2011. In 2011 there are couple of big changes including the change of tyre supplier and also the return of KERS. As we saw last season KERs has a major impact on the design of the cars.

The 2011 cars will also have to be designed to extract performance from the new tyres. Mercedes can work hard to perfect their 2011 car whilst Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari keep on developing their current cars due to their intensive title battle which is likely to go down to the wire.