Technical: The tiny details that left the Mercedes W08-Hybrid dominating 2017

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Lewis Hamilton celebrates inside his Mercedes W08-Hybrid after winning the 2017 Formula 1 World Championship.

With the conclusion of Sunday’s Mexican Grand Prix, Mercedes-AMG Petronas officially secured, for the forth consecutive season, the Drivers and Constructors World Championships.

It didn’t always look like 2017 would end this way, though. From the get-go in Australia, it was immediately clear ‘dominance’ wasn’t a word Mercedes would use to describe their new car, as it lost the first Grand Prix to Sebastian Vettel’s new and improved Ferrari.

In fact, just six rounds into the 2017 season and Vettel had a staggering championship lead of 25 points.

But then, fast-forwarding to the final rounds of 2017, and now Ferrari’s earlier advantage is completely nonexistent, to the point where Mercedes were quick enough to win both of 2017’s major prizes with two rounds of breathing space.

So the simple question is this: between the woeful season opening and the success of now, what on earth changed for Mercedes and their 2017 ‘F1 W08 EQ Power+’?

The Shark Fin

When the car was launched and tested in February and March, it was obvious the W08 was a simple development of the successes that had previously brought Mercedes so much dominance.

One of the typical traits of previous Mercedes Formula 1 cars was their approach to rake angle, and 2017 was no different. The W08-Hybrid continued featured little rake angle, meaning the front of the car is not angled toward the ground, with the ride height at the front and rear being relatively balanced. The drawback with low rake is that the rear wing (which is at a lower angle due to the rake) is exposed to larger amounts of turbulent air from the engine cover.

But, Mercedes negated this problem throughout testing with the development of an aggressive ‘shark fin’, as it’s become colloquially known. The shark-fin was a new addition to the cars in the new generation of technical regulations and was last seen in the 2011 season.

The shark-fin became a key part of Mercedes success throughout the season, and it was much to the detriment of rivals, such as Red Bull. In fact, the Milton-Keynes team were clearly not fans of the concept – Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner told Motorsport.com during 2017 pre-season testing, “it would have been nice to get rid of these shark fins.”

His strong opinion toward the aerodynamic element comes from a differing philosophy toward the rake angles, which was earlier discussed. Unlike Mercedes, Red Bull have high levels of rake in their chassis, which naturally gave their rear wing less turbulent air to deal with, making it notably more efficient than Mercedes.

This choice of rake effectively negated Red Bull’s need for a shark fin, which means the Milton-Keynes team would’ve gained a substantial pace advantage if the device was outlawed.

Given the low rake angle of the Mercedes, it’s no surprise that they’re shark fin was more aggressively designed than that of Red Bull, who featured a simple, flat panel slightly protruding from the engine cover.

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Mercedes ran two versions of their shark fin during the season, one which was a mere flat surface, like that of Red Bull (top image), but, more notably and commonly, one featured with an opening at the top to help channel airflow, like a chimney (bottom image).

With the chimney and non-chimney version changing constantly, the aggressive profile of Mercedes’ fin was also developed toward the end of the season, with a longer version connecting directly to the T-wing pillar making its debut in Singapore and continuing on the car for the rest of the season, this is shown on the bottom section of the above photo.

The Front End

From a simple visual comparison, the front end of the Mercedes has seen significant changes since its first race back in March. Both the nose and wing of the W08-Hybrid saw a major upgrade in the Spanish Grand Prix, with later revisions coming in Malaysia.

When Formula 1 arrived in Spain, it was presumed that Red Bull’s major upgrades to the RB13 would dominate headlines, but Mercedes’ brand new front nose, which Motorsport.com described as “radical”, ended up being the hot topic for the weekend.
In this upgrade, Mercedes noticeably narrowed the profile of their nose – and this was done for one reason: to make way for their groundbreaking ‘turning vane cape’. Turning vanes are an important piece of any Formula 1 car as their main responsibility is to channel the turbulent airflow from the front wheels and wing toward the sidepods and diffusor – and overall drivability can be risked if an upgrade works the airflow too hard.

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Fortunately, in the case of Mercedes and their especially unique ‘turning vane cape’ – it worked. Despite the high airflow demands, Lewis Hamilton described the upgrade as “amazing” on Friday in Spain and then made special mention of the designers following his intense victory on Sunday, commenting that the turning vane cape is “enabling us to be so close in this fight with Ferrari.”

Despite a minor revision to the turning vane cape in Austria, the major change to the element came during October’s Malaysian Grand Prix, where the leading edge was seriously widened.

Alongside this update in Malaysia, there was what Motorsport.com’s Matt Somerfield described as a “small but perhaps meaningful” upward change to the leading edge of the front wing structure itself. This was done to promote more airflow under the wing structure which would be guided by far more prominent stakes under the structure itself.

In essence, it’s small changes like this one that typify the front wing updates. Most races Mercedes would run with a changed or improved part on the front wing, but none of them were significant enough to be classed as a ‘major upgrade.’ But, that still doesn’t mean the front wing was not developed.

Also, back in Spain, Mercedes added two small, front-facing vents for airflow through the ‘S-duct’ – an aerodynamic device that, for the first time in the Hybrid-turbo era, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull all opted to use.

The Barge Boards

When the 2017 Technical Regulations were released, it was clear the barge boards would become an influential element due to the increased freedom with their design in 2017.

In truth, Mercedes’ original concept that was used early on in 2017 was somewhat scarce, but in Spain, they received their significant revision for the season, with a combination of ideas that had been in play since pre-season testing.

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The improvements definitively added for Spain included six vertical flaps toward the end of the barge board (green arrow), three major vertical winglets throughout the center portion of the area (blue arrows), and vertical flaps, also split into three, on the pre barge board section (green arrow). Only the elements in the middle (blue arrows) were completely new and never previously tested in Spain.

Despite the inevitable minor developments and a more aggressive profile for some barge board elements in Malaysia, this section of the car received no major, ground breaking updates following the Spanish Grand Prix.

The Floor

For years, the floor of a Formula 1 car has been quite obscure. It doesn’t have the visual appeal of the front wing or diffusor, yet in 2017, it has proved one of the most significant sections of the chassis.

That’s because rear stability has been paramount to unlocking a reliable package this year, and 2017’s increased tyre width has greatened the effect of ‘tyre squirt’, where the natural rotation of the tyre pushes airflow under the chassis, which is, from a simple perspective, not efficient airflow.

Motorsport.com has said the floor of every chassis has seen “intense development” of more “complex designs” this season. Mercedes is no exception, and throughout this season, opinions have clearly differed over what was the correct solution for the floor.

Toward the sidepod area of the floor, Mercedes have used a solution which simplistically poked a long and extremely narrow hole within the surface of the floor, a design which was also pioneered by Toro Rosso and later McLaren. The hole is 100mm from the outward surface of the floor, and is very difficult to spot in photos.

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Toward the rear wheel, five to ten (depending on circuit) ‘razor blade like’ flaps are carved into the floor, helping to direct airflow away from the rear wheels.

The rear wheel section of the floor received an update during that crucial Spanish Grand Prix weekend, where Mercedes added a ‘handle like’ flap which helps to keep the overall rigidity of the floor structure under different velocities.

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Mercedes also opted to use an aggressive, four element ‘W-style axehead’ from the Spanish Grand Prix onwards. The component, which mounts to the front of the floor (parallel to the sidepod), was earlier tested in the pre-season and then revised in Malaysia, where the four elements were merged down to just three.

Apart from the ‘handle-like’ flap and W-style axehead revisions to the W08’s floor in Spain and Malaysia respectively, no more major and noticeable upgrades were added to the floor between Australia and Mexico.

The Rear End

The overall size of the diffusor was increased substantially for 2017, and it’s no surprise that many teams focused on the element for producing their rear downforce. The more rear downforce the teams can generate via the diffusor, the less rear wing angle they have to run – which overall means less drag.

Because of Mercedes’ decision to go the other way, where they run larger rear wing angles creating more drag, the team has had to design a “gentle” diffusor that’s shaped more like a spoon to negate the drag effects, according to Motorsport.com

However, there’s no denying that the diffusor on the W08-Hybrid has received only minuscule updates in 2017, unlike the barge board and front wing and nose.

But, the diffusor not the only element of the rear end, indeed the rear wing can also be quite important – and Mercedes appear to have pioneered this section throughout 2017.

For the 18 rounds of the season that have already passed, Mercedes have used a curved rear wing to ensure less drag for high speed circuits, which don’t need substantial downforce. However, the team did change the layout to a flatter, more conventional wing for downforce sensitive circuits such as Spain, Monaco, Hungary and last weekend in Mexico.

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The added curve serves to generate greater downforce with less drag than a standard flat wing, making it a crucial element of the W08-Hybrid for tracks with an emphasis on downforce.

Conclusions

In the end, Mercedes and their W08-Hybrid has pioneered the aerodynamic designs of Formula 1 cars, even with a change of Technical Director from Paddy Lowe to James Allison in 2017.

There’s no denying the diffusor, rear wing and sidepods are all clever elements of this year’s car, but between Australia and Mexico they didn’t see any major change, despite inevitable minor tweaks. 

Instead, the changes which have allowed Mercedes to deny Ferrari a single victory in the last eight rounds have come in the crucial areas like the shark fin, nose, front wing and barge boards. All four of these sections have seen significant development throughout the 2017 season – with most of these changes appearing in the major package introduced for Spain, with substantial revisions then notably appearing in Malaysia.

Funnily enough, following the updates to Mercedes in Spain, Ferrari only produced victories from the highest downforce sensitive tracks on the calendar: Monaco and Hungary – whereas before Spain, Ferrari had taken wins in Australia and Bahrain, circuits which didn’t appear to be biased toward either manufacturer.

This stat alone suggests that the updates Mercedes brought to Spain, which included major revisions to the nose, barge board and floor, were absolutely crucial for ensuring Mercedes’ continued dominance throughout the remaining rounds in 2017.

In fact, with the 14 rounds that have followed Spain, Mercedes have won at nine at them – whereas Ferrari and Red Bull sit at just two-a-piece. Although Ferrari should’ve realistically dominated in Singapore, that would still only leave the tally at eight to Mercedes and three to Ferrari.

This best epitomizes the significance of Mercedes and their major upgrades in the various sections of the car in 2017.

Throughout the season it seemed to be a ‘Development War’ between front runners, and although Ferrari won some battles on and off the track, there’s no denying that Mercedes, by sweeping both championships, have won the war… Yet, again.

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Steven Walton is a 18 year old student currently attending St Andrews College in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was bought up with two older brothers and his big passions are sports (especially motorsport), people and writing.

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