The first day of official pre-season testing in Bahrain was dominated by the early morning reveal of a dramatically different looking Mercedes W13, in comparison to what we saw in Barcelona a few weeks ago.
Mercedes are the first team to bring a raft of upgrades to their car, which included an incredibly narrow, shrink-wrapped sidepod layout – easily the slimmest sidepod arrangement seen in modern Formula 1.
Rival teams, notably Red Bull personnel, looked on in awe as the Mercedes was pushed onto the pit straight for F1’s official teams’ photoshoot before running got underway. Back at the garage, photographers quickly descended on the car in which the team claims is not in fact a B-spec, owing to some onlookers’ suggestions that it’s sheer number of differences on the surface make it an entirely new car in its own right.
Instead Mercedes say that underneath it isn’t too dissimilar to what ran in Barcelona – which begs an important question. With such dramatically smaller sidepods fitted to the car, what were the bigger sidepods from before housing under the skin? The answer seems to be, nothing.
A short while into the morning session, Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner reportedly told journalist Michael Schmidt that the design is not in the spirit of the regulations – something Red Bull designer Adrian Newey has ironically long-argued doesn’t exist when it comes to technical regulations.
Therefore it’s clear that F1’s next big technical row is upon us. Perhaps not as overarching as the ‘Pink Mercedes’ Racing Point debacle, but something which ultimately places the long-argued grey area between a regulation’s intention and a competitor’s interpretation back in the limelight once again.
Of course, the FIA and F1’s technical team will be all over this design. Every aspect of it will be triple-checked many times over to make sure the wording of the rules has been followed. But looking back to Mercedes’ position when developing the DAS system for the W11, the team was open and transparent in telling the FIA exactly what was happening throughout the process, and how it could be achieved legally.
Therefore I am in no doubt that this extreme design is legal, but whether it follows the spirit of the rules is another matter. Let’s not forget that the cars don’t have to actually be legal, in most areas, until the first race.
Let’s also not forget the fact that now, for something to be changed in the sporting or technical rules to prevent a future problem or close up a loophole considered bad for the sport, F1 only needs eight of the ten teams’ to agree.
Anything which negatively impacts the efforts of F1 to produce better wheel-to-wheel racing, beyond a point deemed acceptable, will see a form of action taken against it. Mercedes do though supply three other teams with power units, so could have some leverage at the other end of the pit lane if absolutely required.
From my point of view, the aesthetics of the sidepod designs from the likes of Aston Martin and Ferrari are admittedly completely different in aerodynamic philosophy, but are clear cut nicer to look at than the shrunken, oddly-sculpted shapes on the side of the upgraded Mercedes.
The cooling inlets and general sidepod shape on F1’s original 2022 mule car is an utter juxtaposition in comparison to this interpretation. But if an aero find during development is thought to be something that’ll make the car faster or better, then it goes on the car no matter how it looks from the team’s perspective.
Both Red Bull and McLaren are expected to introduce significant upgrades to their cars too over the final two days of testing in Bahrain, although the Red Bull sidepod area is thought to be nailed down, so to speak.
The McLaren is perhaps more of an unknown at the moment. And so it would be foolish to expect this extreme Mercedes to be the one and only car-based controversy in these opening stages of the 2022 season.
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