I’ve been asked about what makes Mercedes better than other teams, and the thing that always stood out in my time was the chassis dyno. A lot of people don’t know that there’s this massive chassis dyno at Mercedes, and they are now commonplace at other top teams as well. It was purchased and constructed by Honda in 2008, and then Honda subsequently left — they essentially left the keys in the door and walked out — but in doing such, they left a multi-million dollar chassis dyno cell that was purpose-built for the F1 team. So the team has this dyno cell that you can put the full chassis on, complete with bodywork.
You run the air through the radiators at speed – it can run all the way up to, let’s say, 320 km/h (200mph) or something like that in terms of airspeed. You can replicate all the air densities and air temperatures, and correct for altitude. And it doesn’t run to the track time schedule you’d have at the track. It doesn’t run from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. It runs 24/7. There’ll be three shifts, and if the car goes down — let’s say you got an oil leak, you have to take off the engine, all that kind of stuff — there are people working 24/7 to get the thing back and running, and complete as many kilometers as possible. Everything you can think of, this thing can do. When Mercedes arrives at the first test, it’s not really the “first” test. They’ve been running in the chassis dyno for weeks.
That’s what will have been happening at Mercedes over the past few weeks: the engine, gearbox, cooling system, hydraulics, everything including the suspension and brakes have been put through the wringer on the chassis dyno, brake and gearbox dyno, and off-car kinematics rigs. I’ve had things break on the dyno, and it gave me enough opportunity to make a countermeasure almost immediately, before we even got to the circuit. So by the time you get to the track, there’s a fix in place, and now we’re getting track time to make sure that the replacement part is OK. And by the time that’s all done, you’ve got a solution in place and then you usually can go on the rest of the season with no issues. Most smaller teams don’t have that opportunity. When they break something, they’re breaking it at the circuit, and then they start the mad scramble to fix it a week before they have to fly to the first race. There’s the difference between the top three teams and the rest of the grid.
If Formula 1 wants to make things interesting in the future, they should ban chassis dynos. Just ban them altogether. Teams shouldn’t have them: you should get to the first test, and everything should blow up and break. The grid will just change as the season goes on, and then you’ll really see who’s better at adapting on the fly.
For us, being a well-resourced team, we still had problems, but it seemed like we were able to manage them. We’d have tons of mechanical problems pre-season. In my case, I had one of my radiator designs crack and leak one year, and I was freaking out. The first thing I had to do was come up with an emergency patch to get through the first test, and then I had to redesign the tank so that it didn’t leak in the future. Those kinds of things are very stressful. Myself and a couple of other engineers had to figure out the root cause of this little bit, and do the redesign and manufacturer the redesign all within, let’s say, a four- or five-day span in order to get the change to the circuit. We’d overnight it, or stick it on a plane and it would be in Barcelona within two hours, just to get us back running on the track. Mercedes, being so risk averse, always wanted to make sure that we were testing a representative car.
By the time the first race comes around, the modified parts have already done… we’d probably do between 400km (250 miles) and 600km (370 miles) a day in testing, multiplied by however many test days you had to work with. There was a kilometer limit that all parts need to pass before they’d go onto the race car, so it was on us to rush all of these fixes to the test as soon as possible, because that’s the only way we could race with them. So, nerve-wracking times, for sure.
There were years that went really smoothly, and then we’ve had years… I can remember in 2017, we broke so many floors. We were cracking the diffuser off the rearward portion of the floor. That’s ridiculously scary, because that’s a cat1 fault, or a DNF fault. If the floor breaks, your car is done. Those breaks were happening at the first test, and the reason why they were happening was because we were making 40% more downforce, and we didn’t match the strength of the floor correctly for the new downforce level that we were experiencing.
Another year, we broke tons of brake discs. So over time you’d see failures all over the car. But the percentage of failures that Mercedes has at the track is much lower because of all the testing done at the factory prior to the car ever leaving a garage. And that’s invaluable, because you’re working on problems two weeks earlier, and you’re doing it from the comfort of your own home, so to speak. Let’s say a brake disc fails on the brake dyno; you’re in a controlled environment, and you can take time to really understand what happened — you can do a full analysis on it, you can bring your colleagues into it. But when you’re at the circuit, it’s just a skeleton crew. You’re using the race team’s eyes and ears to relay back to the factory, “Hey, this, this is what broke, you guys look into it.” And that distance makes failure analysis even more strenuous.
I’d argue that’s the secret weapon for Mercedes. It’s not purely about superior on-track performance, it’s reliability because of the things like the dyno and all the other different isolated test cells that were at R&D that allowed the team to prove out the car before we ever had to put it onto a track. And that’s what my former colleagues will have been focusing their energy on before shipping the new car out to Bahrain this week.