Q&A with Mike Elliott
Technical Director of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team
Question: Just how significant are the rule changes for 2022 and how does it compare to previous regulation changes?
Mike Elliott: On the chassis side, the changes are huge. We haven’t had a change as big as this one in my career. I think there are three aspects to this: first, the way the regulations are constructed is very different, particularly for aerodynamics, and that has a big impact. Second, what they are trying to achieve with the aerodynamics means the cars are fundamentally a different shape. Third, this is the first time we will have attempted such a big change under a cost cap.
Question: And what was the feeling within the team, taking on this challenge?
Mike Elliott: Engineers love a challenge and therefore it is a fantastic opportunity to do something fresh. In the aerodynamic world, normally you are chasing after little bits and pieces, but with such big regulation changes, the gains have been coming in big chunks which is satisfying. On the flipside, we’ve had a period of success, winning the last eight Constructors’ titles and this is a reset. All the teams have started from scratch with the model provided by F1, you don’t get to carry over the benefits or fix the issues from last year’s car, so everyone began this journey at the same level. But importantly, the teams have also started with different allocations of runs in the wind tunnel and CFD, so it has the potential to really mix up the order. That’s an exciting test as an engineer but there is obviously some risk in there too, in terms of our competitive position.
Question: What areas will the car be most impacted by the technical changes?
Mike Elliott: The aerodynamic changes are significant and certain components, like the gearbox, are now locked in place until 2026. The Power Unit is another: the performance specification will be frozen until the new Power Unit is introduced in 2026. They have big impacts because you want and need to get them right, to make sure they see you through the next few years.
The aerodynamic changes are so big, they completely influence the packaging of the car and where you want to put certain components. Compared to last year, we’ve basically only carried over the steering wheel; otherwise, it’s all new, and that’s primarily a consequence of these new aerodynamic rules. The way the aerodynamic surfaces are defined in the regulations is also completely different: this year you are given a CAD surface and a tolerance to it. That means the designers must think differently and the process of making sure the geometry is legal is much harder. In the past we had lots of little details on the car that added up to quite a big chunk of aerodynamic performance, but now, the component detail isn’t anywhere near as complex. So, the gains you are making are in fundamental shape changes and bigger components than before.
Question: And have there been any particular areas we’ve focused on with the W13? What has been the main focus with the 2022 car?
Mike Elliott: We have talked a lot about the aerodynamic changes, because these are most visible, and these regulations aim to improve overtaking. In fact, most of the car has had to change, which has been a huge challenge for the whole team. Getting to the desired aero shapes has meant a complete internal repackaging, right down to the electrical layout and where we fit things like the ECU. The suspension has been redesigned to account for the loss of hydraulics and remote springs, now banned in the new regulations. Hopefully, you will also see that we have taken another step with how tightly packaged the sidepods and engine cover are. To get to this is not just a case of a shrink-wrapping exercise but requires a huge amount of redesign and simulation to make it work. In summary, it has been a massive job.
Question: The tyres and wheel sizes have changed for 2022, what does this mean for the car, in terms of handling and performance?
Mike Elliott: We have moved to an 18-inch rim and new tyres to go with it. They are lower profile as a result but not so low a profile that it fundamentally changes how the tyres work. What we have seen in testing, particularly the Abu Dhabi test at the end of 2021, is that there are subtle differences. It is going to change what we want to do with set-up, but it is a step in the right direction as I think the tyre will help improve the racing, won’t overheat as much and will be easier to manage.
Question: What’s been our overall approach to these new regulations? What have been the key milestones for us to reach?
Mike Elliott: We started development of what has become the W13 in 2020, with early work on the aerodynamics and the major components such as the gearbox, chassis and Power Unit. When COVID struck, it was clear we were not going to switch to this new regulation set for 2021, so we had to change the focus onto adapting to the changes for 2021, but as the regulations settled down, we moved more and more focus to our 2022 car. That was a tough balance to find because we were fighting at the front last year, but the development rate of the 2022 car was much stronger.
We started with the bigger components earlier than we normally would and it was the same with the aerodynamic programme in CFD and the wind tunnel: you gradually try and learn what you want to do with the car, what directions you want to take, building up performance and working through your milestones. As you get further through the process, it then becomes about signoffs, homologation work and tests. For example, this year the chassis faces a 300kN squeeze test, which is a massive load. It’s a challenge to get through those homologations on the chassis and we did that.
Then it’s about the marriage between the chassis and the Power Unit, putting them through the virtual track testing on the dyno, before moving onto getting everything ready and built for testing so the car can hit the track for those initial system checks and tests. As you progress through winter testing, the focus is on building up a base understanding of the car performance, where the gremlins are, the learning opportunities and reliability issues to get on top of, building your way towards the final package you take to race one.
Question: Is testing even more important this year, given it signals the start of F1’s new era?
Mike Elliott: With the limited testing, it’s always important to extract maximum learning from those precious few days, that you can then take forward and use throughout the season. The fact the cars are so different means the amount of learning is far larger and therefore there is more to gain from testing than there ever has been before. It helps we are running in both Barcelona and Bahrain, because Barcelona is traditionally a reference circuit with a good mix of corners, so you can get a good idea of where the car is at, while in Bahrain you are almost guaranteed dry running.
Question: Is the vibe any different ahead of car launch, testing and the new season, considering we’ve had to start from scratch with W13?
Mike Elliott: Yes, it is and for several reasons. In a normal year, I think you can probably have a good estimate of the development slope and therefore what ‘good’ is likely to look like. You can’t do that this year, and the changes are so huge that no one will know exactly what they are aiming for. You’ve also got the fact that the vast majority of the car’s components have changed and having to do that in a cost cap world means the factory is stretched more than it has probably ever been. But everyone is doing a good job of dealing with that pressure and maximising the output so we can bring every bit of goodness we can.
Question: What can the fans expect from this new era of F1?
Mike Elliott: What they can expect is something different. The question is, what does different mean? I think it’s impossible for any of us to say if this will close the grid up. Are there going to be loopholes found in the regulations that mean there will be a surprise team at the front? Until we get to the track, it is difficult to say. The rules were constructed in a direction to improve all of that, but it is the team’s job to make the fastest car we can. All these unknowns ahead of testing and the first race are exciting, because no one knows what’s going to happen or how it will play out. It’s a challenge we’re relishing and have enjoyed getting stuck into, but we’ll only find out how good we are when the flag drops in Bahrain.
Question: So now the W13 is hitting the track for the first time and being revealed to the world, how are you feeling about the new car, Mike?
Mike Elliott: It is always a special moment when you see the car run for the first time. It sounds like a cliché, but people have sweated blood and tears in Brackley and Brixworth, through the year but particularly over the build period and winter, to deliver the car and be able to run it. Now we enter the learning phase. Because the cars will evolve so much over the test, we won’t know where we are until we get to the first race, but we’ve got that mixture of trepidation, excitement of developing the car and seeing what we have created, and pride about what we have achieved together.