Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel will use the three-week break before the start of the European leg to try and pull things back on rivals Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.
In F1’s new era of the smaller but turbocharged 1.6 litre (down from 2.4) V6 engines, only a Mercedes driver has stood atop the podium. Hamilton won the last three in a row, while Nico Rosberg took the season opener.
Mark Hughes, a correspondent for Motor Sports Magazine, was the first to write about Mercedes’ smart engineering, which also explains why Force India, powered by a similar Mercedes unit, are looking a distinctly better team this season.
F1 teams have found loopholes in regulations to innovate with technology and get an advantage in a sport where every millisecond counts. Think Brawn’s double diffusers (2009), Red Bull’s exhaust blown diffusers (2011), Brabham’s fan car (1978) and movable wings, to name a few.
Mercedes’ out-of-the-box thinking this season, deemed to be within the rules, has put all of the above in their slipstream. The key lies in the smart tinkering of the turbocharger (also present in humble motor cars) on the part of the mechanics at Mercedes.
The hot exhaust fumes, that run the turbine located at the back of power unit, cool much faster before entering the engine, leading to efficient combustion in a Mercedes. To make this possible, the compressor has been split from the turbine and moved to the front of the power unit, away from the hot stream of exhaust. The result? A cooler compressor has led to cooler air so Mercedes can afford to have a smaller intercooler (cooling system in layman terms), a relatively compact engine unit which reduces drag.
In non-Mercedes engines, the compressor is hotter as it is placed at the rear of the engine besides the turbine running on exhaust. Hence the air takes longer to cool before it can enter the engine chamber and results in a lag in power. So when Hamilton accelerates, the engine develops power faster than his rivals’.
Red Bull team team principal Christian Horner simplified the advantage his main man, Vettel (or his Renault-powered car), was conceding to to Hamilton’s Mercedes so far this season. “You know we were 22 kms an hour slower on that long straight today. That represented almost 100ms that we’re giving away on the straight,” said the Briton at the helm of Red Bull’s dominance over the past four years.
The time difference is immense, to say the least. Immense enough for titles to be won and conceded shortly after a season begins.
(Nihal is a senior assistant editor based in New Delhi)