By Christopher Roche – F1 insight straddling the pond
Since the start of Formula 1’s hybrid era, which began in 2014, the Mercedes-AMG team has dominated the sport, scoring seven consecutive driver’s and constructor’s championships. In the process, the team overcame significant challenges in both 2017 and 2018, fighting off Ferrari and Sebastien Vettel on both occasions.
But by not winning the Styrian GP last Sunday, Mercedes-AMG lost their fourth consecutive F1 race for the first time since 2013. Now, Red Bull Racing leads the constructor’s championship, and Max Verstappen the drivers’ championship, by healthy margins, 40 and 18 points respectively. And the next race is back at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, where we expect Verstappen will win again and extend his lead over Lewis Hamilton.
How has this happened? How did the most dominant team in F1 history lose its mojo? Well, simply put, a perfect storm formed. One built from a multitude of factors that combined to overwhelm the mighty tri-star team. Let’s dig in.
To start, Mercedes decisively won the 2020 season with the W11, which was typically more than half a second quicker than the nearest challenger: Red Bull Racing’s RB16 with Verstappen behind the wheel. And with the regulations staying largely the same for 2021, most expected that Mercedes’ winning ways would continue for at least another season.
But regulations didn’t stay the same. Updates to the rules required changes to the floor, brake ducts, and diffuser. And these new regs tended to aid the high rake cars (all but Mercedes and Aston-Martin Racing teams). Given all that, the 2021 Mercedes W12 chassis proved tricky to set up, thanks to a narrow operating window. And, furthermore, has a distinct dislike of slow corners.
Moreover, Formula 1 outlawed Mercedes’ DAS (Dual axis steering) system for 2021, which allowed the drivers to easily adjust the toe alignment of the front tires while on track with a quick push or pull of the steering wheel. This improved the driver’s ability to rapidly, and evenly, heat the front tires, which, in turn, gave them an advantage prior to qualifying laps, the start of the race and after safety car periods during races. Without that system, Mercedes continues to struggle to warm up its front tires. See the results of Imola, Monaco, and Baku as evidence of my point.
Then there’s the new limitation of wind tunnel testing time based on the team’s finishing order in the previous season. The better you finish, the less time you get. This means that Williams gets the most time and Mercedes, the least. This obviously limits the amount of time Mercedes can spend assessing parts changes and aero modifications to improve the car’s performance.
Yet another impedance is the new cost cap for 2021: all teams must now spend a maximum of $145 million (excluding driver salaries, top three highest earner salaries and marketing costs) for the season. That’s a serious cut for the larger teams. Mercedes, Red Bull, and Ferrari need to redeploy members of their teams to non-F1 projects to remain compliant. And doing so reduces resources available to find solutions to problems and improve the performance of the car. Additionally, Mercedes lost key personnel, who were either tempted away to other teams or seeking new challenges. Andy Cowell (PU chief) who resigned at the end of 2020 is a good example.
Yet, despite the reduction in resources, the need for development is higher than ever. A new rules package for the 2022 season are the most significant changes Formula 1 made in many years. We’ll see 18-inch wheels, the return of ground effect underbody tunnels, elimination of barge boards, revised front and rear wings, and modified suspension regulations. All of this forced many teams to divert most of their development resources to next year’s cars, limiting the amount of time spent on developing their ‘21 chassis. This includes Mercedes.
Finally, in Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing, Mercedes face the strongest opposition to its championship challenger yet. Honda is in its last year in F1 and determined to atone for those lamentable years with McLaren early in the hybrid era. The Japanese automaker is producing a very competitive, and in some ways, better power unit than Mercedes. With it, Red Bull is more than capable of taking wins as long as the team employs smart racing strategies. And, lest we forget, RBR also has Adrian Newey, probably the greatest F1 chassis designer of all time on their side.
Alas, it’s too early to call the 2021 championship, as the racing has been close most of the time and 15 Grand Prix still remain in 2021. However, it will take all of Mercedes’ undoubted capability, and perhaps a little luck, to overcome all of the new challenges the team faces this year.
After months of multiple announcements and reveals, the 2022, fourth-generation Acura MDX has arrived, adorned with a new look and riding on a new platform. This new generation brings about a new era for the premium, three-row SUV as it is now burdened with the title of flagship model, meaning it’s here to represent the best of what Honda’s luxury/performance brand can deliver. That ignores the NSX supercar, of course, which Acura calls its halo car.
Riding on an all new platform that Acura designed specifically and, for now at least, solely for the MDX model, it is a claimed 32 percent more torsionally rigid than the third generation model. Furthermore, the front strut suspension was tossed in the bin and replaced with a much more car enthusiast friendly double-wishbone set-up. The rear suspension retains its basic four-link structure, but engineers thoroughly reworked it to increase both handling prowess and ride comfort.
The most obvious change of the latest MDX, however, is its new skin, as Acura adopted the design language that was first introduced on the 2019 Acura RDX. And it works well. Because the MDX is longer and wider than before and, indeed, the biggest car Acura builds, the curves and creases of the design flow naturally here, never looking blunt or stunted. The stance is low and wide, given the category, and the front and rear overhangs are reduced, adding visual strength. That said, I’d prefer a smaller emblem attached to the grille in front. It’s not an eye sore, but it stands out more than it blends in.
Considering all of the aforementioned newness, Acura surprised me by bolting up the existing 3.5-liter V6 with no updates, such that it continues to produce the same peak outputs of 290 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque, just as the 2020 model does today. Acura’s rebuttal is that while the engine remains unchanged, they installed a new, 10-speed automatic transmission, with an 8.9-percent shorter first gear, putting more torque to the road from zero speed.
Moreover, the MDX gets the latest generation Super Handling all-wheel-drive, SH-AWD, that can send 70 percent of the torque to the rear-axle and then distribute 100 percent of that to either wheel. That flexibility in torque distribution helps the MDX mitigate the inherent handling issues of a long wheelbase, 113.8-inches, and a nose heavy body, 58 percent of the weight rests on the front axle.
In fact, the MDX handles WAY better than you’d ever expect it to. Steering has a nice weight to it, with good turn-in response and high-levels of precision, which makes it easy to keep speed up in the corners, and really lean on the 20-inch all-season tires. While the MDX understeers, it does so much less than you’d expect. If you really try, you can even get the rear-end to wiggle a bit at corner exit. In a three-row SUV!
And all the usual safety and luxury bits are here. Standard in the MDX is a Qi smartphone charging pad, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a built-in Amazon Alexa. That’s controlled through a 12.3-inch center console screen. The seats are leather and comfortable. The space is cavernous and the ergonomics are intuitive. You also get plenty of space and flexibility for cargo carrying needs.
The point is, Acura built a useful SUV, as they’ve always done. But this time around, they added more style and driving prowess than before. And by big margins. Base price is under $48,000. But you’ll have a lot more fun with one of the SH-AWD models that start at $49,925. For that money, you get a flagship worthy SUV to roll in. One that will even allow you to crack a smile on your favorite twisty road.
The Detroit Auto Show, known officially as the North American International Auto Show or NAIAS, featured the usual plethora of new car launches, concept cars, and general self-promotion from the worlds car companies. Fortunately, this usually includes displaying race cars from various series that manufacturers compete in. This year, Indycar also set up a stand and showed some of its best material. Here are the most notable racing items on display at NAIAS.
- The LM GTE Pro class winning Ford GT race car. Ford rightly concluded the best possible way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of it’s Le Mans victory in 1966 was to win again. They did so with the help of Chip Ganassi and this, the 68 car driven by Sebastian Bourdais, Joey Hand, and Dirk Muller. For authenticity, they left the car raw. All the dirt, damage, and glory of the moment remain. Beautiful.
- The iconic Borg Warner Trophy. This is it. The actual trophy, with the names and faces of the winners imprinted around its circumference. Look closely and young American, and F1 veteran, Alexander Rossi, smiles proudly at the bottom.
- Rossi’s Indianapolis 500 winning car also came to the show. Take a close look at the car. Notice the trimmed-out aero in hopes to make the car slip through air as easily as possible, with just enough downforce to keep your foot flat.
- Indycar also brought along Simon Pagenaud’s championship winning car. He clinched it at Sonoma Raceway in California, a road course. See the difference? Another 1000 pounds of downforce, perhaps?
Mercedes also mounted an F1 car to the wall of its stand, but that’s become rote for them and, yes, we know it’s a winning car, and, yes, rah rah, look at how fast it is. But that’s a display car, nothing more. The cars you see here were the very machines that did the work. Great to see.
Photo courtesy of Jamey Price
The post race press conference at the Japanese Grand Prix started like this, “Q: ‘Lewis, let’s pick it up with you first. At the start obviously you lost ground. What part did the dampness on that side of the race track play, do you think, in your getaway? Perhaps a little detail about your fight back and then the championship position as it stands, trailing Nico by 33 points with four races to go.’
LH: ‘Firstly, big congratulations to the team, incredible success for the last three years, very proud to be a part of it and to help contribute to it – so a big thank you to everyone for all of their hard work. This is a great result. Yeah, I don’t think the damp patch had really anything to do with it. I just had… I made a mistake and then just working my way up from there was tricky but, y’know, I did the best I could.’
Q: ‘And the 33 points, four races to go, feelings on that.’
LH: ‘That’s a healthy margin for Nico, he did a great job, so congrats to him.’”
That’s the most defeated, and gracious, I’ve encountered Lewis Hamilton when asked about relative performance to his teammate this season, if not ever. And he’s right, with four races and only 100 more points available in 2016, Rosberg holds a formidable margin and the momentum. After Italy, Hamilton lead by two points. In the following three races, he scored 30-points, Rosberg collected 65. Rosberg won more times this season as well, a tiebreaker would currently fall the German’s way. Hamilton then has to score 34 more points than Rosberg. Or an average of 8.5 more points per race for the remaining races. Critically, even if Hamilton wins the next four in a row, Rosberg can hold the title with four second-place finishes.
But certainly do not count Hamilton out. Rosberg once lead Hamilton by 43 points. Hamilton went on to win six of the next seven Grands Prix and put Rosberg 19 points in the hole. But, frankly, I’ve never seen Rosberg drive so well and while Hamilton certainly suffered more points-robbing bad luck, the last few races Rosberg beat Hamilton with pace. It’s pretty much been a head-to-head race for the title since 2014, but this year could prove the most exciting fight yet. And maybe, just maybe, the 2017 rule changes will allow another team to challenge.
The other underdog strong performance came from Force India. They now hold a 10-point gap in the Constructor’s title over Williams, making fourth place seem possible and approaching likely. In Malaysia and Japan both Hulkenberg and Perez scored points, Perez heading the charge.
McLaren didn’t fare to well in the Japanese Grand Prix, Honda’s home race, but they didn’t expect to either. For whatever reason, Suzuka exacerbates the McLaren’s weaknesses, not strengths. It’s an ironic anomaly in an otherwise encouraging second half of the season. In Malaysia, McLaren earned a double points finish and they now enjoy a solid 15 point lead over Toro Rosso, sixth in the Constructor’s championship is likely.
For the remainder of the season, all eyes will stay focused on Mercedes’, they clinched both the Constructor’s and Driver’s Championship in Japan, now it’s just a matter of which driver.
Photo courtesy of Jamey Price
“…Very happy, it was a hard slog yesterday with trying a few things, [but the] car is a bit more normal now. I enjoyed qualifying, it’s always a pain when you’re 30 milliseconds behind the car in front but, uh, P9 is not too bad considering the Force India’s pace so far this weekend. I’m very happy with that, in front of both Williams.”
So said Jenson Button to Formula 1 News after carrying through to Q3 and, with just one run, qualifying 9th for the Malaysian Grand Prix. That in of itself is not that big of a deal, but this is Button’s 300th grand prix, which puts him behind Rubens Barrichello and Michael Schumacher and no one else in number of race starts. Tomorrow Button becomes just the third driver in history to achieve such longevity. In fact, his teammate Fernando Alonso is 4th on the list, 32 grands prix behind. McLaren does not currently build quickest chassis nor does Honda manufacture the strong power unit, so Button’s performance deserves accolades.
Even more exciting, Button goes on to say that he thinks he can stay ahead of both Williams and race the folks around him, so perhaps he’ll also finish in the top ten. Finishing in the points would be a well-deserved feather to put in his 300-grand-prix-hat.
Button qualified behind both Force India’s. Perez led in 7th, Hulkenberg right behind in 8th. That means Force India has a Button buffer between them and their closest Constructor championship rival, Williams. Force India is currently ahead by one point, but they now have a chance to widen the gap and tighten their grip on 4th, an admirable feat for the small, Silverstone based team.
Further ahead, Hamilton got serious and once again handily out-qualified teammate Nico Rosberg. But, as Rosberg said in the post qualy press conference. “As we know from this year, second place doesn’t mean that victory is not possible tomorrow. We’ve seen that so many times. Still very optimistic for tomorrow. “ It’s generally advantage Rosberg on race start, he proved it recently in Italy. One key difference I see, however, Hamilton seems laser focused and serious this weekend. I find it harder to forecast a flubbed start.
No matter, even if both Mercedes nail their starts and sail off ahead from the competition, we’ll get to see Ferrari and Red Bull duke it out for the final spot on the podium. Red Bull Racing starts ahead, but Ferrari may have an advantage on race pace and strategy. Definitely one to watch tomorrow.
Photo courtesy of Jamey Price
“… First of all, big congratulations to Nico, he drove fantastically well all weekend and fully deserved the win. Very tough day today, as always it is here in Singapore. This weekend has just been a bot of a tricky one for me, but I’m still glad I could get back up on the podium and get some points for the team.” So said Lewis Hamilton on the podium after the Singapore Grand Prix. He so rarely tips his hat to his teammate I rewound the coverage and watched again. Then I read the press conference transcript and checked a third time.
That’s how well Rosberg performed in Singapore. In qualifying he wedged half a second between his pole time and Hamilton’s P3 lap. The race start gods answered the German’s prayers and he launched the car flawlessly, leaving no gap for the ever-aggressive Ricciadro to try and fill. Rosberg went on to maintain a solid gap throughout the grand prix whilst keeping the brakes from their melting point, if only just. Red Bull applied clever strategy and Ricciardo again went on the Mercedes hunt in the closing stages of the race, yet again Rosberg answered and picked up the pace just enough to keep the energy drink emblazoned car behind.
Now Rosberg knows what it takes to receive a compliment from Hamilton. That impressed. That was a championship drive. Keep it up and you might even win over a couple English fans. In the meantime, enjoy your reclaimed lead in the Driver’s Championship, ahead by eight by the way, since you’re not “focused on points.”
Claire Williams no doubt focused on points. In Singapore, her team earned none while Force India grabbed four, which means Williams fell behind in the Constructor’s Championship by one, now 5th. Certainly a street course adorned with 23 corners does not suit the slippery and downforce deficient chassis. But name a course remaining on the calendar that does?
And perhaps the one person happier than Rosberg is Daniil Kyvat. After his demotion to Toro Rosso, the Russian drove deeper and deeper into despair. One bad result followed another, his new teammate, Carlos Sainz Jr., handily outperforming him. In Singapore, Kvyat turned a corner. His moment of redemption came when he successfully held off his seat stealing nemesis, Max Verstappen, for several laps. Verstappen started poorly, but quickly caught Kvyat. The two got very close, Verstappen definitely tried many different attempts, some of them a bit dicey, but Kvyat defended admirably and, mercifully, no team orders came to force the pass. Those several laps flooded Kvyat with much needed confidence. He went on to finish ninth, his best since switching to Toro Rosso and well ahead of his teammate. Afterwards he announced to the media that his passion was back. Our passion to see it again in Malaysia is back too.