We caught up with Andy Cowell, Managing Director of Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains and Aldo Costa, Engineering Director of Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport, to understand more about the 2017 F1 W08 EQ Power+.
Aldo Costa: Good afternoon to everybody. The project started to take shape at the beginning of March, doing some wind tunnel study, car layout configuration. Our first target was to make the layout right, to have a sound layout that allowed us for further development, so a very high-potential layout so the aerodynamic development could go on and find the performance along the whole season.
Then, during the summer, we defined the layout and went into the detailed development and it was like an aerodynamic festival, I would say. Aero had plenty of opportunity to find performance. They were super happy about the new rules from the engineering point of view and quite a lot of performance came. The car is more complex than before. Everything has been redesigned for the higher loads the car has, in terms of aerodynamic load but as well in terms of tyre grip. So, we had to review everything and the carry-over compared to last year’s car is very minimal. Everything is brand new, I would say.
Andy Cowell: As Aldo says, the starting point was the layout. So the two groups of engineers, from Brixworth and Brackley, working very closely on a clean sheet of paper. The big challenge on the Power Unit is, as ever, how do we create more power? How do we make the Power Unit more efficient? Make it work in harmony with the chassis so that the increased lateral loading on the Power Unit is managed? Respect the challenge of rejecting heat from the engine?
The increase in aerodynamic load and grip from the tyre means that the full throttle time has increased considerably, so we’ve got an extra ten percent of the lap at full throttle – over five seconds extra at full throttle – which is challenging for all the parts within the engine, not only in terms of enduring that extra load every lap but also in managing the heat flow. There’s 105 kilos of fuel for the race so the race should finish quicker; we should do the 305km quicker but we’ll burn 105kg of fuel. Last year we didn’t come anywhere near the 100kg fuel limit, so it’s a lot more than 5kg of extra fuel that will be burnt in less time and you’ve got to manage that heat flow. You’ve got to manage it within the engine, you’ve got manage it within the cooling system in the car – so that was a challenge for us as well.
And the hybrid system, as well; there’s only so many megajoules per lap that you can deploy if the full throttle time goes up. We need to be careful that the point that you de-rate the MGU-K doesn’t become too early on the straight, that it becomes a potential weakness for people to overtake you at the end of the straight. So many, many challenges all coming from the chassis-based regulations.
Andy Cowell: I like Andy a lot! We’ve made some good progress. What’s the right adjective to use? I’m not sure. We’ve made improvements in the thermal efficiency, we’ve made improvements in pretty much every single area of the Power Unit. Is that a big gain? It depends where you are against your opponents. Collectively, both factories have done a great job over the last three years – but this is a big change and we need to see how the performances in qualifying at the opening races and the race results. It’s not just about getting on the front row of the grid. That’s great for Saturday night but it’s where do you finish at the end of Sunday that really matters and that’s how hard you can race for the 305km of the race. We’ve made an improvement. Is it a big one? It depends on where you are against your opponents.
Andy Cowell: I guess the base architecture of our ERS system is similar to what we started with in 2014. We started with a module that houses the two inverters and DC-DC converters and lithium-ion cells underneath the fuel cell. Is it the same for this year? No, it’s not. There’s improvements in the high-power switches, so the high-power switches are more efficient. There are several improvements on reliability within the box, which means we can run it harder for longer. We are not as vulnerable to having to de-rate the system for cooling reasons because of heating effects within the module. The MGU-H is completely new as a consequence of the drive-cycle change. And the MGU-K is new as well. I think the cables are the same – but the length has changed! The connectors have changed as well. So… yeah, it’s a big evolution!
Andy Cowell: The token system was in place over the last three years but it didn’t control our development, so removing it doesn’t change our development. The token system was originally put in place to enable development in the opening one or two years and then start to control it, to end up with Power Units that are frozen with regards to performance.
None of us wanted that. None of the manufacturers wanted that. The manufacturers wanted the Power Unit to continue to be open for development, which is why we had an adjustment in the tokens in previous years and then agreed this year to remove it altogether. The token system was very generous: three tokens and you could change the combustion system – cylinder head, crankcase, piston rod, valves, cam profiles, that’s three tokens. It wasn’t controlling – it was interfering, it was confusing. So, I think it’s good to remove that confusion and I don’t think it introduces an arms race. What it does do, however, is mean that every year, everybody has got the opportunity to improve and to catch-up – which I think is healthy for the sport.
Andy Cowell: It’s a good point. We had a few painful incidents last year. We’ve done an awful lot of investigation into that and there are some very big changes in Brixworth – right from the way we do our research, the way we approve steps forwards, the way we do our concept reviews, the way we confirm that development is appropriate, the way we work with suppliers, the way we manufacture bits ourselves, the way we assemble parts. So, the quality throughout the whole value chain has been lifted. On the particular topic you mention, there are about six design changes within the engine to improve that particular system – the bearing system – and probably three or four quality improvements in the way that the Power Unit’s assembled and then looked-after through its life.
Aldo Costa: Difficult to say what to expect. I think the stronger teams will do a better job than the smaller teams so I think the difference between strong teams and weaker teams will be about the same. I think there will be no possibility to have a closer fight.
We need to understand, we need to learn about overtaking – because these cars are fundamentally different from an aerodynamic point of view. They have not been particularly studied for, let’s say, overtaking improvement. So, we need to see how that will be. We know that the DRS effect may be smaller, so probably the FIA will have to increase the distance to make it as – or more – effective. So, we have to discover, all together, little by little, where we are in terms of racing. The cars, they are great from the aerodynamic point of view. They’ve got much more performance, they will be much faster, they look nicer – more aggressive, more modern. In terms of racing, we will have to learn about it as the F1 community.
Andy Cowell: We’ve had a connection with AMG going back to 2009. We started the SLS Electric Drive project which was transferring KERS battery technology across into high-performance road car applications. And ever since then we’ve had a group of engineers at Brixworth that do work both for AMG and also for the road car division. That’s grown ever since the new regulations came in for 2014.
Brixworth is a technology centre. The technology in Formula One is road-relevant. Road cars want high thermal efficiency power systems – whether that’s an engine, whether that’s an electric drive system. In Formula One we’ve got a great marriage between the two and there’s a big market for being able to optimise both together in the automotive world. So, there’s a wide variety of support being provided there – everything from drive-cycle simulation through to combustion research through to hardware delivery.
Andy Cowell: It’s a good question. It’s getting closer and closer with every upgrade. I don’t think we’re ever going to say exactly where we are. To win races, it’s not about a dyno-derby. If we were having a dyno-derby the powertrain would be completely different. We wouldn’t be bothered about volume or mass or heat rejection. The partnership that we’ve got means that we optimise every single system to come up with the fastest race car to win the race. It’s not just about qualifying, it’s not about the dyno-derby – it’s about winning the race and getting those 25 points. That’s what we spend our working lives – and a lot of our out-of-work lives – thinking about and what the whole team, both at Brackley and Brixworth, focus on.
Aldo Costa: As you know, we were one of the few teams to participate in the testing of the Pirelli tyres. Having said that, we don’t know exactly which tyres Pirelli will bring, from all the tests that we have done. We haven’t got that much direct information. We know what all the teams know in terms of the compound choice and the family of compounds. We’ve got a rough idea where they will be but we are not 100 per cent certain. Compared to the performance of the cars from the beginning of 2015, the target was to have cars faster by an average of five seconds. I think most of the teams will be on target.
At the end, it will depend on the tyre grip. If we have quite aggressive choices we can go even faster than five seconds compared to 2015, I think. We have to see, in terms of tyres. All the rest… we know the cars are heavier, so that’s a step backwards. The cars are wider, so a step forwards. Engine performance, powertrain performance, every year is progressing and there is the big aerodynamic change that brought a lot of performance. So, yes we are on target and we’ll see what the tyres are capable of delivering.
Aldo Costa: We have seen many pictures of other cars. From now until the first race we will have a continuous programme of evolution. As we have seen, the launch-spec was without the little T-wing and then we tested it and we will carry on in Barcelona, day-by-day, testing different configurations. We will have as well a longer tail configuration to be tested in combination with new rear wings for Melbourne. The car, in essence, from now to Melbourne, will change all the aerodynamic surfaces.