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Road to W12: What’s Going On at Brackley?

We don’t have long to wait until the official unveiling of the Mercedes-AMG F1 W12 E Performance and our 2021 challenger’s first on-track outing. And with the clock well and truly counting down... the factories in Brackley and Brixworth are incredibly busy!

But, what goes in at the factories at this time of the year? We recently caught up with James Allison, our Technical Director, to find out what’s happening in Brackley right now and why this is arguably one of the busiest periods of the entire year.

So, we’re just a few weeks out from everyone getting their first look at the W12, how is everything progressing in Brackley and what’s being worked on at this stage, in the build-up to the new season?

James: It is a strange year this one. It feels like it’s going smoothly back here, and we hope it is going smoothly, but it’s such a different start to the year for us. So, there is a little part of us just nagging away in the back of our heads going: have we forgotten something?

Because, unlike in a normal year, where we would have a billion new bits all streaming in from all four corners of the earth to put together the new car right at the last minute, this year is a little different. That’s because much of what we are going to launch with the W12 has already seen action on the track in 2020.

So, instead of having all that new inventory being tested, put into sub-assemblies and then put onto the real car, we have instead got more of a management job to make sure our stock levels are right, we are putting all the things we need to in the right places and we are testing the things that have changed - rather than the entire car.

And because that’s such a change of rhythm, it does make us worry have we missed something? We are busy, of course, double and triple checking we haven’t missed anything, so by the time things are ready to be put on planes and sent off to the tracks, we don’t have any embarrassing omissions.

There’s obviously a lot going on at the factory right now, but how would you sum up the atmosphere and mood within the walls at Brackley, ahead of this new season? Is it any different to previous seasons?

James: Although it is an unusual year, with COVID forcing on us a whole bunch of different rhythms, there are still some things that just don’t change. We are coming up to a new season, we’ve got all the fun and excitement ahead of us of finding out whether the work we have done is sufficient to produce a competitive car and that excitement is always matched by another emotion, which is anxiety.

And that’s because we exist for one purpose: produce a racing car that is capable of fighting at the front and hopefully securing wins and championships. At this stage of the year, you hope you have done enough work but we’re never certain until the cars are actually on a track doing it for real.

So, alongside all that excitement is the fear and that fear is nagging away continuously at you, the moment you open your eyes in the morning all the way through the day until you go to bed at night. That fear of not doing enough.

Although it can be a bit wearing, that fear is part of the cocktail of excitement that is being part of Formula One and it is something that you learn to live with over the seasons. But it’s always felt at its most sharp, at this time of year.

What have been the key challenges we’ve encountered over these winter months, since the end of the 2020 season?

James: Every part of the company at this time of year is very, very busy so it seems difficult to actually pick out a single thing or even a small number of things as particularly challenging. But I guess if I had to pick one, then I would focus on the changes to the aerodynamic regulations because they came relatively late in the year and they have quite a significant impact on the car’s performance.

Much of our focus over the last weeks and months has been trying to understand what the effect of those changes have on the main flow fields around the car and how to try to find back the performance that is lost when you first adopt those new regulations.

So, a very intense period in the wind tunnel and in our computational aerodynamic facility to try and understand how to get that performance back on the car. And then once we made that improvement in the Aero department, we then need to translate that into components that are built full-sized and put on the car in time for the new season.

The way we’ve worked has changed massively over the last 12 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so what impact has that had on the actual design, build and manufacture of the W12?

James: I think for us, as it is for everybody else working in a pandemic, it hasn’t been much fun, but I do think we’ve been particularly lucky - in a couple of regards. Firstly, the sport did take some sensible decisions last year that allowed us to build a new car without having to go right back to a clean sheet of paper, in a way that we would normally do when approaching a new car project.

That means lots of aspects of the car we’ve been able to carry over from material we already possessed, so things like the chassis and the gearbox to name just two of them. And that has taken a lot of the burden away from us, not to have to do absolutely everything that we would do in a normal car build.

But the other thing that we are very fortunate with is that we have good facilities here and space. Space that has allowed us to spread out and get the sort of social distancing that we needed, in order to keep everyone safe while trying to build the new car. So, while it lacked some of the colour and fun that we might have normally had over the winter - while we are doing everything absolutely full steam ahead with a normal type of car build - we have been lucky that we’ve had an environment and a task that has been manageable even under the constraints imposed on us by the pandemic.

And a huge regulation change for 2021 has been the introduction of the cost cap, so what challenges has that presented us with?

James: 2021 is a big year for the entire sport. It’s the first year of the new financial regulations, the so-called cost cap. A set of regulations that forces the budgets of the big teams down to meet that of the midfield, and where we all basically have the same financial firepower to go about prosecuting the championship. And that has been a very interesting change here inside Mercedes, because we are one of the bigger teams in Formula One and so we had to figure out how we can operate our championship assault with far less financial resource than we might have had previously.

This means figuring out how we can make components on our car to last longer, how to build them more cheaply and how to make sure we maintain the same sort of performance that we did previously, despite the fact that our overall budget has come down. It’s a huge challenge and building the car is only part of it. We then have to operate the car, develop the car, we have to do the entire season with all the uncertainties that we face in terms of how often it might crash, or how reliable components are and then need resources spent to fix that.

Probably the biggest weapon we could possibly have to attack these new financial regulations in a good way would be to launch with a car that is fast from the beginning, because a car that is fast from the beginning is going to be cheaper to stay quick during the whole season. So, let’s hope that we’ve put enough goodness into the car at the beginning of the year, to allow our plans to unfold in a way that sees us operating at a high level under this new constraint, where we are fighting with exactly the same guns as everybody else.

And we also need to have an eye on the 2022 regulations, too, so how is that project progressing with such major regulation changes coming into force?

James: The season hasn’t even begun yet, no car is even launched, no one has turned a wheel and yet we’re already starting to think very seriously about 2022. Next year brings a complete revolution in the technical regulations of the car. The sort of things we have seen racing for the last few seasons will be dead and gone at the end of this year, replaced instead by a new generation of car, which has a completely different technical objective - to try and make the racing closer, by making the lead car damage the performance of the trailing car less.

This change is so large and the cars so different, that we are going to have to spend a large part of our technical resource during 2021 in order to make sure that we are ready, with a good car that can then see us in decent shape for the years that follow in 2022 and beyond.

So, we are busy doing that, in a world where we are cost capped, where we haven’t yet started racing in 2021 and where we have to manage our total resource so that we can have an effective campaign in 2021, whilst also building for the future and this exciting new set of 2022 regulations.

Find out what’s going on right now at Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains with our factory update with Hywel Thomas in Brixworth!