In an effort to change the handling characteristics of the W01 chassis, Mercedes will introduce a longer wheelbase to the car in time for the Barcelona grand prix in two weeks’ time. While this is thought, in part, to be part of the natural evolution of the car, which has thus far underperformed, it’s also a deliberate effort to make the car more to Michael Schumacher’s liking.
Schumacher has struggled during the first four races of his comeback season, and has been unable to attain his former level of dominance. He’s been consistently outpaced by his younger team mate, Nico Rosberg.
Schumacher is known for preferring a “nervous” car, i.e. one that tends to oversteer. The Mercedes W01, unfortunately, is inherently prone to understeer, largely due to the new technical specifications in place for 2010 (narrower front tires and heavier fuel loads).
As reported in The Sunday Times, team boss Ross Brawn said, “Our car does not have enough front downforce. New regulations have made the front tyres narrower, which means you need to generate more downforce at the front than before. Michael needs to be able to lean heavily on the front of the car to make his driving style work.”
A longer wheelbase should change the aerodynamics of the car: the velocity of airflow over the front of the monocoque will be increased, which will enhance downforce on the front wing. This should make the W01 more responsive to turn input. An anonymous former F1 technicial director recently told The Times, “Michael always liked a car with a positive turn-in. He was at his fastest with no understeer. If a car inherently understeers then you can only get it balanced by artificially degrading the rear grip. This means less overall grip and Michael’s car in Shanghai had visibly awful traction, making me suspect that he has screwed up the rear just to try and get it to turn in.”
Whatever the limitations of the W01 in its current form, one thing that’s clear is that Nico Rosberg has had an easier time coming to grips with it than Schumacher has. One reason for this is that Rosberg finds understeer more congenial to his natural driving style.
It’s also true that, while Rosberg has had to adjust to a new car and team in 2010, Schumacher has had to make the larger adjustment of returning to racing at the pinnacle of motorsport after a three year layoff. Realistic or not, expectations regarding Schumi’s performance have been inevitably high. The races to come will tell us whether he’s able to deliver.