Mercedes Technology Director Geoff Willis on the development process behind the champion team's new car for 2017
As Technology Director of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team since 2011, Geoff Willis has been a key part of the team's dominance of the World Championship since 2014. As Mercedes and the other teams approach pre-season track testing, Geoff shares his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities presented by this season's technical rule changes.
Boundless: Will the new technical regulations make for closer races? Do you expect to see a shake-up at the top of the leader board?
Geoff Willis (Mercedes F1): Every big change in regulations provides an opportunity to shake up the leader board and no team has ever maintained its competitiveness across a major rules change.
Our target for this year is to maintain our level – but we saw our rivals coming closer at the end of last season and we fully expect them to be right there at the beginning of this year.
When did the technical/design team start working on the 2017 Mercedes car?
We started working on concepts under the various 2017 regulation proposals from early in 2016. When, finally, the regulations were confirmed in early May, we really began our work in earnest. It has been a major focus since mid-way through 2016.
What are the biggest challenges and opportunities of the new technical regulations for your team?
There is opportunity everywhere – not only is the car wider overall with larger bodywork and wings, but there are new aerodynamic freedoms and, of course, much wider tyres. The result is a substantial increase in downforce and grip which changes the whole optimisation of the power unit and chassis.
The much higher loads take us into a new area of structural design, particularly for suspension. With a new set of regulations we can expect to see a wider range of solutions than usual at the start of the season and plenty of changes to follow.
It has been said that this year’s regulation and technical changes are some of the biggest since the 1980s? Why are they so significant?
This is probably the first time in decades that the rules have been changed to add performance rather than to limit it. Although there is still debate between the teams about the precise amount of downforce we will gain from the new rules, all teams agree that it will be very substantial.
With such a change in car performance we will need to revisit all of the design trade-offs we make despite the stability of the engine rules.
It is never easy to make historical comparisons between rule changes; each one throws up unique challenges. However a big rule change opens up many opportunities and it has been an enjoyable creative challenge to find the right solutions.
With all the regulation changes, do you think the restrictions on F1 testing will hinder development and would it help if they were relaxed for 2017?
The restrictions on track testing are probably more of a problem for Pirelli than the teams. When track testing was drastically reduced, the teams moved to factory-based test rigs and now we are moving quickly into the virtual world through the development of sophisticated simulation tools. This allows us to develop at a faster rate than ever before. I am sure we will see an extremely high rate of development this year.
[Photo: Nico Rosberg celebrates his world title win at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November, Mercedes' third consecutive Championship triumph]
The season starts with the fly-away races – what are the technical challenges of continuing to develop/improve a new car when you are such a long way from your HQ?
The development programme continues regardless of where the racing is! We are well used to the early part of the season happening far from the factory and success will be down to planning and preparation. It becomes more difficult if we have to face unexpected circumstances such as severe damage, because the parts stocks are inevitably quite low. But there is always a plan in place for that, too.
Drivers are saying that the cars will be harder to drive with all the design changes for 2017? Why is that the case?
They will be physically harder to drive than in the last few years because the cars will have higher grip due to the increased aero and the wider tyres. Cornering forces will be higher, especially in high-speed corners; more of which will be ‘flat’. The drivers will need to get used again to grip levels similar to those in the mid-2000s.
The new wider tyres have been tested extensively by Pirelli. From a technical aspect, what are your impressions of their performance so far and do you envisage any issues or challenges with them at the start of the season?
We were one of the teams selected to assist Pirelli’s track test development programme with our mule car. Although it gave Pirelli good data, the problem is that, despite some freedom to modify the mule cars, they were still not representative of the downforce level we expect this year.
The first time we run with ‘proper’ downforce levels will be during the pre-season testing so this will be very important. However the track conditions at Barcelona on a cold February morning will be far away from the conditions of Melbourne and Bahrain, so it will still be a big challenge for the teams to understand the tyres and be best placed with their car setup to exploit them in the early races.