‘War of the Wing’ Set to Take Center Stage in the Latest Fight Between Mercedes and Red Bull

Red Bull Racing believes they now understand why Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes GP were so fast in the Sao Paulo Grand Prix. The theory centers around the rear wing of Mercedes’ Formula 1 racer, specifically the mainplane, and its ability to deform on the track at high speeds.

If true, this would allow the Mercedes to gain a speed advantage over the Red Bull and is illegal according to the technical rules of the sport. Red Bull threatens to protest if it sees the same behavior in the rear wing during the Qatar Grand Prix that they noticed in Brazil.

Mercedes protested against Red Bull earlier in the season for a questionable rear wing that flexed under high-speed conditions, and now the ‘War of the Wing’ is set to take center stage for the season’s final races.

What does a flexing rear wing actually do for a race car?

A detailed shot of the rear wing of Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in parc ferme during the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil on November 14, 2021 | Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Formula 1 cars are incredibly complex and sit at the apex of state-of-the-art automotive engineering. The aerodynamic principles designed into the race cars are so advanced that teams go to great lengths to conceal their secrets. Most of the more specialized design elements are cleverly obscured with unique matte paint. This makes them harder to see in photos and when standing trackside. But, that trick does not always hide what the engineers are up to, and every team in the paddock pays attention to what the competition is doing. 

When it comes to the rear wing, there are a lot of parts that go into the design, but the main pieces are the two elements on the assembly. There is a lower and upper element, sometimes referred to as a mainplane (lower element) and the flap (upper element). The lower element is stationary and is not allowed to move or flex beyond a certain point. The upper element moves only when the Drag Reduction System (DRS) is active. The DRS opens the upper element, removing downforce from the rear of the car. That translates to high top speeds on the straights as less downforce reduces drag, and aerodynamic drag slows the car. 

Mercedes’ protest against Red Bull centered around the entire wing assembly (both components) flexing in a way that reduced drag on the straights. The FIA issued a ruling that forced Red Bull to change its wing design. Red Bull believes that Mercedes has found a clever trick that allows the lower element to flex, flattening on the straights, which increases their top speed. Because only the lower element flexes, and by a small amount, it is almost impossible to see it happen while the car is on track.

Red Bull cites what it believes to be scoring around the lower wing element on the Mercedes as evidence that the wing is flexing more than it should. This would constitute a violation of the regulations and be a significant advantage for Mercedes GP.

Red Bull Racing’s team principal Christian Horner think Mercedes is not complying with the rules

Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner and Sergio Perez talk in the garage during practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Qatar on November 19, 2021 | Mark Thompson/Getty Images

During the official Friday Formula 1 press conference, Christian Horner, as quoted by The-Race.com, had this to say, “The straight-line speeds we’ve seen in Mexico and Brazil – I mean, I think everybody could see in Brazil it was not a normal situation. And yes, there was a new engine with the Mercedes that came with increased performance.

“But when you have a 27 kph closing speed, and you see marks on rear wing endplates that have been marking up from wings that have been flexing, it’s very clear to us what has been going on.”

When asked about the possibility of filing a protest against the Mercedes car, Horner said, “Would I protest? Yeah, absolutely. If we believe the car is not in compliance, we will protest.

“It’s down to the FIA to make sure that the cars are in compliance. If they’re not, you protest if you believe that a competitor isn’t complying with the rules.”

How would Mercedes’ rear wing affect the rest of the season?

Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes W12 during practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Qatar on November 19, 2021 | Lars Baron/Getty Images

Red Bull has stated that they will protest if the rear wing is giving Mercedes an unfair advantage. If that happens, the FIA will need to investigate and determine if the wing is legal or not. If it is legal, then Red Bull will have to scramble to come up with a solution of their own, to match the straight-line performance of the Mercedes. Should the FIA find that the wing is illegal, Mercedes will have to change the design. They could also face fines and have points taken away if the FIA suspects cheating.

The final three races of the season are all at tracks that have high average speeds. This would favor Mercedes GP and their wing design, giving them a clear advantage in the fight for the championship. If the Mercedes team has to change the rear wing, it could hand the advantage back to Red Bull. 

Either outcome is possible and will make an already intense and tight championship battle all the more interesting. With 14 points separating Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, both teams will be trying to squeeze every last ounce of performance from their cars, and if that doesn’t work, protest the other to gain an advantage.

Related: Formula 1 Cold War: Red Bull Racing Adviser Helmut Marko is ‘On the Case’ in Proving Lewis Hamilton’s Team is Breaking Some Regulations; Mercedes’ Toto Wolff is ‘Asking A Lot of Questions’