Mercedes's Trick Sidepods Are the Whole Point of F1 Testing

Whether or not they plan to remove the sidepods, Mercedes has unlocked the fascinating joy of preseason testing.

auto prix f1 bahrain test

Earlier this week, Mercedes made a splash when it showed up to F1's second preseason test with a radically different car than the one they had tested the week prior. The W13 they debuted last month already had one of the most radical sidepod treatments in the field, but the car being tested in Bahrain today went a step further: The car has almost no sidepods at all. Instead, it has small grille openings further back on the bodywork, and big side crash protection spikes protruding from either side of the tub.

The change hasn't actually been good yet, mind you. F1 testing times don't particularly matter, reigning manufacturers' champions Mercedes have not yet led a session with their new W13 evolution. Lewis Hamilton noted the car is particularly tough to drive with or without the sidepod treatment, too. It may be that this experiment is something that does not significantly alter the car's performance, or that this is something that carries too big of a risk to actually take into any race weekend. But, whether or not this experiment sees the track, we see a team deciding to actually test a radical new idea, on a track, in plain view of all competition, to see whether or not it works in the real world.

That is what F1 testing is all about. In a petri dish where you cannot take the lap times seriously and total lap count only tells you which cars have catastrophic problems to solve before the first race, these sessions should be used to try radical new experiments. Some of those, like the Williams FW26 with a walrus nose, are destined to be abandoned mid-season for more traditional cars that work in more traditional ways. Others, like the "double" diffuser on the Brawn BGP 001, initially developed as a Honda, reshape whole seasons. The Mercedes sidepod design is not likely to do either thing, but it provides intrigue that is so rare in racing today.

By introducing a car with such a radical cooling solution (and looks to match, Mercedes has given us hope that F1 is still an open-enough box for teams to innovate on a week-by-week basis. For most of the past two decades, many of the cars in the field have looked interchangeable. So simply trying something this aggressive is worth celebrating.

Mercedes's tone throughout testing suggests Ferrari has passed them by, but that they're still on equal footing with Red Bull. Take that with a grain of salt. The general tone of every testing session in Formula 1 history seems to follow suit: a great team thinks they have been passed by a good team that was not particularly competitive the year before. We'll see where the actual balance of power lies when F1 gets back to racing at Bahrain next weekend, whether or not Mercedes brings their ambitious new sidepods.

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