Race Weekend Central

Objects in Mirror: The Mercedes-AMG W11 Is the Fastest F1 Car of All Time

Welcome to Objects in Mirror, a bi-weekly column from Jack Swansey that brings you the history of the greatest racecars, fables of crushing dominance and lovable underdogs, tales of what happens when brilliant minds find genius loopholes in regulations, when old dogs stick to their guns long after everyone else has given up, or visionary dares dream of dreaming but flying too close to the sun. Ultimately, these are the stories of the people who designed, built and raced these cars right into the history books.

Since its introduction in 1902, the company that is now Mercedes-Benz has had the same slogan: “the best, or nothing.”

At the end of 2019 (117 years later), the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 team looked nigh-on unstoppable. Drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg had locked out every Drivers’ title since the introduction of the turbo-hybrid formula in 2014, and the team had just equaled Scuderia Ferrari’s record for consecutive Constructors’ championships at six.

What’s more, Hamilton sat at second on the all-time Grand Prix wins list with 84, just eight victories behind Michael Schumacher’s all-time record. He’d beaten teammate Valtteri Bottas to the 2019 driver’s title by 87 points and outscored the best non-Mercedes driver by a whopping 135.

With stats like that, Mercedes could have rested on its laurels and showed up with little more than a copy of the previous season’s W10. But as belies its slogan, the world’s oldest automaker refused to settle for anything less than the best. 

But when the F1 circus descended upon the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya for preseason testing in February 2020, the buzz in the paddock at testing wasn’t about Mercedes at all, at least not at first. Not beholden to some century-old slogan, the Racing Point team had arrived with a near-perfect copy of the year-old W10, a car quickly nicknamed the “pink Mercedes” due to its BWT livery.

The Racing Point was fast, fast enough for Sergio Perez to place the car third on the timing charts at the end of the first day. But the real Mercedes, the two Mercedes-AMG W11 EQ Performances driven by Hamilton and Bottas, locked down the top two spots. 

And then, after proving it had brought the fastest car, on day two of testing, Mercedes-AMG blew everybody’s minds. Exiting the final turn, then-six-time World Champion Hamilton pulled on the steering wheel of the W11 – it actually moved towards him – and the toe angle of the car’s front wheels changed.

Imagine standing straight up, with your toes pointed directly forward. Now, rotate your heels so your toes are facing out at a 45-degree angle. Now imagine that instead of your feet, those are the front tires of a Formula 1 race car, and you’re heading down the pit straight at Barcelona at over 170 mph. That’s the toe angle. Having the tires face straight forward adds a speed and stability advantage on the straights, but adding toe angle (splaying the tires outward) can help a car corner faster. 

Immediately, everyone assumed Hamilton and Bottas would be adjusting DAS (dual-axis steering, the name Mercedes gave to its hydraulic toe-adjustment method) several times per lap, taking advantage of the relevant strengths of toe-in and toe-out to maximize time on the straights and corners, respectively. 

But that wasn’t the plan. You see, as Road & Track motorsport editor Fred Smith explained, Mercedes designed the W11 for maximum durability of the temperamental Pirelli tires, but they’d overshot the mark. Adding in the tire scrub – the energy lost when running toe-out in a straight line – the W11 was too good at keeping its tires cool, to the point that the Mercedes drivers would struggle to get the tires warm enough to stick to the track. So DAS was developed only to warm the tires to their ideal operating temperature on warm-up and Safety Car laps. 

When the Pirellis got cold, Hamilton and Bottas could pull their steering wheels to decrease toe angle, and warm them up. When the tires were nice and toasty, they could push the wheel forward and return the W11 to its racing setup before the track went green.

The other teams complained (as F1 teams are wont to do), but the FIA stood firm. Mercedes would be allowed to run DAS in every race in 2020, starting with the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, scheduled for March 15.

I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you what happened next. As the international community was forced to respond to the viral disease spreading rapidly across the world, the globe-trotters of F1 fled Australia and spent the next several months inside. But finally, on July 5th, behind closed doors at the Red Bull Ring, the 2020 F1 season got underway.

With a new black livery intended to highlight Mercedes’ push to increase diversity among its staff, the W11 won in its very first start, with Bottas taking victory as Hamilton collided late with Red Bull driver Alex Albon

Hamilton won the next three in a row, and 11 of the next 14. Bottas won a second time at the Russian Grand Prix, leaving the W11’s record at an incredible 13 wins from 17 races and 25 total podium finishes across both drivers. Hamilton tied Schumacher’s wins record at the Eifel Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, and broke it one week later in Portugal. With his victory in treacherous conditions at the Turkish Grand Prix, Hamilton became the second driver ever to win seven F1 World Championships. Even George Russell, then a Williams driver, got the chance to drive the W11 in the Sakhir Grand Prix, replacing Hamilton after the World Champion tested positive for Covid. Russell qualified the car second and leading much of the race before punctures and pit stop errors took both him and Bottas out of contention.

The car only had one weakness, and despite what the development focus on extending tire life might suggest, it wasn’t a single-lap pace. Far, far from it. The W11 scored 15 pole positions across the season, and of the 14 tracks that hosted Grand Prix racing in 2020, it still holds the overall lap record at 12 of them. 

Due to the unique nature of that season’s Covid-afflicted calendar, and a raft of recent track layout changes aimed at improving overtaking, only six of those circuits remain on the calendar as they were just four years ago. The W11 still holds the lap record at all six.

No, the Mercedes-AMG W11’s only weakness even adds to its iconic status. In dirty air, the car’s 1.6-liter single-turbo V6 combustion engine tended to overheat because Mercedes were so sure the car they were designing would dominate races from the front that they designed the cooling system, assuming the W11 would never have to pass another car.

At the Italian Grand Prix, when Bottas dropped to eighth on the first lap and Hamilton took a drive-through penalty, neither Mercedes driver could recover to better than fifth.

“I couldn’t follow any cars,” Bottas told F1 Media after the race. “I had to manage, lift and coast, I couldn’t [use the] tow much… I had to pull off [the throttle]”.

It really was just in traffic – the W11 didn’t struggle at Autodromo Monza in clean air. In fact, Hamilton’s final qualifying lap that weekend, at an average speed of 164.266 mph, stands as the fastest single lap in Formula 1 history. As F1 continues to reduce downforce with each subsequent regulations change, it is likely that record will stand tall for many years to come.

Watch that lap here, one minute, 18.889 seconds of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes at the height of their domination.

About the author

Jack Swansey primarily covers open-wheel racing for Frontstretch and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast, but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.

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