Struggling Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton Championship, Bahrain Grand Prix, Red Bull Racing
If Formula 1 awarded points based on how strongly a team denies having a fast car, Mercedes would already be on course for the 2022 championship.
This is Mercedes’ great unrecognized strength. More than building championship-winning machines, the Brackley team are adept at insisting they’re not the favorite heading into the first race.
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Let’s take a look back at some of Hamilton’s pre-season assessments from years past.
The 2021 claim“I wouldn’t necessarily call it a struggle, [we’re] just not fast enough.
The 2021 result: Mercedes wins constructors’ title; Hamilton controversially loses the Drivers’ Championship in the final round of the season.
The 2020 claim“Normally in pre-season testing we have a lot more confidence in reliability… so it’s definitely not an easy or relaxed scenario for us.”
The 2020 result: Mercedes and Hamilton win the championships with four and three rounds remaining respectively.
The claim 2019: “I think [Ferrari’s advantage] is potentially half a second… I have no reason to expect it to go down.
The 2019 result: Mercedes wins title with four rounds remaining; Hamilton wins the championship with two rounds to spare. Ferrari wins three of the 21 races.
In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2018 to get even a shred of optimism from Hamilton after pre-season testing.
“Where are we compared to others, I don’t know. But I feel strong right now,” he said. Sure enough, he and Mercedes were champions at the end of the season.
So you can understand why the team that cried loser was met with widespread skepticism for saying they were on their backs this time at the end of pre-season testing.
“I don’t think we’ll be competing for wins,” Hamilton said at the end of the test. “Obviously [in Bahrain] we will see our pace much better, but I think people will be surprised.
“People keep saying we put each other down, but it’s a little different this year.”
So is it justified to think that things are really worse this year than last?
WHY THESE STRUGGLES ARE DIFFERENT FROM PAST YEARS
References to Mercedes’ struggles last year have been rife, but this year and last aren’t quite the same. During testing in 2021, the team struggled to adapt to small rule changes aimed at controlling downforce, with those changes punishing more severely the aero philosophy favored by the German marque.
Basically, this created an imbalance in the car, which the team managed to correct enough to win three of the first four races, including three of the four pole positions. And the further the season went, the faster the box got until it won the constructors’ title.
His pre-season struggles were real, but they weren’t as damnable as the team suggested.
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It’s a bit more instructive to consider 2019, the last time Mercedes brought a radically different aero package to the second half of pre-season testing – and then, as now, struggled to figure it out.
Progress was slow, but it was obvious, and by the end of the final day the lap times clearly showed that Mercedes had figured out the aero kit and were ready to compete. The team dominated the season.
But the rule changes this year are incomparably huge compared to 2019, and so the learning curve is much steeper to overcome. The signs of progress this year haven’t been as strong as they were in 2019.
THE MAREPOISON PROBLEM
At the heart of the matter is porpoising, the preseason buzzword. It is the phenomenon by which, at high speeds, the car is so downforce-laden that it hugs the track surface, at which point the aerodynamic floor stalls. The car suddenly loses downforce and bounces off its suspension, at which point the ground starts to create downforce again and sucks itself towards the surface, and it repeats like this.
Porpoising can be cured through a combination of several compromises. You can increase the ride height, sacrificing downforce for stability; you can stiffen up the already very strong suspension, but then this prevents drivers from rolling over curbs and increases the risk of the wheels locking up; or you can modify the floor to produce less downforce in the first place. Some teams have resorted to attaching guy wires—essentially large staples—to the ground to keep it from flexing and create maximum downforce at high speeds.
Most teams have successfully battled porpoising in Barcelona, and because no one brought an update as aggressively as Mercedes did in Bahrain, their solutions held in the desert.
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Instead, Mercedes had to deal with the problem again with its new aero kit, which clearly piled more downforce on the car – generally a good thing, but not yet able to be harnessed effectively.
It took until the last afternoon of testing to negate the worst of the porpoises, but it came at the expense of accessing some of that downforce. As a result, his lap times were way off – although test times aren’t everything – with George Russell less than a second behind Max Verstappen’s scorching final time.
“We made a bit of progress with the rebound, which made the car less harsh on the limit,” said Andrew Shovlin, director of ground engineering for Mercedes. “It also feels like we’ve taken a step in the right direction with today’s settings.
“There’s still a lot of pace to come if we can make further gains on the rebound and make the car more stable.”
So unlike last year when the car could be pushed to its limits with a few setup tweaks, and unlike 2019 when the rule changes were relatively easier to understand, this year the problem is new and will take more time to solve.
Mercedes could still find its approach to the rules inherently difficult to master and offers a car with an operating window that is too narrow to operate on most circuits, something that will only become clear when the sport visits a wider variety of tracks.
But if there are reasons Hamilton was shot at the end of practice, we shouldn’t pretend that Mercedes won’t be a title contender this year, even if it takes time to arrive.
The hint is in Shovlin’s last line: “There’s still a lot of rhythm to come.” The downforce that gives the performance is clearly in the car – in fact, at the moment, there’s too much to manage. The better the team understands its package, the more downforce it can use and the faster it will become against Red Bull Racing.
Also consider that there were well-founded suspicions in the paddock that Mercedes was running its engine pretty low. The silver car was deep in the speed trap, and you may have seen one of the many speed traces doing the laps in line showing Mercedes in full power well before the end of the straights compared to Ferrari or Red Bull Racing.
And finally, don’t forget this is Mercedes, winners of eight consecutive constructors’ championships through several rule changes. The team doesn’t need to exaggerate its problems to come into the first lap with a fast enough car; he was always good enough to overcome problems in record time.
Expect Mercedes to be in contention for the podium at least in Bahrain, and if wins aren’t on the cards this weekend, don’t bet against them sooner rather than later.
“Obviously the Red Bull are looking ridiculously fast right now, and the Ferraris,” Hamilton said this week at Expo 2020 Dubai. “But we are the best team, without a doubt.”