To say it’s been a fall from grace for Mercedes would be an understatement. The German team were nearly untouchable in the turbo-hybrid era between 2014 and 2021. Such was their dominance that, from 2014 till 2021, they won all the Constructors’ titles, with only the 2021 Drivers’ title eluding them. Lewis Hamilton wiped the floor with the rest of the grid during that period. Apart from Nico Rosberg’s win in 2016 and Max Verstappen’s controversial triumph in 2021, Hamilton won a stunning six titles with the German team. To put it simply, Mercedes were the benchmark for all the other teams and had a dominance that had previously been unheard of.
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Enter the COVID pandemic that threw everyone’s plans out of the window. The new regulations were initially supposed to come into effect from the 2021 season, but due to the pandemic the new regulations era got pushed back to 2022.
As the new regulations were introduced, there was only one question on everyone’s minds: would Mercedes still dominate the entire grid, or would the new regulations see multiple teams fighting? Pre-season testing got underway in Barcelona, as it has been for the last few years, and the early signs weren’t great for the German team. Mercedes were only the third- or fourth-fastest, and even the team admitted that they were lacking pace. Generally, people would take note of such a statement, but the “we are not fast enough” statement isn’t one that fans and pundits fall for anymore. Almost every year, for the last four to five years, Mercedes have been sandbagging at the pre-season tests, only to then leave the entire grid behind. Mercedes indeed weren’t on the pace in Barcelona, and even when we got to Bahrain, the signs weren’t looking positive for the Brackley-based team. They were horribly off the pace, with Red Bull and Ferrari looking far quicker than them. Were the German team playing a massive bluff or were they actually off the pace?
As the 2022 season got underway in Bahrain, Mercedes’ pace deficit became quite clear, right from the practice sessions.
The new regulations have seen the reintroduction of ground effect, which is something the German team have struggled with. Along with that, Mercedes’ biggest problem, from the start of the season right up until this weekend’s race in Azerbaijan, has been porpoising.
Porpoising is an effect which sees the car bounce due to a ground effect downforce. The downforce increases rapidly as the speed increases and there is a low pressure underneath the floor that sucks the car to the ground. The underfloor aero then stops and then the car rises again due to the downforce reducing briefly, and then it is sucked down again. The cycle keeps on repeating and the car keeps bouncing.
The porpoising effect hasn’t just been faced by Mercedes. Almost all teams have faced the issue, but none have been hit harder by it than Mercedes. Despite being seven races into the season, Mercedes are yet to find a solution for it. They thought they had taken a step in the right direction in Spain, but the issue was back in Monaco the following race. Both their drivers once again complained about it on Friday in Baku during the practice sessions. The German team currently have an average pace deficit of over 1% compared to the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull.
One might be thinking: why is it so hard for a team like Mercedes to get on top of an issue which seemingly most of the teams have figured out?
Well, it’s not impossible, but it does come at a cost: performance. To change the setup, Mercedes would need to compromise on downforce, which means lap time as well. They can try to raise the ride height a bit since it could reduce the aerodynamic effectiveness and in turn also reduce the level of the overall downforce of the car through venting low pressure, but one can’t run the car too low either in the rolling belt or in the windtunnel. Given that Formula One has put a cost cap and there is limited testing time, Mercedes have neither the cash to try out a lot of different setups nor the time to test them.
A radical change Mercedes also went with in the new regulations era was introducing a zero pod design. They went overboard with reducing the bodywork surfaces in an attempt to reduce drag, but that hasn’t paid off yet.
Another issue which Mercedes face, which was evident in Monaco, was that of riding the kerbs, which is related to their rear suspension setup, which has been labelled ‘too stiff’. The new 18-inch wheel rims, and shallow-sidewall tyres, are very stiff and the suspension must allow more movement through compensation, but Mercedes haven’t seem to have found that balance between tyre and suspension movement yet. They could run a more aggressive suspension setup, but that would have the car bouncing along the track; they would also lose out on control.
Mercedes could try to increase the tyre pressure by making the tyres stiffer, but, while going over the bump it would be absorbed by the suspension, it would also run the risk of losing tyre grip, something the German team can’t afford.
There simply is no quick fix, which is what team boss Toto Wolff meant when he said that there was ‘no magic bullet’. For a long time, Mercedes could not find any solution for the porpoising mainly because they couldn’t comprehend the problem.
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At the season-opener in Bahrain, Mercedes were off the pace from the start and behind the front-runners of Ferrari and Red Bull. Thanks to a double Red Bull retirement, Hamilton managed to squeeze in a podium in the opening race.
The next race in Saudi Arabia, however, was worse, as Hamilton got knocked out in Q1 while George Russell started P6, more than a second behind the Red Bull pole-sitter. Seven retirements saw Hamilton manage to just about finish in the points at P10, while Russell managed P5, 22 seconds behind fourth-placed Sergio Pérez of Red Bull.
In Australia, one Ferrari and Red Bull retirement each saw Mercedes once again manage a podium finish, with Russell taking home his maiden Mercedes podium while Hamilton finished fourth. Even though it might look like a good result on paper, both Mercedes drivers were almost 30 seconds behind race-winner Charles Leclerc.
In Imola, Hamilton finished outside the points, in thirteenth, while Russell pulled his car to another top-five finish, even though he was way off the pace compared to the front-runners.
It wasn’t much different in Miami, with the two Mercedes drivers finishing fifth and sixth, once again failing to keep up with the front-runners.
Now, after the initial struggles, Mercedes did bring about a host of changes to the Spanish Grand Prix, which saw Lewis Hamilton showcase stunning pace on Sunday and recover to a brilliant fifth after falling back to the end of the grid following a first-lap contact with Haas’ Kevin Magnussen.
In Spain, Mercedes got major changes done to the floor of their car. The underfloor was shaped like the venturi tunnel, and there was a heightened section near the inboard. The floor edge also had a couple of pick-ups for stiffening rods, which was most likely put to restrict the flexibility of the floor to control the bouncing. The increased height helped the team combat some of the bouncing issues, and Hamilton even stated in Spain that it was the first time in the season he had driven on the straights without bouncing, although the bouncing wasn’t completely gone. Other changes that the German team brought about in Spain were the front wing endplate design changes, which were curved inboard to help improve flow to the back of the car and also a new deflector endplate, which was much lower to help improve performance from the diffuser.
As we reached Monaco, all the pace found in Spain was gone, and Mercedes were once again struggling. Hamilton could only qualify P8, while Russell managed two better at P6. The race was equally tough for both cars; while Russell lacked the pace to keep up with the front-runners, Hamilton was stuck behind his former teammate and double World Champion Fernando Alonso for the majority of the race and could only finish P8, three places below his teammate. He did say after the race, though, that it wasn’t a surprise that they struggled in Monaco. Why was it so?
In Monaco, what the team suffered from was bouncing once again, but not exactly porpoising. The Mercedes car in the Principality did not have enough suspension compliance which could keep it on the ground, which also led to a very rigid and stiff aerodynamic platform for the team. Even though they tried to maximise the downforce, the nature of the track in Monaco didn’t help that at all. The street circuit with low-speed corners saw the car just ram into the ground all over the bumps at the various corners, and with a lack of compliance in the suspension, the car was extremely hard to handle for both the Mercedes drivers.
Another change Mercedes had made in their set-up coming into the Monaco GP was going back to the setup they used before Miami, which was aimed at providing both Hamilton and Russell with more control over the front end given the tight corners of Monaco. Even though that frontwing might have helped the drivers to an extent, it did more damage than help. This over-dependence on the front end meant the rear end was lost and Hamilton himself stated after qualifying in Monaco that the car had basically no rear end.
One step forward, two steps back?
Well, not really, the main factor here are Monaco and Azerbaijan, two tracks where the Silver Arrows haven’t particularly done well, which doesn’t suit their car either. For them to be successful in Baku, they can either opt to go high rake and lose downforce or go low rake and risk losing car control. Given the tight corners in Baku, it’s probably not a good idea to compromise on car control.
In Baku, following the practice session, both Hamilton and Russell complained of the bouncing returning to such a level that it was physically affecting them. Baku most likely will be yet another uncompetitive weekend for the German team, and don’t get too excited about the race in Montreal either. The upgrades that Mercedes brought in Spain will most likely show their true colour in Silverstone, the race after Canada and a race at a more ‘orthodox’ track. The slow corners of Baku and Montreal will most likely see the Brackley-based team struggle once again.
Whether Mercedes have finally addressed that porpoising issue, without which they did have impressive pace on the straights in Spain, and whether they could return to the front of the grid if given the right setup, are questions that will most likely be answered on July 3. Till then, it is important to keep a close eye on the minor updates and upgrades they decide upon and check the outcome of those.
Even though they have struggled to truly unlock the potential of their car, Mercedes still sit third in the Constructors’ standings, well clear of McLaren who are fourth. These results, though, aren’t what Mercedes are looking for. They have been the ones who set the benchmark for the last eight years, and anything other than the top spot is unacceptable at Brackley.
It will be daft to say that Mercedes will be winning races and dominating the field once again like they used to inside two races’ time, but the upgrades in Spain did show that there is competitiveness inside that W13, and it’s up to the team to find it and unleash it.
By the looks of it, currently, Mercedes should be winning races or at least fighting for the wins in 2022, but I expect that to actually happen only during the final third of the season.