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What has gone wrong since Mercedes’ breakthrough in F1 Barcelona?

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Just three races ago, a package of changes introduced for the Barcelona race seemed to have transformed the pace of the W13.

The Mercedes had shown its strongest form of the season and Hamilton’s charge from behind to finish fifth left team boss Toto Wolff suggesting he had the fastest race car that day.

But any hope that Barcelona’s breakthrough marked a turning point in Mercedes’ battles to tame its 2022 challenger has quickly faded.

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Both Monaco and Baku have proven to be incredibly difficult for their drivers, with the excessive cheating that has always been present hurting them both in competitive terms and the literal pain Hamilton suffered in Azerbaijan.

Was Barcelona then a false dawn for Mercedes where circumstances flattered their car? Or were the last two races just not played in the areas the team was aware of?

The answer is actually a bit of both.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, in Parc Fermé

Photo by: Simon Galloway/Motorsport Images

engineering commitment

Mercedes’ battle this year has been to make its car work with ride-height and suspension settings that can have it as close to the ground as possible, but without triggering the porpoises and bouncing that annoy drivers and hurt its form.

Drive the car high and soft enough to alleviate the bounces and it’s not fast enough, but if you make it too low and too stiff the porpoise will take its revenge.

As track chief engineer Andrew Shovlin has explained, the battle between those two conflicting demands has been a perpetual headache.

“We realize that this is actually a very, very complicated problem,” he said. “It’s not something you can apply a resolution to and it’s gone and you can forget about it. It’s always going to be there: you have to design around it.”

“It may have taken longer than we would have thought, but I think the problem is that as you peel off the layers of onion, there are more layers of onion left behind. It’s a lot like that, the more you learn, the more you learn.” . Realize you don’t know.”

George Russell, Mercedes W13

George Russell, Mercedes W13

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar/Motorsport Images

Monaco and Baku factors

The crux of Mercedes’ problems is that its W13 produces its maximum downforce output when running very low to the ground.

And their ability to do so is aided when the ground itself is smooth and consistent, as it was in Barcelona.

So when the track surfaces are more uneven and bumpy, as they have been at Monaco and Baku, that bothers the W13 of being able to operate in its happy place.

What Mercedes doesn’t yet know is how much of the porpoise it suffers from is due to aerodynamic reasons and how much comes from its mechanical setup.

“It’s been a challenge,” admitted Shovlin. “And what we’ve faced here [in Baku] it has been very much a continuation of Monaco.

“We have made progress in Barcelona, ​​because we were going down the straights and everything was very nice, calm and comfortable for the drivers. But it seems that on the bumpy circuits, driving has become a problem.”

“You can’t exactly distill what is aerodynamic and what is mechanical ride and the link to suspension and damping compliance. But the bottom line is we have more work to do.”

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W13

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W13

Photo by: Andy Hone/Motorsport Images

The lessons of Barcelona

While Monaco and Baku have been difficult, the lessons learned from the weekend have served to emphasize why the Spanish GP weekend was such a good one.

And it goes beyond the fact that Barcelona is much softer than the two recent street venues.

What the GPS data from Barcelona showed was that when the W13 is in its happy place and working in the window where the porpoise doesn’t stop it, then it can do things that put even the Red Bull and Ferrari cars in the shadows.

Comparing the qualifying laps of George Russell, Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen from the Spanish GP, the Mercedes is fastest overall in various areas of the track.

He overcame the speed traps at the end of the main straight and the run into Turn 10, but what was most interesting was that he was ahead during Turn 3 on the high-speed right-hander, a spot that showcases the aerodynamic strengths of modern cars from F1.

All of this points to Mercedes performing better in high-speed corners (when the car doesn’t bounce) than in the low-speed corners that are more common in Monaco and Baku.

As Shovlin explains: “If you look at where we were making up for that performance in Spain, we were by a small margin quickest in a straight line. By a small margin we were quickest in the two fast corners. We weren’t good enough in slow speed.

“The picture we took from there was that we needed to work on slow speed. And then you get to Monaco and Baku, where there’s a lot of slow speed dominance there. Then along with that there are the driving issues.

“There will be tracks that suit us better than these. But for us, it’s not a case of waiting for those and worrying about the others. It’s a case of understanding the problem, let’s figure out how to improve it, because it’s clear that other teams have done a better job. “.

George Russell, Mercedes W13

George Russell, Mercedes W13

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar/Motorsport Images

roller coaster ride

What the lessons from Barcelona, ​​Monaco and Baku highlight is that Mercedes is unlikely to find a level of consistency with its performance just yet.

Bumpy tracks like Montreal this weekend will continue to be a headache until you find answers, while there should be reason for you to be optimistic about smooth high-speed tracks like Silverstone and Paul Ricard.

But Shovlin believes it would be a mistake for the team to simply pin its hopes on the schedule offering suitable spots. He is aware that Mercedes needs a car that works everywhere.

“What you would say coming from Monaco and Baku is that the differences we have seem to grow when we go to a bumpy circuit,” he said.

“When you look at what we’re dealing with, in terms of data, or you look at the on-board images and what the drivers have to deal with, you can see why that is.

“The car is not settled. It is not absorbing the bumps well. It is not sitting still on the straights, it moves a lot. So that image will evolve.”

“Montreal is not a smooth circuit, but maybe places like Ricard and Silverstone this car would work better. But even if we get to a smooth track, we are well aware that the base performance is not there at the moment either.” . We have to increase that.”

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W13

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W13

Photo by: Andy Hone/Motorsport Images

change of concept

The scale of the problems in Monaco and Baku has also reignited debate over Mercedes’ concept and whether it perhaps needs to revise things for 2023.

Team boss Toto Wolff said after the Baku race that there were no “sacred cows” in the car that would not be abandoned if the team felt better things could be done.

But for now, Shovlin says the focus is largely on getting engineering answers, as he plays down rumors that a change in pontoon shape, for example, would be a panacea to solve his problems.

“The driveability problems are unlikely to be due to the shape of the car’s body, as some of it is definitely mechanical.

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“If you have a car that generates downforce, closer to the road, so its peak is lower, then you have less room to play with. And you have to drive it inherently stiffer.”

“There are a lot of areas that we’re looking at. So I think it’s probably oversimplifying to say: all of a sudden we make a car that looks radically different and we’re heading in a different direction?

“The way we see it as engineers is that we’ll identify which areas are good enough and which aren’t. And we’ll work on those.

“At the moment, the list of areas that are not good enough is bigger than we would like. So we have to get stuck in dealing with that.”

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