Hamilton needs right F1 car to unlock his talent. Will Mercedes listen? - MPH
Mercedes has the most successful driver in F1 history but Lewis Hamilton says it's not listening to his requests on car development, writes Mark Hughes. Can the team deliver a machine that allows him to fully exploit his ability?
Lewis Hamilton finished 50 seconds behind a cruising Max Verstappenin Bahrain last week. Straight out of the car afterwards, as the new Mercedes’ scale of deficit had been laid bare, he wasn’t holding back as he was interviewed by the BBC. You could hear long months of frustration being released, as he finally vented: “Last year, there were things I told them, I said the issues that are with the car – like, I’ve driven so many cars in my life, I know what a car needs, I know what a car doesn’t need. And I think it’s really about accountability. It’s about owning up and saying, ‘Yeah, you know what, we didn’t listen to you, it’s not where it needs to be,’ and we’ve got to work, we’ve got to look into the balance through the corners, look at all the weak points and just huddle up as a team…”
It’s easy to understand why those responsible for creating the W14 may have felt they were on a good course and that Hamilton’s fears were unfounded. Despite the regulation higher rear floor (estimated to have cost around 0.5sec per lap), they had created a car which was significantly quicker – as was confirmed in Bahrain where it lapped 0.7sec faster in qualifying than last year’s car. So they had clawed back the half-second penalty of the regulation and a big chunk more. Under any normal circumstances that might be expected to have resulted in a more competitive car.
But bigger gains were being made elsewhere – notably at Red Bull and Aston Martin – and the Merc was further off the pace than ever, despite it having no specific problems. The aerodynamic porpoising and mechanical bouncing of last year had been eradicated, the rear suspension now with appropriate travel, the car no longer needed to be run so high at the rear that its drag was uncompetitive. It just lacks the raw high-speed downforce of the best cars. It’s a limitation of concept rather than any obvious error of simulation, one only made obvious once the gains made by Red Bull (and Aston) were demonstrated. In the internal, isolated world of any team during the off-season, without external validation, everything will have looked fine.
But even before the big deficit to the front was revealed, Hamilton was saying that merely a vice-free version of last year’s car was probably not going to cut it. He intuitively felt that even taking away the compromises imposed by the bouncing, the W13 was not the sort of platform which could be developed to give him what he needs to be quick, to fully exploit his ability. It wasn’t the sort of car which allowed him to be super-aggressive and late on the brakes, bold and aggressive with his entry speed and steering input. The places where he traditionally can make up lap time.
He’d been here before, albeit with enough of an advantage over the field that it hadn’t been such a big deal. But the ‘diva’ car for the all-new wide car regulations of 2017 had not allowed him to drive it intuitively. He’d had to adapt to it rather than it responding to and rewarding him. He spent the next few seasons urging the team to move the centre of pressure rearwards, even if the ultimate numbers didn’t support it. Each year, they’d try to accommodate his wishes and each year the car got a little better until by 2020 it was really in the sweet spot for Hamilton and Merc’s advantage was almost back to where it had been at the start of the hybrid era, in 2014. The regulation cutting away of rear floor area of ’21 terminated that progress – and then we were into the all-new aero regs of last year, a very different car balance for everyone and a whole different scale of problems for Mercedes.
But the point was, even though the 2017 car was fully competitive he believed he could have squeezed more from it if it had traits more in line with what he needed as a driver. When the team followed that direction, the car got better. Correlation isn’t the same as causation but Hamilton certainly believed so in this case. He’s been trying to get back to that 2020 feeling ever since and hence his unease when he learned the W14 was going to be an evolution of last year’s car. The numbers might be saying it’s good, but it won’t have the balance I need to make it super-good, seemed to be the gist of his reservations. He claims his worries were confirmed and he knew they were on the wrong track as soon as he tried the car in the Silverstone shakedown run.
Two cars with the same aero numbers but different balance and transient behaviour can produce very different lap times if one of them offers a great driver the opportunity to manipulate it to his natural way and the other one does not. But in the case of the W14 the difference is greater than that. It’s maybe losing a tenth or so to that – but the raw physics of its high-speed downforce shortfall are what is making it a non-contender.
It’s evident that the Mercedes concept – the triangular section sidepod fronts, the forward cockpit positioning, the vertical radiator inlets plus whatever they are doing with the underfloor – just doesn’t work as well as what has become the ‘classic’ Red Bull architecture. Something that Aston Martin, with the exact same power unit, gearbox and rear suspension as the Mercedes, has demonstrated quite clearly. Ultimately, Mercedes is surely going to have to follow a similar route but will not be able to make the wholesale concept change to the existing car. But as it starts again from scratch, perhaps Hamilton’s input will be accommodated a little more too.