Has Mercedes set-up unlocked the 'Hamilton factor'? - MPH


Lewis Hamilton doesn't agree with his Mercedes bosses that he's found another level in this year's F1 title fight. Mark Hughes says the team and driver's performance leap may be down to finding a sweet spot with the car


Since Mexico, Mercedes and Hamilton have made gains Red Bull cannot match

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There remains much intrigue as we head into the final two races, with Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton in the ascendancy, about just where that big performance leap between Mexico and Brazil came from. Commonly cited in Brazil was a potent fresh power unit and/or a flexible rear wing.

But at Qatar a week later we know that neither of those things applied – the old high-mileage PU4 from Turkey, Austin and Mexico was back in the car there and the experimental new FIA flex test introduced there (to cover off what Red Bull believed Mercedes was doing) was comfortably passed by everyone. Yet still Hamilton was conclusively faster than title rival Max Verstappen by the second-highest margin he’s enjoyed all year, second only to Brazil and not by much. Yet the Mercedes appears to be identical and hasn’t benefitted from any outward development parts since Silverstone.

Why has it suddenly been able to put Red Bull-Honda and Verstappen on the defensive? Without any apparent upgrade to either car, Mercedes has found around four-and-a-half tenths on its rival. A little of that (0.13sec) is down to the Red Bull being off song at those two races compared to its seasonal average if we reference it to the best of the non-Mercedes field. That still leaves Mercedes having found over 0.3sec from somewhere in one step.

“When we looked at the aero package, the mechanical package, the power unit, couldn’t see why were we so poor”

Toto Wolff referred to events in Brazil – where Hamilton was disqualified from qualifying for a DRS infringement and made to start from the back – having ‘released the lion’ in Hamilton and while there’s probably some title fight propaganda about that comment, there probably is a measure of driver performance to it. So that means he wasn’t performing as well prior to these two races and he’s suddenly stepped it up, revealing his earlier performances to be sub-par? Not quite, no.

There is an important difference between a driver getting the most from a car and a driver experiencing a car which behaves in exactly the way he can best express himself and finding more. It can be as simple as a better baseline set-up which might be worth next-to-nothing in theory, but which allows the driver access to his own special abilities which were otherwise irrelevant with the car as it was.

In preparation for Brazil this year, Mercedes did do a fundamental rethink on set-up. Specifically for that track, as related by trackside engineering chief Andrew Shovlin at the time.

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“In 2019 we had what was quite a dominant car and yet we were beaten quite handily at Interlagos by Red Bull. When we looked at the aero package, the mechanical package, the power unit, we weren’t finding answers as to why were we so poor in 2019. So it was all about set-up. We were determined to rethink things and come here with a car which could set pole position.”

Although it was attacked as a problem specific to Interlagos, it seems the rethink may have put the car in that place where Hamilton can conjure more than the sum of the parts. Even prior to this year, Hamilton has talked about how he spent years challenging the aero team to see if they could nudge the aero balance rearwards whilst still retaining the required efficiencies. And how each year they’d been able to do that a little more until by 2020 he finally had a car which he loved, in which he could attack the corner entry super-aggressively, knowing that it would respond and that the back would keep up. Each year since the regulation reset of 2017, Merc had delivered a car ever-more towards Hamilton’s preference.

The ’21 regulation trimming of the floor and associated changes at the rear obliterated that. It cost the low-rake Mercedes performance of itself, but it also put Hamilton back in a car which he couldn’t drive the way he had been driving last year. There is performance in a car which is unmeasurable in any simulation – because it’s about whether it has the traits and feedback loops that instil the level of super-confidence that allows the best performers to move to a different level.

Is it possible that the Interlagos rethink – perhaps aided by how potentially powerful the diffuser stall has become since the Silverstone upgrade and the bigger rear wings and set-up windows that allows – has quite accidentally brought more than anyone realised was there?

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