Revived Mercedes is relishing the fightback: 'It's nice to be the challenger'


Mercedes technical director Mike Elliot explains the gains the reinvigorated team has made, as well as the difficulties around the cost cap and aerodynamic testing rules

63 RUSSELL George (gbr), Mercedes AMG F1 Team W13, 44 HAMILTON Lewis (gbr), Mercedes AMG F1 Team W13, action during the Formula 1 Pirelli Grand Premio de Espana 2022, 6th round of the 2022 FIA Formula One World Championship, on the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, from May 20 to 22, 2022 in Montmelo, Spain - Photo DPPI

With porpoising mainly dealt with Mercedes can finally look ahead to unlocking W13 speed


Red Bull and Ferrari may have dominated the first part of the 2022 season, but their respective bosses Christian Horner and Mattia Binotto have cautioned from the off that Mercedes can never be ruled out.

We might have expected the team to bounce back quickly from a troubled Bahrain test and even perhaps after a difficult first race at the same venue.

However, the challenge of getting on top of the difficult W13 was a big one even for a team that has been the pacesetter since the start of the hybrid era, and the other two leading teams are so strong now that matching them is not the work of a moment.

The Spanish GP weekend indicated that the Brackley team has managed to turn the corner and is starting to find genuine performance in the car.

There were signs of promise when George Russell and Lewis Hamilton were quick on Friday in Miami, only for their pace to subsequently drop off. In Barcelona Friday was again strong, but this time that performance was carried through the weekend.

Indeed there was a stage on Sunday when Russell looked to be in contention for the win, and his eventual third was still a solid result.

Meanwhile after his disastrous first lap left him a minute behind the leader Hamilton did an amazing job to recover to fifth, gaining ground on the frontrunners before PU issues obliged him to back off before the flag.

“I think they’ve certainly made a step forward,” Horner said after the race. “We still beat them by whatever many seconds it was today. And both of our cars managed to pass the lead Mercedes today.

44 HAMILTON Lewis (gbr), Mercedes AMG F1 Team W13, action during the Formula 1 Pirelli Grand Premio de Espana 2022, 6th round of the 2022 FIA Formula One World Championship, on the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, from May 20 to 22, 2022 in Montmelo, Spain - Photo DPPI

2022 has been an uphill battle for Merc so far


“I think I’ve said all season it’s only a matter of time before they join that battle, and they’ve made a big step towards that, by the looks of things, at this circuit.”

Next weekend in Monaco is something of an outlier, so will we need a few more samples before we know if Mercedes now has a car that can become a consistent contender for victories – and thus just possibly still play a role in a three-way title battle.

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The Barcelona performance grew out of two things – ongoing work back at the factory to understand set-up and the porpoising issues, and the parallel programme of planned development that saw the team introduce an upgrade package, albeit one that wasn’t as significant as that at Ferrari.

There were modifications to the front endplates and the floor edge, and a new bib vane added to the keel. Meanwhile Hamilton and Russell both took new PUs on Friday, and a fresh engine always provided a little extra performance.

The fact that the aero parts seemed to work was good news for technical director Mike Elliott, still relatively fresh in a job he took over last year, and inevitably in the wars somewhat in recent months. He’s tried to draw positives from the experience.

“I guess, for me, I’m fairly new as a technical director, so it’s a huge challenge,” he explained in Spain.

“I think we’ve been lucky enough to be right at the front for a pretty big period of time, and to now find ourselves chasing is a challenge.

“It’s also quite a lifting one, it’s quite nice to be the challenger, to be coming from behind. I think there’s a chunk of pressure, because there’s always going.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 22: George Russel (GBR) Mercedes AMG F1 Team, Mercedes-AMG F1 W13 E Performance celebrate during the F1 World Championship Grand Prix of Spain on May 22, 2022 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Cristiano Barni ATPImages/Getty Images)

Russell demonstrated new Merc’s ability to run at front – at least for a period

Cristiano Barni ATPImages/Getty Images

“But I think from my point of view as a technical director, what’s been amazing to see is the amount of effort that’s gone in at the factory – in aerodynamics, in vehicle dynamics, to see how we make the best of it, and in design and production to bring the parts that we’ve brought here.

“So this is a challenge, this is what engineers love. I think it’s been a healthy challenge, and one we’re enjoying.”

Elliott confirmed that the Barcelona upgrades focused both on general performance gains, as well as the dreaded porpoising: “There is the normal development of the car that you would do anyway, and then I think we’ve done quite a bit of work to try and understand the bouncing effects, to work out how we best mitigate those. And we’ve brought bits that definitely settled the car down.”

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When you’re struggling you have to crunch the numbers and find leads wherever you can. Intriguingly Elliott confirmed that the mixed weekend in Miami – and loss of form after Friday – provided some useful information.

It’s no secret that for all teams the key is to be able to run the car lower without porpoising becoming impossible for the drivers to deal with.

“I think after Miami, we went and had a very good look through the data to try to understand what happened between Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and I think there’s a few clues came out of that,” he says.

“We’re definitely able to run the car in a position much closer to where we’d ideally run it. So there’s a chunk of downforce that comes from that, and the car just is a lot more settled.

“The drivers look happy now. The body language coming from them that says that they feel the car feels a bit more like a race car.”

“In terms of the overall car concept, I think it’s still a little bit too early to say. I think we’ve changed the car so much for this weekend. We need to work out how we get the best out of it. We need to work out what more lap time there is in it, and then then do the assessment as to whether we think, overall, this is a better direction to develop in.

Cristiano Barni ATPImages/Getty Images

Second podium of the year for Russell

Cristiano Barni ATPImages/Getty Images

“There’s a budget cap that’s quite constraining and as a consequence of that, you have to make good decisions about both what we do for the rest of this year but also what we do for next year.”

The cost cap and its impact on R&D is a huge issue for teams and will only become more pressing as the season goes on. That’s why there’s such a push from certain parties to have a boost to the cap ceiling to account for inflation.

It’s arguably been harder for Mercedes than its two main rivals because the team has been distracted by the porpoising fire-fighting exercise, instead of being able to focus totally on creating go-faster bits.

“I think engineers are good at challenges,” said Elliott. “What we have to do is to make trades, and that’s always been the case, whether that’s between mass and aerodynamics, or the mechanical aspects of the car and aerodynamics, and the finance one is just another part of that challenge. It’s just a different challenge we’re solving, and the playing field has moved.

“I think what has been really hard this year is dealing with the inflationary issues that everybody’s facing. And where we started out at the beginning of the year with knowing roughly what we’re going to try and do through the year, to deal with an inflation rate that’s as high as it is, is a big challenge.”

Finance aside, the other hurdle Mercedes has had to deal with concerns the FIA’s Aerodynamic Testing Restrictions. As World Champions the team was at the bottom of the sliding scale of wind tunnel hours and CFD usage throughout 2021, while the current cars were being developed.

That continues until the end of June, when the is a re-set based on the current World Championship order.

It’s not been a huge difference relative to Red Bull, but a bigger and not insignificant one relative to Ferrari, certainly in the first half of 2021. From July onwards there will be a switch, and unless the team moves up the constructors’ table over the next few races, it will be able to do more aero work than its two main rivals in the second half of the year.

The whole point of the ATR rules was to gently level the playing field, but Elliott doesn’t want to use them as an excuse, however.

“Well, clearly it has some impact,” he concedes. “I think relative to Red Bull, it’s not very much, it’s sort of a run a week, something of that order so it’s fairly small, but then we don’t have very many runs a week in the tunnel to start with.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 22: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team W13 on track during the F1 Grand Prix of Spain at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on May 22, 2022 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Hamilton flew in Spain after early xontact

Clive Mason/Getty Images

“I think to Ferrari, it’s been a bit more and we’ll see. I think it gets reset at the end of June so hopefully that will play in our advantage.

“I think we just have to be honest with ourselves as a team and say I don’t think that’s the reason we’ve struggled, I think we’ve struggled with the bouncing and that has sort of held us back.

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“And while the ATR increase will be an advantage, it’s probably not the game changer it might be. I think more to the point is we’ve just got to get on top of our issues and get the car moving in the right direction.”

It’s not been an easy start to 2022 for the team and its two drivers, and especially for Hamilton, who missed out on last year’s title at the very last minute.

“I think he’s got a tough team-mate in George, and that’s brilliant for the team. And I think if you look at the first five races, unfortunately, Lewis has been on the wrong end of some safety car timing, but I think going forward, I couldn’t want for two better drivers.

“They’re really helping us develop the car, move it in the right direction and if we can give him a car that they can compete with, I’m sure they’re both going to push really hard, and hopefully Lewis can win another championship.”

HAMILTON Lewis (gbr), Mercedes AMG F1 Team W13, portrait garage, box, during the Formula 1 Pirelli Grand Premio de Espana 2022, 6th round of the 2022 FIA Formula One World Championship, on the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, from May 20 to 22, 2022 in Montmelo, Spain - Photo DPPI

Elliot says team would dearly love to help Hamilton another championship


So does the team really have the belief that it can fight for the title?

“Of course, we wouldn’t be here otherwise, would we?,” said Elliott. “I think that’s the nature of sport. I think that until it’s mathematically over, it’s not over. We’re not a huge distance behind, and if we can get the car into a position where we’re competitive, and hopefully out in front, then there’s every chance.

“But, you know, we’ve got to have a level of humility. [Red Bull] have made a really good start, Ferrari have made a really good start, and they’re not going to be easy to chase down.”