Russell and Wolff explain Mercedes woes, but can they turn it around?


The faster Mercedes tries to go, the more its porpoising issue is holding up progress – George Russell and Toto Wolff break down the problem

Lewis Hamilton Saudi Arabian GP 2022

Mercedes found itself scrapping in the midfield in Saudi – can it haul itself to the front in reasonable time?

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After Lewis Hamilton took the flag in Saudi Arabia last weekend his race engineer Peter Bonnington told him that he had finished in 10th place. The seven-time World Champion replied, “Is there even a point for that position?”

After years of hearing congratulatory slowing down lap messages going back and forth between Hamilton and Bonnington, with the inevitable emotional interventions of Toto Wolff, the low-key exchange was symbolic of the struggles that Mercedes faces this year.

It’s not quite as desperate as Hamilton’s 10th place suggested, given that in Bahrain a week earlier Lewis had salvaged a third place after the late retirements of the two Red Bulls. Then in Jeddah team mate George Russell was way up the road in fifth, behind only the Red Bulls and the Ferraris, having chosen a more effective set-up before qualifying and the race.

Both races thus indicated that Mercedes has the third best car after Red Bull and Ferrari, which is at least a starting point from which to progress.

However as Hamilton’s nightmare Jeddah race indicated if Mercedes doesn’t find the optimal set-up with the W13, rivals are ready to pounce. His P16 in qualifying, with one car crashing out early in Q1 and another not completing a flying lap, was an extraordinary sight.

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 27: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes looks on ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 27, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

The Silver Arrows have found themselves looking on enviously at frontrunners Red Bull and Ferrari

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

By its own admission the team is lost at the moment, trying to make the best out of the car that it has while frantically working back at the factory to bring updates to the track that will solve the issues and find performance.

In Jeddah Russell had the more effective set-up, and on paper his fifth place – having passed Esteban Ocon’s Alpine with a bold early move – was encouraging.

However, the Englishman was under no illusions after the race, pointing out the big gap that had opened up to the frontrunners over the 30 laps of racing after the safety car period. He eventually finished 32 seconds behind winner Max Verstappen, and 22 seconds adrift of fourth-placed Sergio Perez.

“The car felt good in all honesty,” he said when Motor Sport asked him how his evening had unfolded. “I think we maximised the balance. We just know what we’re lacking, and that’s downforce, ultimately.

“At the moment we’re making baby steps, and we need to make some leaps and bounds” George Russell

“I was really pleased with how the performance was from my personal side. I thought it was really well-managed, I did my best to keep up with the Red Bulls especially after the restart. I gave it everything to try and stay within the DRS zone.

“We’re a second behind them generally. And we’ve got work to do. I need to go back and review the data, but everybody knows what we need to improve on.”

Russell acknowledged that the car seemed to be better on Sunday: “I think we have a better handle on race pace than we do quali pace, but the inherent issues are still there, low fuel/high fuel, and that’s compromising us.

“When I look at the result, we finished 30 seconds behind. I think that’s probably 30 laps after the safety car, a second a lap. That’s how far we were behind in qualifying as well.

“We’re continuing to learn, but at the moment we’re making baby steps, and we need to make some leaps and bounds. We’re struggling to find that silver bullet to resolve our issues. But I’ve got no doubt when we do that, we will find a chunk of lap time. As I said before, it’s easier said than done.”

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The heart of the problem is the porpoising that all teams encountered from the start of the Barcelona test last month. Some soon found ways to dial it out or control it without compromising performance, or discovered what parameters turned it in on and off and thus worked out a development route to address it properly further down the line. Mercedes is by its own admission still floundering.

The fundamental issue is that the W13 was designed to work at an optimum ride height, and only by jacking it up does the porpoising go away and the car become driveable over a lap, never mind a race distance. And by doing that performance is compromised.

“The only way to run is to raise the car very high,” Russell explained. “And obviously with this ground effects car, we lose all of the downforce. So we know that if we can get the car on the ground, there’s a huge chunk of lap time there.

“So it’s all well and good saying that, but we can’t physically achieve that right now. We need to have a re-think.”

“Porpoising is something that caught all of the teams out when they first launched this generation of cars just a few weeks ago,” chief technical officer James Allison noted after Bahrain.

“The mechanisms that cause it, while not completely understood yet, are rather different from what the commentators are providing on the web and on your TV screens. How quickly each team can get on top of it and fix it is going to be quite an important thing for determining what the pecking order in the sport will be.

“We were caught out by it quite badly, especially when we put our first race upgrade package on in the last winter test, the amount of porpoising we saw has been quite extreme.

George Russell Saudi Arabia 2022 GP

Russell: “We’re struggling to find that silver bullet to resolve our issues”

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“We are having to throw away the basic performance of our car as a smaller problem, in order to get the bigger problem – the uncontrollable bouncing – slightly under our control.”

The team hoped to have a better handle on it in Jeddah, a very different type of track with a newer surface and fewer bumps than Bahrain, but that didn’t prove to be the case.

“I think we are not running the car where we wanted to run it,” team boss Toto Wolff noted. “And therefore it’s very difficult to really assess what the lap time deficit is if we were able to run the car lower. And I would very much hope that the gap is much closer to what we’ve seen today. But there’s deficits everywhere.”

In such difficult circumstances it’s normal for teams to roll the dice, split the cars and pursue different routes, and in Jeddah Hamilton side of the garage was less successful.

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“We’re still experimenting with set-ups to find out where the sweet spot of the car is.,” said Wolff. “And so on Lewis’s side, they went a bit bolder. And the outcome was that, basically, they had no rear end in the car. And that explains that big lap time deficit [to Russell.]

“That was not a huge set of changes that happened. But they were big enough to have dramatic consequences on the performance of the car, between going out in Q1 and making it into Q3.

“That’s why this car is so tricky to set up. We had a lower drag rear wing, we took the Gurney off, but still it wasn’t enough to shave more drag off the car.

“But generally, I would say this isn’t a single problem. We have many parts of the car that don’t work, that we don’t understand, they don’t perform enough. And this is not where we all expect the car to be.”

Russell provided an intriguing insight into just why it’s proving so difficult for the team to come up with solutions on race weekends.

“I think on Lewis’s side of the garage they probably went a bit more conservative with the set-up than we did,” he said after the race.

Lewis Hamilton Saudi Arabian GP 2022

Mercedes is focused on solving the chronic porpoising issue

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“And that was the difference. It’s a real fine line [with] getting the car in the right window. There’s so many factors at play when we’re bouncing – the mechanical stiffness of the car, and then the stiffness of the floors, the design of the floors, tyre pressures – that sometimes we change the set-up, we think we’ve improved, but it actually makes it slightly worse – it’s seemingly a little bit inconsistent.

“Engine mode as well – the faster you go the worse it gets, so it makes it harder for qualifying, because we turn the engines up, maximum power, and go quicker down the straight, which causes more downforce, and causes more porpoising.

“So we almost need to pre-empt this issue. And also in the race when you have the DRS closed you have more downforce than you do with the DRS open, and that’s another factor we need to consider. So we’re still learning, and that’s why we’re far from optimal. As I said if we solve porpoising, that would cure I would say 99% of our issues.”

That figure is eye-catching, but there are other factors contributing to the team’s struggles. It was very obvious in Bahrain that the three teams at the bottom of the race classification were the three Mercedes customer teams. All have their own chassis issues as well, so it’s not just down to the PU. Indeed in Jeddah Lando Norris picked up a solid seventh place for McLaren, helped by attrition ahead.

Nevertheless the consensus is that Mercedes has been overtaken, and when you’re missing engine performance you have to start compromising your drag and downforce levels in order to find straightline speed.

All manufacturers upgraded their power units for 2022 in what was a race to meet the FIA deadline for a development freeze that lasts through the 2023, 2024 and 2025 seasons.

By March 1 the four manufacturers had to freeze the V6 engine, turbo, MGU-H, exhaust system, fuel specification and engine oil specification – and henceforth no performance upgrades are allowed with those items.

A second deadline in September allows for some leeway with the MGU-K, control electronics, and energy store/battery, so Mercedes could yet find something extra. However, rivals have that same opportunity.

The PU freeze is not the only restriction that Mercedes faces. The cost cap has reined in all three of the big players, and put a spotlight on efficiency – you now really have to focus your R&D resources on areas where you get the biggest bang for your buck.

The ATR or Aerodynamic Testing Restrictions regulations are another key factor. As the reigning constructors’ champions Mercedes had less wind tunnel time and CFD usage during 2021 as the new cars were being developed, especially relative to Ferrari, on the FIA’s sliding scale.

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 27: Lando Norris of Great Britain driving the (4) McLaren MCL36 Mercedes leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team W13 during the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 27, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

All Mercedes-powered cars struggled

Lars Baron/Getty Images

Having won the title again last year that deficit will remain in place until July, when there’s a re-set based on current positions, potentially giving Mercedes an R&D edge over Red Bull and Ferrari in the latter half of the year.

In simple terms the financial and aero restrictions mean that instead of pursuing five solutions to a problem and whittling them down to one that works best, you now have to start with two or three and make your final choice on which one to focus on much earlier. It’s a new way of working that all top teams have to deal with.

Just to complicate matters it’s clear that wind tunnels and CFD are of limited use in solving porpoising issues – it has to be done in the field, with a real world car. And that means on race weekends, as there is no testing.

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The focus on sorting fundamental problems means that there’s been less work on the sort of fine-tuning that any title chasing team needs to do to get the best out of a constantly evolving package, especially in terms of understanding the new tyres.

James Allison remains hopeful that there’s light at the end of the Brackley wind tunnel.

“We are carrying a lot of problems and a lot of problems that all have solutions and all of those solutions are within our compass to deliver,” he said after Bahrain.

“The way in which we are approaching the problems and the way in which we will bring solutions also gives me some comfort that we will get back to a competitive car quite swiftly and that we will be able to pursue the objective we have of championships.

“It is a big job, it is an ambitious car, some will argue that perhaps we have bitten off more than we can chew with it.

“It’s just not an option to stay where we are” Toto Wolff

“But we are very good chewers in this team and we intend to put these problems right as quickly as possible, hopefully in the next two or three races, but in any case we will put them right and we will get our car back at the front of the grid competing as we all intend to, to allow us to pursue our dream of championship success.”

For team boss Wolff, being on the back foot is a new experience, and he’s determined to turn things around.

“I love competition, and I’ve always loved competition,” says the Austrian. “And we had a really strong run of eight years where we were leading the pack. Not always, but we kind of managed our way into the lead.

“And this time for me feels a little bit like 2013, where we just weren’t up to the speed with the Red Bull, and probably also not with the Ferraris. But we kept fighting, and this is how I feel at the moment. It’s certainly totally unacceptable, where we are on performance. We’re third on the road, sometimes not even. It’s just not an option to stay where we are.”