There must be some scratchy conversations going on in Brixworth, Brackley and Stuttgart right now.
Four rounds in and the W13 will be making the more superstitious members of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 team break out their ‘I told you so’ T-shirts. It is of course still very early in the season but to date the cars have qualified in an average of ninth position, despite having almost certainly the strongest driver line up on the grid. They have then gone on to scoop just 24% of the points available so far this season. Since the start of the hybrid era nine seasons ago, their next worst performance – last year’s – was over half as good again.
You can, of course, prove almost anything with carefully chosen statistics, and it is no less true that, as I write, the team lies third in the Constructors’, beaten only by the old enemy and a resurgent Scuderia. You might also point out that this is a season of 23 races which therefore has 83% of its race still to run. There’s time, surely?
Maybe. Actually, for almost any other team I’d say the titles were probably already out of reach. That third place doesn’t look so bad, but if you drill down a bit further, what you discover is the Mercs have been an average of 1.2sec lap off pole, and that’s if you’re kind enough not to include the rain affected Emilia Romagna Grand Prix where neither car made it out of Q2.
But there is not a team on the grid that is better at developing a car through the season, nor is there one that is superior at using teamwork and tactics to make the most of what it has, at least historically speaking. It’s what has in the past allowed it to win titles on those occasions when for the bulk of the season it didn’t have the fastest car.
This season feels somehow different. It’s not that they don’t know what’s wrong with the car, you and I can see what’s wrong with it every time it goes out, but if the best team in the world can’t fix it after pre-season testing and four races on three continents, that suggests quite strongly this is no mere tuning issue. It seems there is something fundamentally wrong with design of the car which, added to the fact its engine is no longer the class of the field results in a car that currently stands 47 points behind Ferrari in the Constructors’ race.
It is, of course, a radical car as Christian Horner was somewhat sulkily moved to mention in testing, though strangely enough you don’t hear him banging on about its non-existent sidepods any more. And sometimes radical cars work because the team has done something no one else has thought of: examples abound from the Lotus 25 to the Brawn BGP 001. And sometimes they don’t, like the lowline 1986 Brabham BT55 and astonishing Arrows A2 ‘doodlebug’ of 1979.
“For Mercedes it’s closer to a disaster”
The problem with such cars is that if the often brilliant theory behind them fails to stack up in reality, you can’t just tweak your way out of trouble. And if that’s what those conversations in England and Germany conclude, there then arises a thorny question. What to do about it? There are two schools of thought and, of course, a lot of middle ground between them. One says press on regardless and do as well as you possibly can, the other says give up 2022 as a race already lost and divert all time and attention to designing a brand new car or 2023, for that is surely what will be required.
On the surface, plan B – give it up – seems the most attractive. Don’t throw cost-capped money at a poor car when you’re never going to recover the deficit. If the car was a couple of tenths off the Red Bulls and Ferraris of course you’d carry on and back yourself to engineer your way out of trouble. An entire second, or more, is a very different proposition. Look at what taking a year out has done for Haas, while Ferrari quite clearly recognised the opportunity provided by the new regulations, cut its cloth accordingly and is now cashing in as a result, if such an appalling mixing of metaphors can be allowed.
For Mercedes however, the argument is a bit more nuanced than that. For most teams a third place finish in the Constructors would be every birthday and Christmas there has ever been, all on the same day. For Mercedes-AMG, which has enjoyed a run of eight straight titles, the longest by a distance in the history of the sport, it’s closer to a disaster. The only thing worse would be coming fourth or lower. Except it’s not – for what would be worse even than that would be to be beaten by one of your customers powered by your own engine. And who is snapping most closely as its heels right now? That’ll be the Mercedes-powered McLaren Racing.
What would you do? Fight on, hope against hope you can turn it around, knowing all the time spent doing so was time no longer spent on next year’s car, or give it up as a bad job, take the hit and come back stronger than ever in 2023?
I am minded to recall the 1936 European Championship, of which more can be read in Doug Nye’s superb column in the current issue of Motor Sport. Mercedes had dominated Grand Prix racing for the previous two seasons, but messed it up in 1936. It gave up the chase, didn’t bother to enter the last race of a four race Championship at Monza, came back in 1937 with a world beating car and dominated proceeding all over again until the outbreak of war.
If there isn’t a radical turn around in form, and I mean one of a scale that has very rarely been seen in Formula 1, the time may soon come when throwing the rest of the season may seem the best or, I should say, least worst option.