Heading into the 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix, even the most optimistic Mercedes fans would have all but ruled out the idea of a podium finish for either of the team’s drivers. After Saturday’s qualifying session, it became clear that Sir Lewis Hamilton and George Russell’s grim assessment of the W13’s raw pace in interviews wasn’t typical Mercedes coyness. They had, in fact, been telling the truth all along.
The team’s radical creation for the 2022 season had all the hallmarks of brilliance, but it was flawed from the outset. Rather ironically, given its unfortunate ‘W13’ moniker, it also appeared to be cursed. Everything the team attempted to try and fix porpoising issues backfired, with Russell describing their efforts as taking “one step forward, two steps back.”
And yet, despite everything, Hamilton would somehow end Sunday’s race in P3. It was a cause for celebration at Brackley, given the teams relative lack of pace when compared to the Red Bull and the Ferrari. But a much tougher test awaits Mercedes next weekend, one that may come as a brutal reality check for the team.
Mercedes playing catch-up
There’s no question as to which 2022 F1 cars are currently the fastest. Making a mockery of F1’s effort to bring the midfield closer to the leading teams, Red Bull and Ferrari have come into the new season with a pair of absolute gems, as was evident throughout the first race weekend of the season.
Sandwiched between Red Bull’s Sergio Perez and the rest of the pack were eight-time constructor world champions, Mercedes, still trying to iron out issues that have plagued the W13 since the very first day of testing.
In qualifying, Mercedes’ lead car was almost seven-tenths off the pace of pole man Charles Leclerc. They had enough raw speed to edge out the likes of Haas, Alfa Romeo and Alpine, but nowhere near enough to challenge the two teams ahead of them.
That said, come race day, the biggest concern for the team will unquestionably be their race pace, or lack thereof, when compared to the Ferraris. Both Silver Arrows were consistently a second off the pace in race trim, with Hamilton 30 seconds behind Leclerc at the half way point of the race.
Tougher challenges to come
The 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix will pose a unique challenge to Mercedes. Even without the dreaded porpoising, the Mercedes power unit does appear to have been usurped as the best on the grid, with the Red Bull and Ferrari powered cars generally registering higher speeds on the speed trap in Bahrain.
And yet, add porpoising on top of that, which naturally reduces top speed, and you have a recipe for disaster in Saudi.
The Jeddah circuit is unlike any we’ve seen in F1, a 3.8-mile configuration that is, by some margin, the quickest street circuit in the world. It favours engines with a grunt. If Mercedes rock up in the desert with the same package as they had in Bahrain, the prospect of a podium looks even more remote.
But that does raise the question: if the W13’s issues cant be solved in time for Jeddah, when can be we expect the team to get a handle on its fundamental issues?
All of the noises out of Mercedes suggests that there is no quick fix for its car’s fatal design flaw – or should that be ‘floor’. Hamilton, who has remained positive despite the setbacks his team face, was clear that the problems will not be solved before the Saudi Arabian GP.
“I’m hoping for the next race we manage to find some improvements,” Hamilton said. “But it’s a fundamental issue that’s going to take a little bit longer to fix.”
The long road back
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff insists that is it up to them to “regain land, centimetre by centimetre”, in what will clearly be a drawn-out fightback to try and win races again. Optimism remains that when they do so, they will have a very competitive package, with Wolff expecting his team to “unleash the performance that we hope to be in the car”.
According to Sky Sport F1’s Ted Kravitz, unleashing this potential may not happen until the European season gets underway in just over a month’s time at Imola. On Sunday, Wolff even dourly admitted that both titles might already be beyond Mercedes this season. Nevertheless, you’d be foolish to write them off completely.
Last season, Mercedes overcame Red Bull’s early-season advantage to take the constructors title, while they also overcame early-season deficits to Ferrari in 2017 and 2018. This time around, the gap they have to close is seismic, and there are no clear or obvious solutions that will instantly return Hamilton and Russell to the front of the grid.
It’s been over a decade since Mercedes didn’t manage to win a race in an F1 season, while Hamilton has never experienced a winless campaign – a streak that stretches back to his debut in 2007. But if the team cannot emerge from the quagmire it currently finds itself in, both records could be in jeopardy this year.