There was a glimmer of hope for Mercedes when George Russell convincingly topped the second Friday practice session, but normality returned for the rest of the weekend as the team settled for fifth and sixth at the 2022 Miami Grand Prix.
The reality is not much had changed from Imola to Miami and we’re now at the stage where the upcoming Spanish GP will define Mercedes‘ season.
Lewis Hamilton‘s frustrations continued, this time due to the team asking him what the best strategy option was when the safety car came out.
The potential is there
Mercedes have insisted all season that once they sort out their porpoising, the potential of the car is huge.
Bizarrely, Russell‘s 1:29.938 in FP2 was two tenths of a second faster than his Q2 time when he was knocked out of qualifying.
It just showed how narrow the operating window of the W13 is, but, importantly, there is a working window and we saw it for the first time in Miami.
“It’s clear that there is potential in the car, which is fast,” team principal Toto Wolff told The Race. “But we just don’t understand how to unlock the potential.
“It’s a car that is super-difficult to drive and on the edge, dipping in and out of the performance window – more out than in.
“And dissecting the data with a scalpel is just a painful process because it takes a very long time and as a matter of fact the data sometimes doesn’t show what the drivers tell us.
“Certainly they have their hands full with a car that is not at all comfortable to drive or nice to drive or predictable to drive.
“But the data doesn’t show these big swings. We haven’t had this situation before where it just doesn’t correlate what we see on the screens with what the driver feels. That’s making it even more difficult.”
Mercedes will learn a lot from Miami
The key for Mercedes is to understand why they took a backwards step because that could lead them down a path where they can unlock their potential.
Russell‘s car in particular looked almost undrivable in qualifying, whilst Hamilton did well to qualify sixth and was unlucky to finish behind his teammate.
“I think it is mixed feelings to be honest because based on where we were yesterday it is a good result,” Russell told Sky Sports.
“But if you had told me after Friday we would finish P5 and P6 that far behind P1 I would have been disappointed so we have a fast race car in there we just don’t have the key to unlock the performance.
“We don’t quite understand why that is so there is work to do. I felt like if I pushed any further I was going to crash because I was just bouncing through the corners and it wasn’t much nicer on Sunday.
“But because of the slower speeds, the aero wasn’t working as hard so I could manage it but we don’t get it at the moment to be honest, I certainly don’t. It is frustrating but we will get there.”
Mercedes have spent so much time trying to get their head around porpoising, that optimising setup and the tyres have been put to one side to some extent, so there are easy gains to make.
It’s worrying Russell isn’t able to pinpoint why the car simply wasn’t working for him in qualifying, but if Mercedes can understand the situation, they could make a massive step forward in Barcelona.
Will Mercedes revert to their old-spec car?
Nobody knows why the Mercedes is porpoising more than its rivals. One theory is their innovative, lack of sidepods concept isn’t allowing them to run the car low, which they would want to for performance reasons, without the W13 bouncing.
An option for the Silver Arrows would be to revert to their Barcelona pre-season test sidepods, but that would mean writing off 2022 completely.
A team is truly tested when they are on the backfoot and their response is fascinating. Whilst Mercedes don’t have the pace to win or be on the podium, they should still be getting the basics right.
Asking a driver what the best strategy option is when a safety car comes out is strange, but that’s what happened between Mercedes and Hamilton in Miami.
It’s as if Mercedes fear they will make the wrong decision and don’t want to face backlash from Hamilton, like at the 2021 Turkish GP when the seven-time world champion wanted to stay out on an old set of tyres.
A similar mistake took place earlier this year in Saudi Arabia when Hamilton missed an opportunity to pit when a virtual safety car was called, and he lost out to other drivers.
Are Mercedes’ 2022 F1 title hopes over?
If Mercedes are not within a few tenths of Ferrari and Red Bull at the Spanish GP, they can forget 2022 and begin to focus on next year.
Russell‘s superb consistency of finishing in the top at every race, which he is the only driver to do so, means he is only 45 points behind championship leader Charles Leclerc. That’s not a million miles away with 18 events to go.
As for Hamilton, he has a 68-point deficit to Leclerc which is a slightly tougher task and he would have to go on a streak of wins to bring himself into title contention.
In the constructors’ championship, Mercedes are only 62 points behind Ferrari and trail Red Bull by 56 points, which can certainly be reeled in if they get their act together.
It’s been too early to say Mercedes are out of the championship so far, but their performance at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya is the final call for the team from Brackley.