It would be all too easy to suggest that Mercedes are in a very bad way, but that is to overlook that, on performance, they are certainly well ahead of engine peers McLaren, Aston Martin, and Williams – and that advantage cannot all be down to the two drivers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, undeniably gifted as they are.
However, by the usual standards of the Silver Arrows, the team's start to 2022 has been disastrous.
It would be just as easy to suggest that the deficit in performance is only due to the Mercedes powertrain falling short of the Ferrari, Honda (design), and even Renault equivalents, but forget not that Mercedes have run ahead of various cars powered by those 'other' power units, so their own three-pointed star versions cannot be catastrophically short of outright grunt.
is, though, catastrophic is that Mercedes - and, by implication,
Hamilton, shooting for a record eighth title - are well off the pace
of Ferrari and Red Bull, who respectively won the first two races.
Mercedes are used to racing at the sharp end, and their challenge is
currently visibly blunted. At stake is not whether the situation is
recoverable, but whether the team can claw back the deficit and stay
within the budget cap.
Can Mercedes fix a truculent W13 to launch a title bid?
A respected race car engineer with knowledge of the situation believes not. According to him, the W13 suffers five fundamental flaws: it is chronically overweight (by between eight and 10 kilogrammes), has a flexing chassis, the overall design is 'draggy' - in turn, meaning wing has been dialled out - fourth is that porpoising cost the team the edge they believed they had in terms of downforce, and, not least disruptions within the engine operation impact on overall performance.
He believes that the root cause is an inexplicably 'floppy' chassis, possibly due to attempts to save weight, which, though, backfired as the team needed to strengthen the monocoque and added more weight than stiffness in the process. This flexing affects the full spectrum of vehicle dynamics – further compounded by the conundrum that any 'fix' in any area is bound to add further weight and cost budget. A vicious circle…
Speaking over the Saudi Arabian GP weekend, George Russell said that the big fix Mercedes need is yet to be discovered.
"We're continuing to learn but, at the moment, we're making baby steps," Russell told media, including RacingNews365.com.
"We need to make some leaps and bounds and we're struggling to find that silver bullet to resolve our issues. All of these cars perform best at low ride height, and we just can't get anywhere close to the height our rivals are running."
situation is further compounded, the race engineer says, by the $140 million dollar budget cap
forcing the engineering team to be selective about which areas to
attack, particularly as they need a financial reserve with which to
design next year's car – all while Covid and the Ukraine
situation hike costs. The resultant squeeze has in turn sparked
infighting as departments jockey for development funding – a typical
corporate 'blame game' phenomenon.
Are defections to Red Bull also a factor?
According to another (internal) source the situation was initially created by disruptions and distractions caused by downsizing due to the budget cap. Thus, engineers have either left or been redeployed on advanced engineering projects, while the October 2021 decision to split the focus of Chief Technical Officer James Alison between the F1 team and the Ineos Britannia America's Cup project has hardly been helpful.
The conundrum here is that Ineos boss Sir Jim Ratcliffe is an equal one-third shareholder in the team, and thus has the power to make demands. It's a tough call: motor racing's biggest prize or sailing's most prestigious trophy.
Mass senior defections from Mercedes High-Performance Powertrains - the separate engine division, of which team boss Toto Wolff is not a director - to Red Bull's nascent power unit operation caused upheaval just as HPP mounted a sustained 2021 effort to retain the team's hegemony in the face of an aggressive onslaught from Red Bull/Honda. This shifted HPP's focus just as the Japanese threw all at their last-gasp season.
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A sense of complacency at the eight-time Constructors' Champions?
Thus, development of the 2022 engine for E10 fuel was disrupted, as were, crucially, preparations for the 2022-25 power unit freeze, which kicked in this year. Mercedes may not lack by much in the engine department, but it no longer has the edge it once enjoyed – which had enabled the silver/black cars to run higher downforce without sacrificing top-end speed. Just as things get draggy, the engine cannot compensate.
Our engineer source believes that eight years of successfully evolving fundamentally basically the same car under the same engineering team instilled an air of complacency within the team, which was shattered by the need to introduce a clean-sheet design within aforementioned constraints. Plus, as Constructors' Champions, Mercedes have the lowest wind tunnel allocation under F1's aerodynamic 'ballast' regulations – which hurts.
True, every team has similar budget cap constraints, but some had years of experience of racing with even less, while Ferrari reduced development of last year's car to devote its full resource to the F1-75 and Red Bull had little disruption in its ranks. Plus, these teams drew on the eighties experiences of Rory Byrne and Adrian Newey respectively, both of whom were exposed to porpoising caused by ground effects back then.
Wolff's leadership will be tested
The bottom line is that the entire Mercedes team will find it both operationally and financially challenging to work their way out of this dilemma, with the only guarantee being that it will impact on next year's car to some degree. The team faces a choice of 'doing a Ferrari', i.e. scrapping development on the sow's ear that is W13 to maximise spend on a silky W14 or develop the current car in the knowledge that it will hurt 2023.
The hallmark of a great manager is not sustained success, but an instinctive ability to lead a team out of a disastrous situation with minimum discord, yet methodically and speedily. Toto Wolff's skills set is about to be tested to the maximum…
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