What's gone wrong for Mercedes since its Barcelona breakthrough?

Lewis Hamilton’s agony as he climbed out his Mercedes Formula 1 car in Baku was a world away from the joy he was greeted with after the Spanish Grand Prix.

What's gone wrong for Mercedes since its Barcelona breakthrough?

Just three races ago, a package of changes introduced for the Barcelona race appeared to have transformed the pace of the W13.

The Mercedes had delivered its strongest form of the season and Hamilton’s charge from the back to finish fifth left team boss Toto Wolff suggesting he had the fastest race car that day.

But any hopes that the Barcelona breakthrough signalled a turning point in Mercedes battles to tame its 2022 challenger have been rapidly dashed.

Both Monaco and Baku have proved to be incredibly difficult for its drivers – with the excessive porpoising that has been an ever-present hurting them both in competitive terms and the literal pain that Hamilton endured in Azerbaijan.

So was Barcelona a false dawn for Mercedes where circumstance flattered its car? Or have the last two races simply not played to the areas that the team has got on top of?

The answer is actually a bit of both.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, in Parc Ferme

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, in Parc Ferme

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Engineering compromise

Mercedes’ battle this year has been to run its car with rideheight and suspension settings that can have it as close to the ground as possible, but without triggering the porpoising and bouncing that annoy the drivers and hurt its form.

Run the car high and soft enough to alleviate the bouncing and it’s not fast enough, but go too low and too stiff and the porpoising is there with a vengeance.

As head of trackside engineering Andrew Shovlin has explained, the battle between those two conflicting demands has been a perpetual headache.

“We realise this is actually a very, very complicated problem," he said. "It isn't something that you can apply a resolution to and it's gone and you can forget about it. It will always be there: you're having to engineer around it.

“Maybe it's taken longer than we would have thought but I think the problem is, as you sort of peel away the layers of the onion, there's more layers of the onion to go. It's very much like that the more you learn the more you realise you don't know.”

George Russell, Mercedes W13

George Russell, Mercedes W13

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Monaco and Baku factors

The crux of Mercedes’ problems is that its W13 produces its peak downforce performance when it runs very low to the ground.

And its ability to do that is helped when the ground itself is smooth and consistent – like it was in Barcelona.

So when track surfaces are more uneven and bumpy, as they have been in Monaco and Baku, then that upsets the W13 from being able to operate in its happy place.

What Mercedes does not yet know is how much of the porpoising it then suffers is down to aerodynamic reasons, and how much comes from its mechanical set-up.

“It has been a challenge,” admitted Shovlin. “And what we've faced here [in Baku] has been very much a continuation of Monaco.

“We have made progress in Barcelona, because we were going down the straights and it was all very nice and calm and comfortable for the drivers. But it does seem that on the bumpy circuits, the ride has become an issue.

“You can't distil out exactly what's aerodynamic and what's mechanical ride and the link to the compliance of the suspension and damping. But the long and short of it is we've got more work to do.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W13

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W13

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

The Barcelona lessons

While Monaco and Baku have been difficult, the lessons taken out of the weekend have served to emphasise just why the Spanish GP weekend was so good.

And it goes beyond just the fact that Barcelona is much smoother than the recent two street venues.

What GPS data from Barcelona showed was that when the W13 is in its happy place and working in the window where the porpoising is not holding it back, then it can do things that even shade the Red Bull and Ferrari cars.

Comparing the qualifying laps of George Russell, Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen from the Spanish GP, the Mercedes is quickest overall in several areas of the track.

It topped the speed traps at the end of both the main straight and the run down to Turn 10, but more interestingly it was ahead throughout the high-speed Turn 3 right-hander – a place that shows the aero strengths of modern F1 cars.

This all points to Mercedes performing better in high-speed corners (when the car isn’t bouncing) than the low speed turns that are more common in Monaco and Baku.

As Shovlin explains: “If you look at where we were making up that performance in Spain, we were by a small margin the fastest in a straight line. By a small margin, we were the quickest in the two fast corners. We weren't good enough in the slow speed.

“The picture we took from there was that we needed to work on the slow speed. And then you come to Monaco, and Baku where there is a big slow-speed dominance there. Then coupled with that, there are the ride issues.

“There will be tracks that suit us more than these. But for us, it's not a case of looking forward to those and worrying about the others. It is a case of let's understand the problem, let's work out how to improve it, because it's clear that other teams have done a better job.”

George Russell, Mercedes W13

George Russell, Mercedes W13

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Rollercoaster ride

What the lessons from Barcelona, Monaco and Baku highlight is that Mercedes is unlikely to find a level of consistency with its performance just yet.

Bumpy tracks, like Montreal this weekend, are going to continue being a headache until it finds answers – whereas there should be reasons for it to feel optimistic about smooth high-speed venues like Silverstone and Paul Ricard.

But Shovlin thinks it would be wrong for the team to simply pin its hopes on the calendar delivering suitable venues. He is aware Mercedes needs to get a car that performs everywhere.

“What you would say coming off the back of Monaco and Baku is that the gaps that we have seem to grow when we go to a bumpy circuit,” he said.

“When you look at what we're dealing with, in terms of the data, or you look at the onboard footage and what the drivers are having to deal with, you can see why that is.

“The car is not settled. It's not soaking up the bumps well. It won't sit still on the straights, it moves around a lot. So it will evolve that picture.

“Montreal isn't a smooth circuit, but maybe places like Ricard and Silverstone, this car would work better. But even if we get onto a smooth track, we're well aware that the base performance isn't there either at the moment. We've got to ramp that up.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W13

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W13

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Concept change

The scale of the problems in Monaco and Baku have also reignited the debate about the Mercedes concept – and whether perhaps it needs to overhaul things for 2023.

Team boss Toto Wolff said after the Baku race that there were no "holy cows" on the car that would not be ditched if the team felt better things could be done instead.

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But for now, Shovlin says the focus is very much on getting engineering answers, as he plays down talk that a change of sidepod shape for example would be a silver bullet to solve its problems.

“The ride issues are unlikely to be due to the shape of the bodywork of the car, as some of it is definitely mechanical.

“If you have a car that's generating downforce, closer to the road, so its peak is lower, then you've got less room to play with. And you have to inherently run it stiffer.

“There's a lot of areas that we're looking at. So I think it’s probably simplifying it to say: do we suddenly make a car that looks radically different, and head off on a different direction?

“The way that we look at it as engineers is we will identify which areas are good enough and which are not good enough. And work on those.

"At the moment, the list of areas not good enough is bigger than we'd like. So we need to get stuck into dealing with that.”

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