In the hours after Mercedes finally claimed its first pole of the 2022 Formula 1 season at the Hungarian Grand Prix, the team’s director of ground engineering, Andrew Shovlin, reflected on the behavior of the troubled design of the W13 in a way that looked rather like the eight-time builders. The champion team had been bewitched by their own unpredictable creation.
“This car has been particularly boring in the way it gives you insight into performance and what could be, at a level where it’s very hard for us to just give it up,” Shovlin said.
“It sucks you in a bit, technically.”
It was easy to think of the teased behavioral breakthrough moments he was referring to. That big Friday in Miami that preceded another weekend of the same drudgery experienced in previous rounds. The strong racing pace of Barcelona and Silverstone that was not replicated next time around.
Even Mercedes’ back-to-back double podiums with Lewis Hamilton and George Russell in France and Hungary had such elements. Any hope that improvements and circuit features could make for the Paul Ricard Mercedes redemption weekend was dashed first by poor practice and qualifying performances which bewildered the team, before the race circumstances did not turn things in his favor. The really impressive weekend in Hungary started with a terrible puzzling Friday.
This inconsistency has two main consequences for Mercedes as things stand during the summer break.
First, it means there’s too much promise in the W13 for Mercedes to scrap it and devote all of its resources to getting ahead of the curve on a 2023 design more in line with the ideas of the 2022 championship leaders. So there’s further improvements to come, starting immediately after the gap at Spa.
It also means that all the excitement of fighting for victory in Hungary is tempered by the fact that Mercedes have no idea if this performance is repeatable or if the W13 was just on the positive side of finicky for once.
Asked by The Race after the Hungarian GP whether this was really a stronger Sunday performance than other races or just a consequence of Mercedes managing to qualify one of their cars at forward, team boss Toto Wolff was cautious. This is perhaps understandable, given performance sways elsewhere this weekend, with Ferrari looking on Friday looking like it was on course for its most dominant win of 2022, but then dipping off the podium in cooler weather. sunday. And given that Hamilton’s run to second place had to be a recovery after only seventh place due to a Q3 DRS issue.
“We have to be careful that it’s not specific to Budapest and that we just landed in the perfect window, also because the other teams – Ferrari in particular – complained that the tire was not where it was. it should have been,” Wolff said.
“So my personal opinion is that we are still running out of heads.
“Did you see that [Charles] Leclerc on the right tire is still a dominant force. But at least we are in the same race.
“And George, a fantastic weekend for him with pole position and with the strategy he did his best. And with Lewis, I think without us screwing up the DRS yesterday, he would have raced with Max [Verstappen] For victory. But that doesn’t count in this sport so it wasn’t the fact. I’m just sorry we couldn’t be in that position.
Pushed on whether he suspected Hungary’s pace was down to keep up with the conditions suited to Mercedes’ setup at the moment or could in fact be a performance trend for the rest of 2022, perhaps Wolff was still more pessimistic.
“I don’t know, I don’t want to say now that we’re right in the game and we can win races, because I don’t think that’s the case,” he said.
“I think we did well on Saturday and we’re reaping the results today, but I don’t think we’re close enough to Ferrari and Red Bull to really fight them yet.”
But a theme that emerged from everything Mercedes management said during Hungary and afterwards was that the team is finally building a reliable data bank of the habits of the car and that it is figuring it out, so maybe she won’t be constantly caught off guard for much longer.
“Friday’s suffering was just big, we didn’t really know which way to look,” Wolff said.
“Maybe getting it wrong on Friday was helpful in doing it almost completely on Sunday.
“We have a lot of data to look at, a lot of positivity from last weekend in France and here to build on in the second half of the season.
As Shovlin said, even in a successful year, a top F1 team improves with every knowledge it acquires. Mercedes’ unsuccessful year teaches this even more.
“Every race we learn, and at the end of the year, we kind of tend to write everything in one place, and it’s impressive that even after 20 races you’re still discovering things,” he said. he said, before adding a more cautious postscript on whether the learnings from the Hungaroring would actually be applicable at tracks such as Spa and Monza.
“I’m sure there will be pieces we can take, but if you look at the stats, are we suddenly going to land it in that window every track? That could be a tall order.
But Wolff hinted at one specific area where Russell’s Hungarian pole could have been proof that Mercedes were making an important discovery.
He had been weaker in qualifying than in the races of the year so far, and had always maintained that any changes to improve one-lap pace were going to have negative consequences on race pace.
Russell’s fall from first to third on race day in Hungary seemed more the result of the vagaries of racing strategies than proof that improved tire warm-up for qualifying would upset the pace of the race.
“Maybe in terms of what we did to the rims and in terms of how aggressive the setup was, we were too conservative for a while, not being able to say more,” Wolff mused when he asked. It was pointed out that Russell warming up the tires quickly in qualifying was priceless for tire degradation in the race.
Shovlin called the France/Hungary podiums, pole and Hungarian performance at the front of the race “things we could only have dreamed of earlier in the year” and added in the post-race debrief video the following week that the form trend now seemed solid enough to start feeling real satisfaction and confidence as soon as racing resumed after the summer.
“The pace of the car was also very good, and it’s always nice to have a good race before entering this holiday period,” added Shovlin.
“The most satisfying thing is to see where the car is in terms of pace in qualifying and in the race.
“We had a lot of catching up to do since the start of the year, we worked very hard to try to bring elements to each race and it’s really satisfying now to see that we are racing with the Ferraris, with the Reds. Bulls just ahead.
He now bills upcoming upgrades for the Belgian GP as merely additional steps to close an already small gap, rather than needing to be large, transformative and confusion-eliminating.
“We’re trying to bring some performance to Spa that hopefully closes that gap, we don’t have much to do now,” Shovlin said.
“But we will continue to develop the car for a little while now.
“We’re pretty excited though, the last few races have been the most fun we’ve had all year and we just hope we can take that extra step because we really want to win races in the near future so we are working hard to try to achieve this.
It might take a few consistency runs and some upgrade packages with quick, tangible results for Mercedes to stop feeling annoyed with its 2022 car. But the prospect of having a less frustrating relationship with it – and d to feel like all the effort to develop it is paying off – now seems realistic.