RACING

What has happened to Mercedes since their breakthrough at Barcelona?

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

The Mercedes had delivered their strongest form of the season and Hamilton’s charge from behind to finish fifth, with left team boss Toto Wolff suggesting he had the fastest race car on the day -the.

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But any hope that Barcelona’s breakthrough marked a turning point in Mercedes’ battles to tame their 2022 challenger was quickly dashed.

Monaco and Baku have proven incredibly difficult for their drivers – with the excessive porpoising that has always hurt them both competitively and the literal pain that Hamilton endured in Azerbaijan.

So was Barcelona a false dawn for Mercedes where circumstances flattered their car? Or have the last two races just not played in the areas the team has mastered?

The answer is actually a bit of both.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG, at Parc Fermé

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Engineering compromise

Mercedes’ battle this year has been to run its car with ride height and suspension settings that can have it as close to the ground as possible, but without triggering the porpoises and bouncing that annoy drivers and impair its shape.

Roll the car high and soft enough to dampen the bounce and it’s not fast enough, but go too low and too steep and the porpoising is there with a vengeance.

As Ground Engineering Manager Andrew Shovlin explained, the battle between these two conflicting requirements has been a perpetual headache.

“We realize this is actually a very, very complicated issue,” he said. “It’s not something you can apply a resolution to and it’s gone and you can forget about it. It’s always going to be there: you have to craft it.

“Maybe it took longer than we thought it would, but I think the problem is that when you kind of take the layers off the onion, there are more layers of onion. to do. It’s kind of like that, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.”

George Russell, Mercedes W13

George Russell, Mercedes W13

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Postmen Monaco and Baku

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

And his ability to do so is aided when the pitch itself is smooth and consistent, as it was at Barcelona.

So when the track surfaces are more uneven and bumpy, as they have been in Monaco and Baku, it bothers the W13 to be able to operate in its happy place.

What Mercedes doesn’t yet know is how much of the porpoising it experiences is due to aerodynamic reasons and its mechanical setup.

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

“We made progress in Barcelona, ​​because we were going down the straights and everything was very nice, calm and comfortable for the drivers. But it seems that on the bumpy circuits, driving has become an issue.

“You can’t exactly separate what’s aerodynamic and what’s mechanical and how it relates to suspension and damping compliance. But basically we still have some work to do.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W13

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W13

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Barcelona courses

While Monaco and Baku were tough, lessons learned from the weekend served to underline why the Spanish GP weekend was so good.

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

What the Barcelona GPS data has shown is that when the W13 is in his happy place and working in the window where porpoising doesn’t hold him back, then he can do things that even shadow Red Bull and Ferrari cars. .

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

He passed the speed traps at the end of the main straight and downhill to turn 10, but more interestingly he was ahead all the way through high-speed right-hander 3, a place that shows the aerodynamic assets of modern F1 cars.

All this indicates that Mercedes behaves better in high-speed corners (when the car is not bouncing) than in low-speed corners which are more common in Monaco and Baku.

As Shovlin explains: “If you look at where we got that performance in Spain, we were by a small margin the fastest on the straight. By a small margin, we were the fastest in the two fast corners. t good enough in slow speed.

“The image we took from there was that we had to work on slow speed. And then you come to Monaco, and Baku where there’s a big slow speed dominance there. Then coupled to that, there are the driving problems.

“There will be tracks that will suit us better than those. But for us, it’s not about waiting for those and worrying about others. It’s about understanding the problem, finding 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

roller coaster ride

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

Bumpy tracks, like Montreal this weekend, will continue to be a headache until they find answers, when there should be reason for them to be optimistic about smooth venues at high speed like Silverstone and Paul Ricard.

But Shovlin thinks it would be wrong for the team to simply pin its hopes on the schedule offering suitable venues. He is aware that Mercedes needs a high-performance car everywhere.

“What you would say after Monaco and Baku is that the gaps we have seem to get bigger when we go to a bumpy circuit,” he said.

“When you look at what we are dealing with, in terms of data, or you look at the on-board images and what the pilots have to deal with, you can see why.

“The car is not tuned. It doesn’t absorb bumps well. It won’t sit still on the straights, it moves a lot. So it will change that image.”

“Montreal is not a smooth circuit, but maybe places like Ricard and Silverstone, this car would work better. But even if we come to a smooth track, we are well aware that the basic performance is not there either at the moment. . We need to speed this up.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W13

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W13

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Conceptual change

The scale of the problems in Monaco and Baku has also reignited debate over the Mercedes concept, and whether it should perhaps revamp things for 2023.

Team boss Toto Wolff said after the Baku race there was no ‘sacred cow’ on the car that wouldn’t be scrapped if the team felt better things could be done in place.

But for now, Shovlin says the focus is on getting technical answers, as he downplays talk that changing the shape of a pontoon, for example, would be a silver bullet to solve his problems.

“Driving issues are unlikely to be due to the shape of the car’s body, as some of them are definitely mechanical.

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“If you have a car that generates downforce, closer to the road, so its peak is lower, then you have less room to play. And you inherently have to make it stiffer.

“There are a lot of areas we’re looking at. So I think it’s probably oversimplified to say: do we suddenly make a car that looks radically different and go in a different direction?

“The way we look at it as engineers is we’re going to identify the areas that are good enough and those that aren’t. And work on those.

“At the moment, the list of areas that are not good enough is longer than we would like, so we have to stick to that.”

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