Can the Mercedes juggernaut course-correct after careening off its rails?
Continuous domination of a sport by a player or team is a fascinating phenomenon to observe and study. Long streaks of excellence make for exhilarating viewing, but they can turn boring, too.
Formula One has had its share of such streaks, starting with Juan Manuel Fangio winning four consecutive titles in the 1950s. The first five years of the 2000s witnessed the pre-eminence of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari.
But F1 is unique because with constant changes in the technical regulations, a successful team can trip up, going from a championship-winning car one year to an also-ran the next. So to sustain a long streak, a lot of factors need to align.
Over the last eight years, Mercedes has dominated the sport, winning eight constructors’ championships and seven drivers’ titles from 2014 to 2021.
In 2014, F1 embarked on a new path, switching from naturally-aspirated engines to complex turbocharged hybrid power units. It was the sort of big regulation change that gives teams the opportunity to jump ahead and seize the moment or — conversely — falter and fall behind.
In 2014, right from pre-season testing, Mercedes was head and shoulders above the rest of the pack. It had the most powerful engine, which powered it to three straight titles without any competition.
The team managed to keep its lead despite a big aero change in 2017 and a smaller shake-up in 2019, fending off competition from Ferrari in 2017 and 2018.
It was only in 2021 that the team faced a formidable challenge, from Red Bull, but still managed to win the constructors’ title. And if it wasn’t for some dubious stewarding from race director Michael Massi, Lewis Hamilton may well have won an eighth drivers’ title.
Ahead of the 2022 season, F1 unveiled its latest regulatory change. It fundamentally changed the aerodynamic concept of the last decade in a bid to help cars follow each other more closely and allow for better racing.
Finally, after eight years of dominance, it appears as if the Mercedes juggernaut has hit a roadblock, at least for now. It was evident from the two pre-season tests that the team was struggling to extract performance from its car. Over the first five races, this evidence has only grown.
With just 95 points, Mercedes is 62 behind leader Ferrari in the constructors’ standings, with just two podiums so far, one each for Hamilton and George Russell.
The new F1 rules have emphasised generating downforce from the car’s underbody, with the floor playing a crucial role in it through an aerodynamic phenomenon known as ‘ground effect’.
The downforce produced this way is more stable when following a car closely unlike the downforce generated by a complex front wing which loses its efficiency when running behind another car.
Mercedes, though, has been suffering from ‘porpoising’, in which the car appears to bounce wildly on track, affecting performance.
‘Porpoising’ is one of the unintended consequences of the new rules.
With the ‘ground effect’, the ride height of the car is run as close to the ground as possible to maximise the downforce.
However, as the speed builds up and the downforce increases, the car is pushed towards the ground and at one point, it gets too close to the ground, stalling the airflow.
At this point, the car loses downforce and the ride height increases until such a point that the airflow re-attaches and starts to produce downforce again. This makes the car look like it’s bouncing on the track and it hurts the overall lap time.
Although most teams have this problem, Mercedes has struggled the most and is experiencing it even in corners, unlike other teams which mostly have to deal with it only on the straights.
Making heads turn
In Bahrain, during the second pre-season test, the reigning champion made heads turn when it unveiled a revised, sleek-looking car that had smaller sidepods — sidepod-less, some described it — something not seen in recent years.
Mercedes’ car looked distinct from the rest, but after five races, there are questions about whether the team has gone down the wrong route with its innovative approach.
While the team management continues to believe in the concept, based on the numbers seen during wind tunnel testing and with simulation tools, it has not translated into performance on the track.
The ‘porpoising’ issue has forced Mercedes to run a higher ride height, which means it is sacrificing downforce and lap time to achieve a more stable car.
Mercedes believes that if it can find a solution, allowing use of the ideal setting instead of the compromise it has been forced into, the car has the potential to be at the sharp end of the grid.
The team has been at its wit’s end after not being able to identify the reasons behind why the car is ‘porpoising’ even at lower speeds.
But even with all these troubles, Mercedes is the third fastest team on race day, if not in qualifying as well, but well adrift of Ferrari and Red Bull, with Max Verstappen even lapping Hamilton at Imola.
The seven-time champion seems resigned to the fact that his chances are not looking bright and said after the Miami GP, where his team brought upgrades, that the pace hasn’t improved since the start of the season.
Now with five races done, and its drivers well behind leader Charles Leclerc, Mercedes has a decision to make on how long it wants to stick to its current concept.
The next race in Barcelona will give the team a chance to evaluate the true potential of the car as it is one of the tracks that is used extensively for testing, thanks to its mix of flowing, high-speed corners and twisty, low-speed corners.
Importantly, during the Barcelona test, Mercedes had a more conventional sidepod design. So the race could help the team compare the two concepts based on data.
This could give the team a direction to help determine whether to keep developing this year’s car or switch focus to next year. The big teams like Mercedes are often used to spending their way out of trouble but the recently enacted budget cap means it is no longer so easy to do that.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff was quoted in the Guardian as saying, “We have stayed committed to the current concept, we are faithful to the current concept. Before we make a decision on switching to another concept we need to understand where this one went wrong. What is the good and what is the bad? I would be asking for an answer after Barcelona and then we have to look ourselves in the mirror and ask: ‘Did we get it wrong or not?’”
After eight years of dominance, Mercedes faces its sternest test since taking over Brawn GP in 2010. While the 2014 rule changes enabled its ascent to the top, it was an outcome of a gradual rise from one win in 2012 to three wins in 2013 before the start of a dream run.
The team is known for being methodical in the way it approaches its racing, with a ‘no blame culture’ that has delivered unprecedented success.
So while it would be foolish to bet against Mercedes turning things around, not many neutrals would mind the Silver Arrows’ struggles. Maybe Hamilton charging from behind later in the season in his quest for an eighth world title could make for an even more compelling season.