Mercedes has overwhelmingly dominated the full-hybrid era of Formula 1. Since 2014, no other team has won the Constructors' Championship and Mercedes' lead has looked impossible to break, simply because it has understood the cars like no other factory or garage. But after radically redesigning its 2022 car between Barcelona and Bahrain pre-season tests, the titan looks well adrift of its rivals and worse than that, unable to even explain its own successes or losses.
In Miami, things got real inexplicable. Mercedes' performance has been up and down, Hamilton and Russell having taken a podium apiece, both after a disaster for Max Verstappen. Up and down also happens to have been the motion of the car, which has been violently porpoising in such an out-of-control manner that George Russell said it was causing him serious physical issues in Imola. What's more, team principal Toto Wolff has repeatedly called the car "undrivable."
So it was an incredible turnaround at the Miami Grand Prix when suddenly the Merc seemed not to really be porpoising at all and was one of the fastest cars in first and second practice. Russell was the fastest car, setting a 1:29.938 lap that bested the Ferraris and Red Bulls, during second practice. Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton—who has struggled more with adapting to the 2022 car—wasn't far off at fourth fastest. It looked, for a couple of hours of Friday track time, like the issues the team had been struggling with might finally have been nailed.
Then a new day dawned, and Mercedes wasn't competitive at all. In final practice, the porpoising issue was visibly back and Hamilton was 15th fastest, Russell 17th, both more than a second-and-a-half off Sergio Perez's top time. It didn't really get any better in qualifying when Russell's best lap was a 1:30.173 for a Q2 exit and Hamilton only narrowly beat Russell's Friday time for a 1:29.797 and sixth in Q3.
What's baffling to us watching (and it seems Mercedes) is that there's no obvious explanation for why Russell and Hamilton were quick on Friday and slower during qualifying. After the Friday sessions, Russell said that he and the team "don't really understand" why the car was suddenly stable and quick. That's not how Formula 1 teams work, with everything analyzed, simulated, planned, and modeled.
After qualifying, Russell told Formula 1's official blog, “The car has felt completely different today, [I'm] struggling a lot with porpoising and I just couldn’t attack any of the corners really so it’s a real shame because I think there was the potential in there and we saw yesterday we were really quick. It’s just massively gone away from us today. And I don’t really know why.”
Russell said the situation was "not really making a lot of sense at the moment. When we get in the window, it’s fast but I’m just a bit disappointed with myself and for the team because the potential was there.”
Hamilton was a bit more blunt, saying "we haven't improved" and that any apparent speed shown on Friday was a combination of circumstances. It's just odd that Mercedes can't pin down which circumstances those are. This is the team best at designing and getting the most out of modern F1 cars, so to not have any apparent idea about what to do to resolve the problems is a strange look.
Toto Wolff said to Sky Sports that the team will stay "faithful" to the sidepod-less concept that it's been working on since Bahrain. He added that Barcelona is about to provide a very valuable comparison: Mercedes took a more normal-looking car to the Barcelona test, so if the sidepod-slimmed car cannot outperform it during the Spanish Grand Prix, this could be the first chance for the team to work out if that bit of the concept, at least, is helping. Or if it's any of the thousand other things it could be on an F1 car.
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