The 2022 Formula 1 season has been an expedition for Mercedes. It was first the realization that she had problems, then the realization that they wouldn’t be resolved easily and then gradually building an understanding of the porpoise’s problems and the recoil that killed any hope of her being a championship threat.
The trip ended up, more or less, lifting morale to victory at the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos one round from the end. But for the end of the journey to be considered a success depends on whether next season’s W14, the pinnacle of pain and learning for 2022, brings Mercedes back to the front on a regular basis.
Back at the beginning of the year, Mercedes first had to determine if they had a real problem. The first time the car hit the track, on a windswept promotional day at Silverstone on February 18, the rebound was evident. But given that this was what George Russell described as “the windiest day of my motorsport career”, was it just the result of really bad conditions?
“We knew from a very wet day at Silverstone that there was some bounce, but not enough to get a really clear picture,” Mercedes technical director Mike Elliott told The Race. “That day was absolutely awful, to say the least, with high winds and heavy rain, so we went to the first test and were able to prove that he was definitely there.
“We knew we had issues to work out but obviously we also knew we had a very big update coming, it’s hard to know what you’re doing in the first set versus what you’re doing in the second set, etc. So that was part of the challenge.”
Mercedes hit the headlines when their ‘side zero’ package broke the lid on day one of the final pre-season testing in Bahrain. The package didn’t eliminate the problems, but Mercedes maintains it didn’t cause them either. Despite the fact that the tight side legs received enormous scrutiny, the team didn’t believe they were at the heart of the poor performance.
“It didn’t create anything unexpected,” Elliott said. Unfortunately, this did not solve our problems, nor was it ever intended.
“When people look at the car, there is a tendency to talk about concept cars in terms of you have a concept, you put it on track and it works or it doesn’t work.
“I think the reality of what we’re doing is a constant evolution, which is you take what you have and say, ‘OK, how can we improve on it?'” And you can do that by looking at your competitors’ cars, and you can do that by looking at your simulations, your race track measurements, your wind tunnel measurements, your CFD measurements, and then say, “What’s the next step to take?”
And while the sidepod is visually very different from what others are running, when you look at what it does aerodynamically, it’s not that different from what others are running. It’s just different geometry.
“The truth is, if you were to switch the sidepod concept, I don’t think it would make much difference to where we are.”
Even after testing, Mercedes was confident it would overcome its problems relatively quickly. There has been talk of significant lap time gains that can be made once you can run the car reliably at the lower ride heights required to do so. But that proved impossible.
Elliott points to the fact that there were many problems Mercedes were struggling with at the start of the season. But in essence, it all boils down to where the car was designed to operate at high altitude. This is because even when Mercedes was on top of the worst thanks to changes made for the sixth event of the season in Spain, the package was basically compromised.
“I don’t think any of the teams really anticipated the hog hunt,” Elliott says. “We were all aware of what had happened in the past with ground effect cars and we were all going into the season thinking there was potential for it.
“When you look at the limitations you have in terms of what you can do in CFD and windtunnel, given the limitations of flight testing, it’s very difficult to work out what you may or may not see.
“So once you get into the winter testing right and you see the rebound, for us in particular it was about how quickly we can develop the tools to understand exactly what’s going on.
“You can make many fixes on the sides of the track and the trials and we saw a lot of them up and down the grid. But really it was about how quickly did you understand the underlying phenomenon and how quickly could you fix it?
“By Barcelona, we were pretty much on top of that. But that put certain restrictions on the way we were running the car, which meant we weren’t able to get the best results.”
While the phenomenon of porpoise hunting has never completely gone away, it is largely contained and understood at this point in the season. But the fact that the W13 was designed to operate at a lower ride height meant that it didn’t have the rear suspension range it needed once it was modified to run higher. This was something that made Monaco a terrible weekend.
The car generally had to run stiff – which meant that mechanical kickback (unlike porpoises) was also an issue and the floor was not able to generate the intended downforce. This meant leaning towards the larger wings, which resulted in another weakness for the car in terms of drag. These were all different manifestations of the same basic problem and, to a greater or lesser extent, Mercedes carried them around all year. How difficult it is to determine by circuit characteristics.
“It was a case of choosing how close to the ground you could actually get away with running it,” Elliott says of the 2022 Car Challenge. So you have two problems there.
“The aerodynamic issue is that there is actually a continuum between the aerodynamic force and the movement of the car. And the gradual split between the two means you get an energy input. So, once you hit a bump and it starts to wobble, the aerodynamics make it add power to the wobble instead of dampening it.
“Interestingly, if you go and look at previous generations of cars, the aerodynamics would have been impaired. So the aerodynamics actually had a net damping contribution that this year’s cars didn’t. So even when you factor in the aerodynamic input, the fact that you have reduced the damping It means you struggle to run the cars as hard as you want to run them as close to the ground.”
Gradually, Mercedes managed to get her problems under control. Floor stiffness has been increased, porpoises have been tamed and although rebound still causes problems – particularly in Baku – Mercedes has at least made it through the troubleshooting phase. But this came at a cost given that what might be called ‘normal’ development was steadily ticked off while he worked through the car’s many problems.
But since the middle of the season, Mercedes has felt they have a car they can work with and performance has become more consistent. Therefore, the team’s focus was on combining obtaining the best results, continuing to build understanding, and developing its various tools to ensure that it does not recur in 2023.
The introduction of the aerodynamic oscilloscope after the August break had little effect, as by then Mercedes were largely able to control their problems. But it also did nothing to help the team’s performance.
While some obvious gains had to be left on the table, including some weight savings, the W13 became an increasingly powerful weapon as the season progressed. There was even a mock flirtation with the potential to win at the Hungaroring (where Russell took the team’s pace-based pole position) and Zandvoort, as well as later in Austin when Max Verstappen lost time in a slow pit stop. But it wasn’t until the races in Mexico City and Interlagos that Mercedes seemed to have the pace to win.
Mexico did not go as well as hoped, despite Mercedes’ strategic mistakes it is likely that Red Bull would always have been beaten. But Brazil two weeks later had an impressive run, with a score of 1-2.
Just to make sure there are no illusions about how much work still needs to be done, rebound issues have damaged Mercedes in Abu Dhabi. But, encouragingly, this was to be expected because by the second half of the year the team generally had a good handle on how the car was going to perform before going to any particular circuit – and the Yas berth wasn’t quite as good as the predictions were.
This should be considered positive since it indicates that the relationship was good. The main question for the in-the-work ’23 is whether that connection can be achieved without referencing it with a real car to highlight it. If so, that bodes well.
Third place in the Constructors’ Championship always seemed likely, but it was to the team’s credit that it managed to close in on Ferrari’s challenge for second place – just 39 points short of that.
Mercedes has been able to make a lot of progress and turn a car around that was, at times, a nightmare, which is encouraging for the year ahead. You will have come away stronger from the experience with a vast data bank of knowledge built up. But the fact that the car still had problems late in the year, with Lewis Hamilton highlighting the car’s fickle handling quirks late in the season, shows it’s not the definitive answer to the question of whether Mercedes has understood and scrapped everything. Mistakes that lead her to the wrong way with her car.
The team is cautiously optimistic, and perhaps with good reason, about 2023. But the ultimate test of whether the pain and struggle of 2022 is really worth it will be in whether Mercedes can take the fight to Red Bull next year.
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