Ferrari offers an ironic twist in its Formula 1 engine battle with Mercedes
As the final practice session ended at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton hoisted himself out of his Mercedes and began to scoot away step by step.
Head bowed, his left hand seemed to reach out to touch the rear tire of his W13 – as if doing one last hopeful search for inspiration – as he completed a passing inspection.
With his trainer Angela Cullen, as always, watching his every move, Hamilton weighed himself in the back of the garage before turning and getting up to watch the scene for a few seconds, his arms at his sides and his eyes hidden by the half-closure. visor of his helmet.
Where did it all go wrong, he must have wondered. How did this happen?
As he swayed away, his shoulders and head slumping once more, Hamilton’s deflated body language captured the desolation of his impending defeat and set the defining picture of the worst weekend of his career. nine-year career with Mercedes.
Just over two hours later, Hamilton would be doomed to 16th on the grid – falling on the first stage of qualifying at pure pace for the first time since Silverstone 2009 – and would only recover to 10th from the race, deprived of a better finish by the confused communication between the team and the driver during the virtual safety car.
After escaping the season-opening Bahrain GP with a podium finish, last weekend revealed the true extent of Mercedes’ struggles in 2022 as Hamilton’s team-mate George Russell qualified close to a second off pole position and finished more than half a minute behind winner Max. Verstappen despite a flawless run to fifth in Jeddah.
Mercedes’ current problems with ‘porpoising’ – quickly apparent whenever the W13 hits the track – have been well documented and some, including Russell, remain convinced there is huge potential in the car if the team can just find the key to unlock it.
Yet with Hamilton clamoring for both more grip and power, and team principal Toto Wolff admitting the team currently has “weaknesses everywhere”, it is increasingly clear that the problems from Mercedes go beyond the twist.
Perhaps most damningly, it seems that what was for so long Mercedes’ greatest strength – their power unit – is now among their greatest weaknesses.
Mercedes and their allies – McLaren, Aston Martin and Williams – all face their own problems as they enter the season, but a sluggishness on the straights has united them through the opening two laps.
Much has been made of the fact that Mercedes customers occupied the last six places in the Bahrain GP – the only cars to have taken a lap behind before the last safety car – but the FIA’s top speed data paints a picture. an even more disturbing picture.
Six of the eight slowest cars to clear the speed trap in qualifying in Bahrain had Mercedes engines, only the Williams cars – potentially lacking the downforce and drag of their stablemates – did not feature in the bottom of the table.
With Sakhir’s speed trap located just before the Turn 1 braking zone, the fact that Daniel Ricciardo’s Mercedes, Aston Martins and McLaren were also the slowest on the start and finish line suggests that, in addition to their substandard terminal velocity, they also don’t gain much along the straights.
Compare and contrast, for example, the gains made by Hamilton (29.1 km/h) and Russell (27.9 km/h) in Bahrain with Sergio Perez, the fastest both on the finish line and in the speed trap, from which Red Bull recovered 31.8 km/h between the two checkpoints. .
As Jeddah’s speed trap is located on the full blast before the final corner, it is not possible to make the same comparison for Saudi Arabia.
The raw numbers, however, are again unflattering for Mercedes, which propelled six of the seven slowest cars (excluding Yuki Tsunoda’s AlphaTauri, who did not set a time) through the trap. speed in qualifying.
With engines among the few parts not directly affected by the rules revolution in 2022, Mercedes’ shortfall has led some to jump to the conclusion that the new E10 fuel must have something to do with their slippage in the engine department. .
Yet the lack of performance this season comes against the backdrop of a broader decline following the departure of Andy Cowell, the heartbeat behind the team’s astronomical success in the V6 hybrid era, as Managing Director of Mercedes High Performance Powertrains in June 2020.
Already in 2021, the team’s first full year without him, there were signs Mercedes’ engines weren’t quite up to the mark they once were, as Valtteri Bottas served three grid penalties related to the engine in four race weekends between Monza and Austin.
Hamilton also lost 10 places from pole position in Turkey and five in Brazil, while Verstappen’s Honda-powered Red Bull suffered just one engine penalty in Russia in a hotly contested title fight in which every point counted.
Could it be that Mercedes is sorely lacking in Cowell’s expertise and effective leadership, and having suffered in reliability in 2021, the loss of such a key figure is now showing up in performance?
When asked to explain why they struggled so much for reliability last season, Wolff claimed it was a consequence of Mercedes’ fight with Ferrari in 2018 and 2019, which he said had us “too much stretched”.
In other words, in their determination to match the power of Ferrari, Mercedes had exercised themselves so much that some elements of the organization, namely Cowell, had simply snapped.
It was particularly infuriating for Mercedes to learn later that Ferrari had set themselves some sort of false target, with their engine the subject of a shady deal with the FIA in February 2020 (by then Cowell had already signaled his intention to leave Mercedes), condemning the Scuderia to two winless seasons stuck in the F1 midfield.
Ferrari’s engine revs had pushed Mercedes to even greater heights in 2020 as the team won all but four of 17 races with arguably the most complete car ever produced, but the human cost of their commitment to stay at the top only makes itself felt now.
It is therefore deeply ironic that as the Mercedes machine breaks down for the first time and at the worst possible moment – F1 engines were homologated in early March and will sit frozen for the next four years – it was Ferrari who inherited their place at the front.
Having been discovered in 2020, after several years of suspicion over exactly how they had overpowered Mercedes, Ferrari arguably ran into trouble at the right time, giving them just enough leeway to turn their fortunes around in time for the engine freeze. .
And with Charles Leclerc off to a strong start this season and customer teams Haas and Alfa Romeo improving dramatically, it looks like Ferrari has clawed back a significant amount of the engine performance it lost back then, the F1 chassis- 75 innovative doing the rest.
The Prancing Horse never fully capitalized on its previous power advantage, with Sebastian Vettel beaten to the title by Hamilton in 2018 and Leclerc and Vettel limited to just three Grand Prix wins between them in 2019.
But if they ultimately failed on the track, perhaps Ferrari managed to bring down the king of high-performance powertrains, setting off the chain of events that knocked Mercedes out of action and left Hamilton utterly lost in Jeddah.
With Leclerc stepping forward to fight Verstappen for the world championship and Ferrari already 40 points clear in the constructors’ standings, they can now look back on their two years of pain and feel it was worth it.
All empires eventually fall. In Mercedes’ case, it came with the help of a little boost from Ferrari.