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F1: is Mercedes crumbling in the year that should not have been?

Bryan Edwards

It's the year that shouldn't have been and Mercedes are having a tough 2021. What's going on?

We should put the present situation in perspective: Mercedes are not going especially slowly - almost everyone else has, almost miraculously, somehow closed the gap between the team that has dominated the turbo-hybrid era in the year that should not have happened.

This year is special: we were supposed to see a radical change in the cars and power systems this year but the chaos, on track and at the factories, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in a decision to postpone the new cars until next year.

But there were some changes. Amongst them were changes in aerodynamics that some teams argue disadvantage those who run a "low rake" on their cars. Red Bull run a high rake: the front of the car is nearer the ground than the rear. Mercedes run a much flatter vehicle. At the beginning of the season, the low rake manufacturers, including most of the Mercedes engine runners, complained that Red Bull and those that followed its design philosophy were being preferred.

But now we know that doesn't stack up: McLaren, Williams and Aston Martin are running Mercedes engines and they are not suffering the downshift in results that Mercedes is seeing. In qualifying, George Russell's Williams is - given all the differences in budget - giving the works' Mercs more than a run for their money.

In Baku, this weekend, Valeri Bottas arrived late after his aeroplane broke down in Finland. Bad as that was, it was the best thing that happened to him all weekend. The only thing that didn't go wrong was that the wheels came off when they were supposed do and didn't come off when they weren't.

Baku has a two long straits. One is almost as long as some entire circuits. Now that Honda and Ferrari have got their power plants up to similar to Mercedes, for the season we weren't supposed to have, remember, the principle difference along those straights is aerodynamics. The slipperiness of the car through the air is what dictates the top speed. Add in that, because it's such a long straight - well over a mile - the car in front can be a long way ahead but the hole it has made in the air is still there: it seems ridiculous to say that drivers can slipstream a car that's half-a-mile ahead but at Baku they can. The slipstream is still there even when the car in front has gone around Turn One, like an aeroplane leaves vapour trails that are visible long after it's left the field of vision.

Mercedes, in free practice, decided that to be able to slipstream the full length of that straight was worth six tenths of a second. In qualifying, at one point, the top eight cars were within a second of the leader. It looked as if the grid would be topsy-turvy as the position of the car in a spread-out pack trumped all-out power, even before DRS is taken into account - and that was said to be worth another five to six miles per hour. This, remember, applies to everyone no matter what they are driving and no matter who they are following. And it happens on every lap.

The other limiting factor is the minor problem of braking from well over 200mph to around 65mph in the time it takes to say "fuck, there's a corner." It's not a kink, it's a proper corner. With car-destroying barriers on either side.

Three things are needed: phenomenal brakes, aero and tyres that create the grip that fixes both ends of the car to the road when physics says "you want to do what? Hahaha." The third thing is a pair of enormous ... well, drivers don't find full-race harnesses comfortable when they slide down in the seat so work it out for yourself: I've used up my rude language quota.

Bottas was given up for dead in qualifying. As everyone tried to work out where was the best place to be in the train before it arrived at the final corner, the game of what, in different circumstances, Steve Rider, Star Sports' erstwhile commentator, used to call "pit lane poker." No one wanted to go out first. Mercedes, fumbling around with not much to show for turning up, decided they had to go and couldn't risk being stuck at the back.

Baku is at sea level. The air is thick and, even when it's at getting on for 30 degrees C air temp, moist (because of the sea) . Thick, moist air is heavy. Pushing it aside requires enormous energy. So not only does the car in front give a free "tow" to the one behind, it can't go as fast. Slipstreaming is already a double whammy for the car in front. When there is a train, each car picks up the slipstream from those in front - and it's cumulative.

Bottas and Hamilton were struggling, the team put Bottas out first, then Hamilton to provide LH44 with a slingshot. Then everyone else piled out of the pits. By the time he finished his lap, Bottas had gone from the front of the train to somewhere in the middle of next week.

Hamilton somehow managed to haul his car up to P2 on the grid. Bottas started down amongst the dead men. It looked like another in an increasingly frequent list of errors in strategy.

In the race, Hamilton clung onto the coat tails of first Charles LeClerc and then Max Verstappen and then as the Ferrari faded, Perez coolly drifted up behind Hamilton. Verstappen was having a nice, calm Sunday drive.

How many times have you heard the expression "the commentator's curse?" With a handful of laps to go, and the cars spreading out a bit after a safety car caused by an enormous tyre-related incident at the beginning of the long, main, straight, when Stroll's left rear gave way and speared him into the left-hand barrier just short of the pit entrance, David Croft of Sky Sports, who leads a team of commentators that leave all others struggling to find the best line, said that Max Verstappen has it in the bag. "All he has to do it not crash."

He crashed.

About a lap and a half later. His left rear tyre, the same type and similar life to that of Stroll, just two or three hundred metres further along the same straight. His car turned right at more than 200 mph. A red flag followed, with only two laps to go, so that all those on similar tyres could change them. The only people who think the crashes were not caused the tyre failure seem to be Pirelli.

By this time, Bottas was having his own little battle with Russell, a major embarrassment. The first time they raced each other, Russell was in Hamilton's works car and only bad luck prevented him being right with Bottas at the end of the race. The next time was controversial: in the wet, Russell went around a struggling Bottas who turned right on the apex. The crash cost Mercedes over a million dollars in repairs. No one asked Williams even though their car was in a sorry state, too. Russell got the blame, Toto Wolff all but told him that if he did it again, he could forget a move to the works team. It was reported that he told Russell that he would say when he could overtake a works driver, a wholly improper thing to say, if it's true.

As Russell slowly gained on Bottas who wasn't able to pick up his speed despite exhortations from his pit crew, it was all nicely set up for Russell to be on Bottas' tail for the final two DRS enabled straights. There was every chance that they would swap positions on the long run to the line.

But none of that happened because of a start, from the grid in the order they were in when the red flag came out. No lap was deducted for the formation lap - there were only two laps to go. This, we might find out later, might have almost caused another problem.

Anyway: off they went. In pole position for the restart, Hamilton sat with his front brakes smoking, the lights went green, Hamilton got away perfectly, took the inside line with Perez hounding him. Then Hamilton locked up his front wheels, went straight on and somehow Perez dodged him and the rest of the pack dodged Perez. And then it was all over. Hamilton dropped to last of the runners as he reversed out of the run-off area after everyone else had gone by.

Everyone else, that is, except Russell who went around the formation lap and drove slowly into the pits. Perez flew around, the pack like a go-kart race for seven year olds behind him. Norris muscled his way up to fifth; Vettel's strategy had pulled him up to fourth and Hamilton's demise picked him up to third where a DRS and slipstream aided approach put him past Pierre Gasly who's Honda powered Alpha Tauri had been an unsung star of the day.

Perez couldn't take his foot of the throttle and did two laps like qualifying laps, despite a developing problem with the car. Talkback was chatter about whether it would make it to the line. It did, he stopped and turned it off. The team sounded disconsolate: they had their team leader deprived of a victory to cement his lead over Hamilton; a 1-2 had been on the cards so they felt they lost a lot of points: and they have two cars in need of repair and not a lot of time to do it.

So, why did he stop and why did Williams withdraw Russel with two laps to go.

The reason the Williams went into the pits so slowly was simple: a loss of power and although not coasting it wasn't going anywhere near fast enough to race, and there was a risk of more damage to the gearbox.

Perez said after the race that they "almost had to retire the car" during the last two laps as a hydraulic problem appeared.

So the extra lap didn't cause fuel shortages, helped no doubt by several laps earlier behind the safety car.

Did any of this contribute to Mercedes' poor performance in Baku? No. Not at all. In fact, against all the odds if a silly technical thing had not gone wrong in the middle of the first corner on the restart, Hamilton would probably have won, despite having, possibly, the third best car. But that's the Hamilton magic.

What went wrong in that corner was the brake magic. It appears to be a setting that, basically, puts the front brakes on during the formation lap so they get super hot, heat up the wheels that that heats up the tyres. A design issue put a switch for that device in a place where, struggling to get into the correct place on the road with Perez hassling him, Hamilton inadvertently turned it on. That jammed the front brakes on, left the back brakes unlocked and traction was lost.

But that's a single event that is more symptomatic than it seems. What really went wrong in Monaco and in Baku went wrong several weekends ago: somehow Mercedes have lost the set up. With less practice time and less wind-tunnel time, they are reliant on simulators to find the problem. Well, sorry guys: remember the brave boys and girls at Manor who set up their factory in Yorkshire and said "we are going to build an F1 car entirely using computerised modelling"? It didn't work.

Mercedes don't don't like the new tyres, they don't like the new aero, they don't like the fact that some teams have flexible wings and have been given time to change them during which period several high-speed tracks will help them. Hamilton and Bottas are struggling with relative lack of pace, to the extent that they had vastly different rear wings in Baku. They are struggling with grip. They are struggling to heat the tyres up and keep them in the ideal range. They are struggling with tyre wear.

Basically, everyone else, including the back markers excluding HAAS which has eschewed development this year in favour of trying to get next year's car right, has got on top of this year's changes and Mercedes has not. It's annoying that, in the season that should never have been, we are seeing genuine competition for both Mercedes and Hamilton. Perhaps F1 needs to abandon the changes that it said would improve racing: the teams have managed it all on their own.

In every aspect of the car other than grunt, they are in the weeds.

And they have sold the grunt to almost half the grid. Ooops.

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