Miami Grand Prix's remarkable buzz can't hide Mercedes' woe
Last updated on .From the section Formula 1
While Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc staged another wheel-to-wheel battle for the win in their private contest for the world title, Mercedes left a Miami Grand Prix weekend - characterised by the remarkable buzz around this new event - more confused than ever as to why they are struggling for pace this season.
For the first time this year, the world champions had a glimpse of the performance they always believed was in their car. But no sooner had it appeared than it slipped away again, and the team fell back to their usual position.
George Russell, who used the advantage of new tyres after a late-race safety car to win a battle with team-mate Lewis Hamilton for fifth place, ended Friday in Miami sitting on top of the time sheets.
This was no low-fuel special. The Mercedes was genuinely quick. But on Saturday morning it wasn't. The team had changed the car overnight, so they put it back to where it had been on Friday. Still the pace it had shown proved elusive. And it remained so in the race.
Afterwards, Russell, Hamilton and team boss Toto Wolff were befuddled.
"We've known all along there is a fast racing car there," said Russell, who fought up impressively from 12th on the grid on an off-set strategy. "Friday was a complete outlier and we don't really understand why.
"Lewis did a better job than me in qualifying but even fuel- and power-corrected, his fastest laps were Friday and every other driver improved by well over a second.
"My race pace was 0.2 seconds off Leclerc on Friday and today back to half to one second off.
"It's there, but we need to try to unlock it. We still don't really understand why it's so unpredictable. Toto is throwing the word 'diva' around but that's a bit of an understatement.
"This weekend is when we have shown the most amount of promise but we are a long way off still."
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'We are flying in the fog'
Mercedes took a car upgrade to Miami - a new, low-drag rear wing that they believe is the optimum way to run the car but which was not available until now.
On Friday, it looked like it might be the magic key that unlocked the potential Mercedes still think is in the car. But the rest of the weekend proved they simply don't know what is going on with it.
"We're the same as we were in the first race," Hamilton said. "Unfortunately we haven't improved in these five races. But I'm hopeful that at some stage we will. Just got to keep trying and keep working hard."
After the race, Wolff was asked whether it was fair to say that the team are lost. He ducked the question, not wanting that conclusion to appear in headlines on Monday, or at least not from his mouth.
"We have been straight from the beginning," he said. "We are flying in the fog a little bit.
"It's clear that there is potential in the car and she's fast. But we just don't understand how to unlock the potential.
"It is a car that is super-difficult to drive and on the edge of dipping in and out of the performance window - more out than in. And dissecting the data with a scalpel is just a painful process because it takes very long and the data sometimes doesn't show us what the drivers tell us.
"They have their hands full with a car that is not comfortable or nice or predictable to drive but the data doesn't show these big swings.
"We haven't had this situation before in any of the years that it didn't correlate what we see on the screens with what the driver feels and that is making it even more difficult."
Will Mercedes have to abandon their car concept?
Mercedes' problems are caused by their car's floor. It is flexing in an uncontrolled way, and this is triggering the aerodynamic instability - "porpoising" or bouncing - that is forcing them to run it in a set-up they don't want to, to keep it under some form of control.
There was a theory doing the rounds that the lower drag rear wing might help, that taking aerodynamic load off the car would reduce the porpoising. But the Mercedes engineers were never convinced by that, and Miami proved it was not the case.
The car was quick on Friday and had much reduced porpoising. On Saturday morning, the porpoising was back and the pace was gone. They put the car back in the set-up from Friday and the porpoising was reduced but the pace did not return.
The problem is that the complexity of the aerodynamics of the cars under the new rules introduced this year is such that it cannot be simulated by the usual tools teams use. So Mercedes, for now, are looking for answers in the dark.
"We have the brightest engineers in the business working day and night to try to understand it and we still don't have a clear answer as to why," Russell said.
"We need to keep on analysing. This weekend may turn out to be one of the most important weekends when we look back.
"There is a fast car there - we only have to look at the data from Friday and compare it."
Questions are being asked about the overall concept of Mercedes' car. It is dramatically different from the rest, with pared-back sidepods and much more exposed upper floor area at the rear than any other car.
Many outside the team suspect this is the root of the problem and that Mercedes will have to abandon it for next year.
"If you walk through the grid," Wolff said, "you can see our floor edges stick out much wider than everyone else's and that gives it much more scope of possible instability, and I think that is where our concept varies.
"Clearly, the Barcelona launch car is much slower on paper but we need to find out how we can make the current car work predictably for the drivers."
Key decision time looming
The car had bigger sidepods when it was launched and at the first of two pre-seasons tests, before the current "zero sidepod" design was introduced at the second. Might the team revert to the old spec to see whether it works better?
"I wouldn't discount anything," Wolff said, "but we need to give all of our people the benefit of the doubt that they have produced great race cars in the past and we believed this is the route to go."
But Wolff did admit that the forthcoming Spanish Grand Prix, held on the same Barcelona track as the first test, means the data from the car as it is now can be compared with that from the previous spec back in February.
"It will definitely be a point in time where we can correlate with what we have seen in February and gather more data," Wolff said. "I am also annoyed by always saying the same thing about gathering data and making experiments, but it is physics and not mystics and therefore you have to unpick the bones.
"We are still committed to the current concept. We are faithful. We are not looking at the lady next door if you like her more or not.
"As a matter of fact, we need to understand, before we make a decision to switch to another concept, where did this one go wrong? And what is the goodness and badness of the concept?
"I would be asking for an answer to that after Barcelona because that is the correlation we have. And by then we have to look ourselves in the mirror and say did we get it wrong or not?"
Ferrari's concern about Red Bull
At the front, where Mercedes used to be, the race was all about Verstappen v Leclerc - as all five grands prix so far this year have been.
Verstappen started it third, having made an error at the end of qualifying which he believed was rooted in the reliability issues that had blighted his Friday. But he was past the second Ferrari of Carlos Sainz by the second corner, and ahead of Leclerc by the start of lap nine as the Ferrari struggled on the medium tyres.
Once on to the hards after the pit stops, Leclerc was pretty much as quick as Verstappen but by then he was eight seconds adrift.
The safety car gave him a chance, and he harried the Red Bull hard for five laps, but in the end Verstappen had enough to hold off his challenge.
After the race, some questioned whether Leclerc should have pitted under the safety car to fit new tyres to attack Verstappen. But the team had only new soft or hard tyres remaining, and as it turned out on Sunday - a unique phenomenon in Miami - a well-used hard, as Leclerc was on at the time, was faster than both those options.
Verstappen's win was the first time anyone has won two races in a row this year. And it continued his run of winning whenever he has finished in 2022.
Are Red Bull on a roll, Verstappen was asked?
"We are still having a few issues we have to solve," he said. "My Friday was terrible which is not great if you want a good weekend. There is a lot of potential. The car is quick. We just need to make sure it is reliable."
Leclerc admitted Ferrari now needed to react.
"In the race we need to, especially on the softer [tyre] compounds," he said. "On the medium and soft, it has been two races they are better. On the short runs, we put that tyre in the right window but on the long runs we struggle."
For now, Leclerc still leads the championship - as he has all year - with a handy 19-point advantage. But two races ago, he was 46 points ahead of Verstappen.
"We have been in only one position since the beginning which means we are hunted for now," Leclerc said. "I quite like this because it means we are doing something right.
"It is two races that the gap is slowly closing down. I just want to be the most competitive, and at the moment it seems Red Bull have the upper hand in the races."
While Red Bull have been upgrading their car consistently from race to race so far, Ferrari's first big upgrade package since the car was launched will come at the next race in Spain.
Leclerc said he was "confident about my team and I am sure we will bring updates that will bring us back to the top".
But in Miami team boss Mattia Binotto finally voiced in public a question Ferrari have held in private for some time - how, under a budget cap, are Red Bull developing their car so much?
"If there is a concern," he said, "it is how much they are developing considering the budget cap.
"But as well as a concern it is maybe a hope because at some stage they will need to stop, otherwise I will not understand how they will do that. We do not have the money to develop every race."
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Sadly F1 is becoming more interested with celebrities / influencers / people who think they are more important than the actually are!
Bring back the classic tracks please to improve the racing, less of the Americanised glitz & glam nonsense, and let the actual fans near the drivers & teams.
Russell appears to be doing ok with it.
The car design is flawed. And worse, Mercedes shows continuously that they don't understand how to fix it. It isn't fixable with setup.
I believe they are reaching a point where they need to start thinking about 2023 quickly.