Like every team, Mercedes hoped their W13, with its radical design, would exploit the new 2022 regulations better than their rivals - and who would have bet against that after eight consecutive constructors' titles in a row?
“You’re always quite excited when a new car hits the track,” Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin says. “The difference with these rules was you really didn't know where anyone was going to stack up.”
Ahead of the shakedown and pre-season tests, Shovlin says the team were “blissfully unaware” of the persistent problems that would blight them in the first third of the season.
The turnaround from 15 of a possible 16 drivers’ and constructors’ titles, and 111 wins out of a possible 160 over the last eight years to failing to win a race in the opening 13 rounds in 2022 is stark. With the introduction of the new regulations, Mercedes went from a winning machine to near-midfield strugglers overnight.
When the car took to the track for the first time on a damp and cold February day at Silverstone, Mercedes got a “glimpse” of their bouncing and porpoising issues.
At the first pre-season test in Spain the problems revealed themselves further. The earlier excitement, Shovlin says, “quickly turned to the realisation that we had a huge amount of work to do to get back to where we need to be.”
With the W13’s updated aerodynamic package for the second test in Bahrain, just a week away from the first race, things had worsened. Lewis Hamilton turned up in Bahrain and qualified nearly 0.7sec off the pace. By Azerbaijan in early June there was little progress and any prospect of him securing an eighth world title was remote. Not only was the car slow, it was hurting the drivers.
'Not seeing a route back to the front – that was the frightening bit'
For the first time since his debut season at Mercedes, Hamilton found himself in a sub-standard car. His reaction and responses to his struggles are well-documented. After a trying weekend, he almost always talks positively about the team and those “back at the factory”.
We do not often hear how those figures behind-the-scenes, the engineers and aerodynamicists, react in adversity. How do they respond under the pressure to turn an uncompetitive car into a winning one?
“The team has operated with that pressure for such a long time – that it is just normal,” Shovlin says, also noting the change of atmosphere this year.
“When you're going to a race weekend, and you know that you're not good enough to be on the front row and you're not good enough to win, you actually miss the pressure,” he says.
“The bit that I think we all found frightening was not being able to see a route that we could develop our way back to the front – and that is quite scary. The atmosphere is different. And you've got to look at it as a new challenge.
“There was also an element that was a cultural challenge of how do we take what was good about the way the team had worked in previous years but to structure ourselves as an organisation. Also how do you approach it mentally when you're coming from behind?”
For Mercedes, 2022 looks vastly different to any year since F1’s V6 turbo hybrid era began. They are a team with a supposed ‘no blame culture’, which sounds all well and good when you are winning. But how does that look in a season as difficult as this?
“How does the ‘no blame culture’ work?” Shovlin ponders. “This is a problem that spans different departments. It isn't just an aerodynamics problem, you're looking at the function of the whole car.”
“Technically, it's really just looking at what every group can bring to try and solve this issue. And a lot of the problem lay with the aerodynamics group, and they were very quick to take ownership of that and start looking for solutions.”
“The way that we've worked that's delivered eight constructors championships is the way that we're still working today - we just had a good chunk of ground to make up.”
That Mercedes were so far off the pace in Bahrain was one thing. It was surprising, but the expectation from outside of the team was that an outfit with so much recent success would be able to claw that back in chunks. For the first third of the season, that is not how it panned out as the team struggled to improve their car, with it at its worst in qualifying.
“At the factory, there was a great deal of urgency to try and understand what was going on. We didn't know how long it would take to improve the problem or find a solution.”
Drivers 'confused' by development and set-ups
Mercedes' approach was to try lots of new parts and unusual set-ups. In contrast to last season’s incremental development from a high baseline, the theory was that maximising what they had on any given race weekend was not the best way to get back to the front. But this came with problems, especially during Friday practice.
“It was quite confusing for the drivers because the car was always changing,” Shovlin says. “The faster we can learn, the quicker we'll get back to where we want to be. So we were really loading test items into sessions. Changing the car is what teaches you about the car and you know the physics of these regulations.”
The trajectory of progression has been lumpy. The Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona was the first glimpse of what the car could achieve, but in subsequent rounds in Azerbaijan, Monaco and Canada, the team regressed as bumpy street circuits exacerbated a problem that they had yet to get on top of. It was not until the British Grand Prix in July that the team took another step forward. Their upgrades there came at a tipping point in development that left the team worried.
“The worst possible outcome for Silverstone was that we brought this update kit to the track and it added no performance or made the car go slower. And that actually made you quite nervous,” Shovlin says.
Silverstone was the first race where Mercedes competed for victory and that was a major result for the team. And the progression has continued. Austria, a week later, had its moments but both drivers crashed in qualifying. After a slightly fortunate double podium in France, the season’s most encouraging moment came in Hungary, the last race before the summer break. The W13 showed that it could compete on raw pace – Russell took a maiden pole – and in races, when Hamilton charged through the field from seventh to second. Both Mercedes cars finished ahead of two Ferraris and one Red Bull. This may yet be a winless season, but their progress now appears tangible.
Does that give the team hope that they can, with more stable regulations, become a championship-fighting force again next year?
“More than that – if we can get our car back to the front, it makes me optimistic that the team we've got can start on the back foot and develop themselves into a strong position in a relatively short space of time.
“If we can get ourselves up to the pace of the leaders, then it has been an enormous challenge. It's not so much where we've got the car today, it's more a case of where we've got the team today.”