Mercedes loses its way: ‘It’s slowly driving me crazy’

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Mercedes loses its way: 'It's slowly driving me crazy'

Mercedes is very inconsistent in the free practice sessions in 2024, but consistently falls short in the qualifications and races. This also leads to many doubts among the team’s drivers and engineers. Australia’s qualifying was another setback, with a Q2 exit for Lewis Hamilton, and a seventh starting position for George Russell.

In the third free practice, the drivers also complained at first. For example, Hamilton was 1.3 seconds short of fastest man Carlos Sainz on the medium tires. Of these, seven-tenths were lost on the straights, and therefore six-tenths in the corners. Yet both men were in the top five at the end of the session, with small gaps, in Hamilton’s case even less than a tenth.

Mercedes loses its way again

However, the good momentum quickly disappeared in qualifying. Red Bull Racing found eight tenths extra in Q3, and Ferrari six tenths. McLaren, also good for two starting places in the top five, found a gain of seven tenths between FP3 and the last part of qualifying. At Mercedes hardly any time savings were found. Russell improved by just 0.162 seconds between FP3 and Q3, despite using less fuel.

With Hamilton the situation was even more extreme: the seven-time world champion was 0.154 slower in Q2 than in the third free practice, and was therefore already eliminated. ‘It’s difficult to understand. It’s slowly driving me crazy,” Hamilton is quoted as saying by Auto, Motor, und Sport. Russell was also disappointed with qualifying, despite the better starting position: ‘The car still felt good in the third free practice, but unfortunately that feeling disappeared in qualifying.’

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Lewis Hamilton already dropped out in Q2.

Team boss Toto Wolff also looked for explanations: ‘We are too slow everywhere. In the slow corners (turns 3, 4, 13, and 14, ed.) we lose a bit more than in the fast corners.’ In Jeddah, it was those fast corners that were the big problem. As if the problem wasn’t big enough with a lack of speed in slow and faster corners, there was also a lack of top speed. Both British were four to eight kilometers per hour short.

Headwind for Mercedes

The team is therefore looking hard for explanations, where the weather conditions may provide an answer. The asphalt temperature rose by six degrees between the last practice and the start of qualifying, and the wind started to blow harder. “As the wind got stronger, the car became more and more unstable,” Hamilton notes. Wolff agrees: ‘We have a very narrow window to make the adjustment work, and that makes it more difficult.’ Mercedes changed its concept this season to increase the operating window, but does not seem to have succeeded in making the car more predictable.

Initially, both drivers were satisfied with the setup, but Hamilton changed the setup in the second practice to learn more about the W15. Since that turned out not to be a success, Hamilton went back to the original setup, with a lower ride height, a stiffer setup, and more wing. Yet the good feeling did not return. AMuS spoke to a distraught Mercedes employee: ‘Our procedures are the same as last year. So it can’t be that way, unless everyone else suddenly does something completely different.’

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toto wolff george russell lewis hamilton 2023
This trio searches for explanations.

Sticking to tire tombola

In qualifying it was striking that Mercedes only made the best attempt on a set of tires in the third lap, after an initial quick attempt and then a lap to let the tires cool down. This could clearly indicate that Mercedes is driving with less camber, and that could again become an advantage in the race. Yet Wolff does not see it too positively: ‘When I see McLaren’s race simulations on Friday, it will be difficult to beat them. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and must continue to work hard.’

Russell places his hopes mainly on the unknown factors in the race, in which the tires can play a key role. ‘No one has used the hard tires yet, and that will be the most used tire in the race. We may see graining on those tires,” says the Brit. In that case, a setting with less camber could be beneficial, with which Russell hopes to be able to hit back.

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