The “really unexpected” problem Mercedes probably can’t solve

The “really unexpected” problem Mercedes probably can’t solve

Toto Wolff appeared in miserable condition at the end of the Formula 1 Brazilian Grand Prix.

Mercedes were second best in points after Red Bull, but a worrying decline in the numbers of both cars as the 24-lap race wore on prompted Wolff to declare that “today was not good”.

And he was right, of course. After two of the 24 laps, George Russell and Lewis Hamilton were second and fourth respectively.

They both made their way past Sergio Perez’s Red Bull, while Russell also passed McLaren’s Lando Norris, with Russell running less than seven-tenths of a second behind Max Verstappen’s Red Bull.

But by the end of the race, Russell had dropped to fourth, nearly 26 seconds behind Verstappen, while Hamilton was easily overtaken by AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda and finished seventh, nearly 35 seconds away from victory. That works out to about 1.5 seconds per lap off Red Bull’s pace – the kind of deficit, incidentally, that Hamilton says Mercedes had to contend with Red Bull at the start of 2023.

“It was terrible, it wasn’t fun at all,” Hamilton told Sky Sports Formula 1 afterwards. “It’s one of those tracks that is challenging for the tires but this is the worst temperature I’ve ever had here.

“There was a lot of oversteer, sudden turns, and the tires just fell off.”

Hamilton suspected that Mercedes “may have gotten the setup wrong” for the Interlagos race, while Wolff felt the cars had a “very weak rear end” which meant “the car wasn’t balanced properly, which resulted in the rear wheels slipping which killed the tyres”.

He said that this was “what happened to George in Mexico” when Russell fell badly in the final period and was eaten by Norris and almost lost to sixth place by Daniel Ricciardo’s AlphaTauri, which is usually a much slower car.

Hamilton looked puzzled, because “the last couple of races we were excited because we were leading, it was really positive to see and come to another track and then you get the worst score you’ve had in a long time – so it’s like you don’t know what to expect.” .

“But there will only be a few more races left with this car, so I will be happy.”

Interlagos is not quite as rear-limited as Mexico City was, but it is a tire-punishment circuit overall and all drivers had to do some tire management to get through the sprint.

Normally, tire management is one of the W14’s main strengths (and it doesn’t have much), but the last two races have been more challenging in this regard.

The main difference is that Hamilton was able to run in clean air in Mexico after strongly passing Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari (on the grass) to take second place just a few laps after the red flag restart. Once he got into that space behind Verstappen, Hamilton’s pace was very strong.

Russell was unable to make a similar move on Carlos Sainz and then suffered overheating of the brakes, which resulted in a significant loss of tire temperature which Russell simply could not recover.

But on the same C4 compound used during that period in Mexico, both cars in Brazil were nowhere near as fast during that 24-lap sprint, despite not being behind other cars most of the time. Even the hot Ferraris seemed faster.

Wolff said Hamilton and Russell “pushed too hard at the start”, which took a lot of energy from the tires when they were at their most sensitive. Russell has made mistakes before, especially in Singapore, but was able to maintain a good pace for most of his long spell there. Here, neither car looked fast at any stage except for those first few laps.

The Mercedes is known to be a drag car and lacks speed on the straights, and we know it has also suffered from a weak rear end for much of this season.

But Hamilton sounded encouraged after Austin two weeks ago that Mercedes was on the right track with a revised platform which should be a big part of setting the development direction for 2024.

Here the car appeared to be reversing.

Russell’s ruling was “truly unexpected”. “We didn’t expect to be fastest, we thought we’d be ten tenths behind Max, maybe as fast as Lando, but clearly we got something wrong.

“We are the slowest on the straight at the moment, so we are very vulnerable if anyone gets behind the DRS. We knew that would be the case, but that was not the reason for our lack of speed.

“If anything, since we have a little more downforce than everyone else, we were expecting to get a lower tire temperature. We really need to understand what went wrong.”

It’s probably the most basic setup problem you can imagine, and is exacerbated by the lack of free practice on the weekend which severely limits the opportunity for all teams to strike the right compromise between single-lap pace (reasonable for Mercedes) and long-term pace (looks terrible on a 24-hour basis). Roll on soft compound).

Most of the long rides (such as they were) on Friday were done on the hard compound (C2), on a track that was dustier and lacking in grip than on Saturday.

Mercedes is hoping to achieve better results with this tire and the medium tire (C3), which is supposed to be the preferred choice for the race.

The soft tires fitted by all but three drivers were never likely to be considered more than a qualifying tire on such an abrasive surface, so perhaps Mercedes need not panic.

But despite this, the indicators are still worrying for a team that usually prides itself on extracting consistent race performance from its Pirelli rubber, regardless of the compound and track surface. This was somewhat lower than his usual high standard, which was undoubtedly why Wolf seemed so annoyed.

If the cause is a major setup issue, Ferrari park regulations mean there is little Mercedes can do now to fix things for Sunday’s Grand Prix.

“I don’t think there’s a silver bullet that you can do and everything is fixed,” was Wolfe’s verdict. “(It was) very hot. Everything went against us today. We really need to scratch our heads hard about what we can do for tomorrow and improve.

Much easier said than done.

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