Mercedes watching the title fight from afar, but will vindication come?

Thomas Maher
Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton on track during the Hungarian Grand Prix. Budapest, July 2022.

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton on track during the Hungarian Grand Prix. Budapest, July 2022.

For the first time in eight years, Mercedes are having to watch the title battle unfold without much hope of winning it themselves.

After eight straight years of fighting for World Championships or, more often than not, outright dominating them, Mercedes have had to take something of a back seat for the 2022 season.

The new regulation set for 2022 was always likely to result in one of the big teams making a mistake or falling behind, given the budget cap introduction in 2021 meant a balancing act of development of the ’21 car as well as trying to hit the ground running for ’22.

Despite both Red Bull and Mercedes attempting to downplay the extent of their 2021 development as the races ticked by and the title battle heated up, it now appears it was Mercedes, not Red Bull, who got the timing of their switch of focus slightly wrong – or simply headed down the wrong path with their concept choice.

But astonishingly, despite the setbacks, Mercedes have actually scored more points so far this year than at the same point last season. Heading into the summer break in 2021, Mercedes had scored 303 points and led the Constructors’ Championship. This year? 304, and 127 points off the lead – showing how much of a step forward Red Bull, in particular, have made.

It is a testament to Mercedes’ sheer consistency that they have brought themselves back into contention in this year’s title chase. While the W13 was, unquestionably, a flawed machine at the start of the year, the car team boss Toto Wolff labelled a “sh*tbox” was still good enough to beat everyone but Red Bull and Ferrari at the season opener in Bahrain.

It was Lewis Hamilton experimenting with set-ups that resulted in some sporadic form on his side of the garage, with a concerning low occurring early on as he could only manage 13th at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.

While the seven-time former World Champion bounced around the lower points places for most of the first half of the year, George Russell has been metronomic. Silverstone aside, he has finished in the top five at every single race. Any doubts over whether or not Russell was ready to step up to a Mercedes seat have been well and truly dispelled at this point.

Read more: Conclusions from the first half of the 2022 season

Carlos Sainz's Ferrari alongside George Russell's Mercedes. Hungaroring July 2022.
Carlos Sainz's Ferrari alongside George Russell's Mercedes during the Hungarian Grand Prix. Hungaroring July 2022.

Having been stuck in no man’s land at the start of the season, slower than Red Bull and Ferrari but faster than everyone else, there are signs Mercedes are slowly but surely latching on to the lead pair.

There to pounce whenever a Ferrari or Red Bull driver makes an error or retires, the Hungarian Grand Prix showed just how far the W13 has come since the start of the season. On a tight and twisty circuit, which is downforce dependent, Russell stuck the car on pole position and proved to be a real headache for Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen over the first half of the race.

While Verstappen went on to win comfortably in the end, the two Mercedes drivers claimed the rest of the podium – and on merit. Strategy error on Leclerc’s side of the garage or not, neither Sergio Perez nor Carlos Sainz were able to get ahead of the two Mercedes.

So where do Mercedes go from here? Thanks to Ferrari fumbling the bag so badly, Mercedes are just 30 points behind the Scuderia in the Constructors’. Russell is just 20 points behind Leclerc, with Hamilton a further 12 points behind.

With Mercedes operationally as sharp as ever, who would be brave enough to bet against the Brackley-based team beating Maranello in the standings by the time Abu Dhabi rolls around?

Of course, there is still plenty of work for Mercedes to do over the remainder of the season to figure out where to go for 2023. Their ‘sidepod-less’ concept was the talk of the paddock when it was first shown off at Bahrain testing, but that same concept proved hugely problematic to figure out as the team struggled with porpoising and general stability.

Mercedes continue to stand alone on the concept, which Wolff claims simulations show promises huge potential on track. The problem has been getting that potential to translate from simulations to the real world.

The teams are expected to converge on a common design path in future seasons as the optimal design becomes clearer, but the fact remains that both Williams and Aston Martin have seen fit to switch their concepts to that of Red Bull’s.

George Russell climbs into his car on the grid. Australia April 2022
Mercedes driver George Russell climbs into his car on the grid. Australia April 2022

“I think we need to just continue to keep an open mind,” Russell said after the Hungarian Grand Prix.

“I don’t think changing car concept will make us go any faster, maybe the contrary to be honest. Sometimes you just have to stick to the process and keep pushing. And that’s difficult to do when you’re off the pace and things don’t seem to be going your way.

“But personally, I believe in every single person within our team and I think we are making huge progress for the time being and we saw with the job we did [in qualifying], you saw with the pace both of us showed in the race.

“I think at the start of the season we were finishing races a minute behind first position. The last two races we’ve been within 10 seconds, so I think it’s definitely going in the right direction.”

His sentiments were echoed by trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin, who said Mercedes are showing strong upward momentum as the season progresses – so much so, they reckon victories could be possible in the final nine races of the year.

“That’s what we are working for,” he told Sky F1.

“The recent rate of development being pretty strong, we’ve fixed quite a lot of problems that were holding us back. We are getting closer to the front. Certainly at Paul Ricard it felt like we were going racing again. It wasn’t that long ago we were just miles out of the picture. So we are pretty happy with that direction.

“The goal is for us to get back to having the fastest car, qualifying on pole, winning races and challenging for championships. So we know where we want to get to. Everyone in the team is committed to trying to do that. So there will be a big push into Spa and beyond.”

In theory, the Mercedes concept could still be the one with the highest performance ceiling as the new regulations begin to mature and develop on into 2023. Just how confident are Mercedes in their choices?