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How Does Mercedes-AMG F1 Play Catch-Up?

The best F1 team of the last decade is on the back foot, but they have a clear problem to solve in order to get back to the front.

auto prix f1 ksa practice
ANDREJ ISAKOVICGetty Images

Last year, Mercedes entered the 2021 Formula 1 season with the exact same car that had dominated the season before. Series-wide aero adjustments dented the car's all-conquering power in 2021, but the W12 was still strong enough to take the fight to Red Bull from the first race of the season. Eventually, it secured Mercedes a narrow constructors' championship win. This year however, major rule changes have completely revamped how every team on the grid imagined and built their cars. Red Bull adapted well. Ferrari adapted even better. But Mercedes, for the first time in the modern twin-turbo V-6 hybrid era, have fallen significantly behind.

The good news for Mercedes is that "significantly behind" still put their lead W13 entry fifth on the grid for last weekend's Bahrain Grand Prix, a position Lewis Hamilton converted into a debut podium for the car (two late mechanical failures from Red Bull helped). But Hamilton faced an uphill climb throughout the weekend, 6/10ths of a second off Charles Leclerc's pole time and no closer to either Red Bull or Ferrari in race pace. Mercedes instead seemed to find themselves in a tier of their own, faster than the mid-pack but unprepared to compete with the leaders.

It means Mercedes—a team that has developed its cars in-season to build a gap from first place—is suddenly playing catch-up. The team has already thrown one desperate haymaker at their problems, a radically narrow sidepod treatment introduced in testing two weeks ago. The sidepods aimed to greatly reduce the "porpoising" turbulence created the new regulations' ground effects components. Then came a few different rear wing treatments tried in practice today. More-significant upgrades will likely wait for races that allow more lead time (rather than back-to-back race weekends), so the development team back in England can sink their teeth into the issues. With just two weeks off before a race down in Australia, that might mean upgrades will have to wait until Imola, late next month.

Until then, Mercedes should be concerned, but not panicked. This is a team that has proved a consistent ability to grow their lead throughout a season. Catching up to the leaders is no different, in theory. The key is that Mercedes actually succeed, something that was easier said than done even before F1 introduced a budget cap last season. The team has at least identified a key problem that is leading to its struggles: specific aerodynamic turbulence, That creates a clear path forward to regaining race-winning pace.

Come Imola, or maybe a few races later, we should have a strong idea of whether or not the W13's upgrade plan is actually working. If so, Lewis Hamilton already has a podium and George Russell already has a top four finish, so the team should be right back in the championship hunt. If not. this may be a very long year for a team with very high expectations. That year continues at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, with a Saudi Arabian Grand Prix already cloaked in a very literal black cloud.

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