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After seven races behind his new teammate George Russell, Lewis Hamilton finally had reason to smile after a great run on the second podium of 2022 at the Canadian Grand Prix on Sunday.
The recovery in mood from Baku last week was huge. In fact, the change in behavior was significant even from Friday’s training session in Montreal. Eventually, Russell’s take on both the qualifiers and the race and the near-elimination of the terrible bounces and seals that have hit them so far in 2022 seemingly put him in a happy position.
Mercedes goes to Silverstone in two weeks just 40 points behind Ferrari in the standings and with (so far) bulletproof reliability. Ferrari had five DNFs this year and Red Bull four. Mercedes has finished every race.
But is the rise of the seven-time champion valid? Or is this another fake dawn for Mercedes? There are, at least, some signs of hope.
In Canada, Mercedes turned evil into good
Going into the race in Montreal last weekend, Mercedes was arguably in the worst position of the season. Wounded by the bounces so strong in Azerbaijan that Hamilton could only get out of his car with help, Baku’s uneven track proved to be his enemy – and his car’s.
The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is another uneven track with high curbs where the problems of the W13 should have been exposed. And Friday did not give much room for optimism, with Hamilton describing his car as “disastrous” and “not driven” after two hours of training.
However, they managed to turn what should have been a match into something that was a little more than okay, with a decent collection of points and an encouraging match pace. Hamilton’s excellence in the wet season qualifiers would have helped, but Russell struggled back to fourth place from eighth on Sunday with another good move and some crucial overtaking in his first term.
Yes, the pace of Mercedes cars was not something special in Montreal. Hamilton’s fastest lap was 0.4 seconds away from the race fastest, but in Baku (although 25 laps longer) it was almost a second. They were at least well ahead of the midfield in terms of racing pace – although their raw speed in the dry was a bit uncertain due to a difficult Friday and a wet qualifying period – which was no guarantee for 2022.
Taking the turn from the end of lap 10 – when Hamilton and Verstappen stopped for fresh tires under the Virtual Safety Car – the Mercedes in British hands was about 0.3 seconds lap slower than Red Bull. There are some mitigating factors here, such as a Virtual Safety Car and Verstappen managing its pace ahead, but that is encouraging. In the final stage, as soon as the Safety Car arrived, the lap differential was slightly worse.
Last week in Baku, Russell finished 45 seconds behind winner Verstappen and Hamilton was another 25 seconds behind. Canada was undoubtedly an improvement from that, but the gap is still significant. Hamilton and Russell have only scored podiums this year (five of them so far) when Red Bull and Ferrari have had some sort of failure or wrong driver.
Toto Wolff, who has not been optimistic so far this season, heard a (relatively) positive note after Sunday’s game. “It simply came to our notice then. “Before the safety car came out in the end, we were faster than Sainz,” he said.
The kind of optimism that Mercedes showed was not entirely in line with what it had in Barcelona, when it seemed that they had taken a genuine step towards eliminating bloating and, consequently, performance. This is a little different.
Mercedes ran its car higher this weekend to eliminate the bumps, but its pace did not drop as much, although they have tried so many different things that it is difficult to find a baseline. This automatically reduces the overall capacity of the car through the loss of vertical power. Perhaps this gave their drivers extra performance thanks to the extra comfort in the car and the ability to locate the braking zones easily and painlessly for once.
Could Silverstone be even better?
Silverstone has traditionally been a Mercedes track – and especially a Hamilton track – although after 2014 it is easier to find tracks where they had difficulty. The British Grand Prix next week gives more room for hope.
After the bumpy Baku, Silverstone would have been designated as a track where Mercedes is less likely to have bounce problems. Although it has high speeds like Azerbaijan, the Northamptonshire track is one of the smoothest on the calendar, a feature it shares with the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, by far the strongest race of the team.
This means that they should be able to move their car to a lower driving height and unlock performance. After the race, Toto Wolff hinted that Mercedes might now be doing what Gary Anderson suggested to the Telegraph Sport last week, trying to find performance with their car at a higher driving height (and softer suspension), instead of they desperately try to solve their problems while running the car as low as possible, to the detriment of even the bodies of their drivers. This is positive news for their effort to return to the front.
So far it seems that the team tried to return to the claim with one step, and not gradually. That paid off. With 13 races left in 2022 and next year’s cars should not be radically different (awaiting any changes to the seal-related regulation), then the slow and steady approach may work.
A word of caution
This does not mean that Hamilton will be in the mix for a ninth victory in the British Grand Prix in early July. It would probably take even the legendary half-second half-home advantage of Nigel Mansell for that. The Briton believes that the car is better at medium and high speed corners (which is most of the Silverstone), but there is a possibility that they will lower the driving height and find it difficult to bounce at turns like the Copse. Each new piece hides at least a mystery as to the performance of the car.
Right now, the only thing Mercedes can pursue is progress. And for most of the season it was inconsistent and uncomfortable at best. They have not taken a firm step, with Spain looking like a fake dawn. Canada gave a little cheer because i) Friday was so bad for them and ii) they managed to put W13 in his work window.
With each race Mercedes learns, but the race so far has turned these lessons into lap times. At almost every step, the team discovered new problems: in mitigating the seal, Mercedes ran its car lower in Monaco, but found it difficult to crush the blows, as in Baku.
Important is the gap that Mercedes is trying to close, with two teams, not one, in front of them. It is too early to say that Mercedes is turning. Who knows what Silverstone brings?