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Formula 1

Mercedes’ failure to adapt to the challenges of the 2022 ground effect regulations proves that no victory is preordained

It is drastically understated how difficult it is to have sustained success in Formula 1. And both teams and drivers are subject to this.

Mercedes has achieved unprecedented glory since the V6 turbo-hybrid era began, winning eight constructors’ championships and seven drivers’ championships. When it comes to racing weekends, there have been moments when victory has seemed simple. It has often appeared to be so simple.

After 2022 F1 troubles, Mercedes increases aero testing. More info

But achieving that level of performance consistently through numerous rule revisions and an entire year is not simple. That has been demonstrated by what James Allison, chief technology officer at Mercedes and one of the company’s primary contributors to success, refers to as the car having “fallen down a hole” this year.

Yes, making things less predictable is a good thing in any sport. Whether you are a Silver Arrows fan, a “hater,” or one of the majority sprinkled throughout the spectrum between those two extremes, variation is a good thing after eight years of watching the team win race after race. That much is clear.

The benefit of being reminded of how challenging such domination is is somewhat intangible. For the first time in Formula One history, a team maintained its position at the top during the switch to wider, high-downforce cars in 2017 thanks to a significant modification in the chassis rules.

While the set of aerodynamic adjustments that swung the pendulum against the low-rake car idea in 2021 merely hindered, rather than eliminating, its supremacy, there were lesser changes in 2019 that had an impact on the front wing, which it also withstood.

And all of them came after Mercedes, which won 16 out of 19 races, surged to the front at the start of the 1.6-liter V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014. That marked the start of a dominating streak that seemed unstoppable.

Mercedes’ inability to meet the demands of the 2022 ground effect regulations is evidence that no triumph is assured. Although they are a requirement for success, resources—including funds, employees, and facilities—do not ensure it. Just consider Ferrari over the previous ten years.

There is the caveat that this is no ordinary season, given the destabilising impact of big teams such as Mercedes having to adapt to the impact of the cost cap, aerodynamic testing restrictions and, of course, the biggest set of chassis rule changes in F1 history. But it remains a team with tremendous technical depth, good leadership and outstanding driver line-up – yet for all that, it has failed.

No team fully comprehends every aspect of how its cars function, as Gary Anderson, The Race’s technical guru, frequently notes. Rule changes have always risked exposing hidden weaknesses, while they also challenge teams to look at new regulations and comprehend the key areas for delivering performance.

There are also myriad external factors lying in wait to trip over teams, as Red Bull found out when its first era of F1 supremacy came to a juddering halt in 2014 – primarily as a result of Renault’s struggles with the new engine regulations.

This is why watching Mercedes grapple with its serious problems with porpoising – a situation ameliorated by its Spanish Grand Prix upgrade last month – bouncing and all-round rough ride has been so fascinating. In real time, we get to witness a grand prix team working to come to terms with serious problems with its car, faced the two-fold test of whether it can extract the maximum from the Mercedes W13 and whether, already with the 2023 car, it shift away from the problematic assumptions that have put it in strife.

It could strike back quickly or it might just be at the start of a long fallow period – nothing is preordained.

All of the F1 teams do remarkable things to design, develop, understand and race these prototype cars and in modern F1 even those at the back are doing what is objectively a good job even if it is bad when viewed through the more subjective lens of competition.

For Mercedes to remind the watching world how easy it is to tumble down from the precarious peak is every bit as valuable as the freshness of seeing a different battle at the front.

It emphasises that even though F1 can sometimes look very easy, it’s anything but.