Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes re-emerge as F1 contender: Why the storied team feels it's back


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Lewis Hamilton’s British Grand Prix victory felt different.

On a personal level, it snapped his 945-day win drought that dated back to 2021 and marked his final home win with Mercedes, the team that’s supported him since he was a teenager. It again put his name in the history books with his ninth victory at Silverstone and becoming the first driver to win after 300 races. Hamilton’s emotions were palpable. George Russell, who retired early from the race, was among the first to congratulate his teammate, walking over to Hamilton’s car where the seven-time world champion sat with his head in his hands and helmet still on.

“It was so difficult over the last two years that we couldn’t really find performance; we couldn’t give the drivers a car that was able to go for the victories,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said Sunday. “And to make him win again, the British Grand Prix, in his last race for Mercedes here, it’s almost like a little fairytale.”

But this moment meant more than that. Hamilton’s victory marked the second consecutive this year for Mercedes after Russell’s win in Austria the previous weekend. The team experienced two rough seasons after the regulations changed in 2022, and Mercedes seemed poised to have another year of mediocrity – by its standards.

Something changed within the Brackley-based team, and it turned its season around, becoming podium contenders and race winners again. The question is whether Mercedes is truly back or had a couple of lucky breaks.

Missing the mark

The Silver Arrows were untouchable for some time, winning eight consecutive constructor championships from 2014 to 2021 and seven driver titles in the same span with Hamilton. But that dominant era came to a screeching halt when the new regulations took effect in 2022, one of the most significant technical regulation overhauls in the sport’s history.

The new generation of cars underwent multiple changes, like a ground-effect floor that generates more downforce from under the car. The rules aimed to improve the show and create better wheel-to-wheel racing. Teams had a blank slate to create innovative designs, and some teams initially nailed it. Red Bull and Ferrari exchanged wins in the first four rounds before Max Verstappen went on a tear, establishing a reign that didn’t come under threat until 2024.

But Mercedes got it wrong. It dropped in the pecking order, still scoring points but far from the hauls that had become a Silver Arrows standard.

The Brackley-based team suffered from porpoising, which is essentially the car bouncing on its suspension while the tires remain planted on the track. This phenomenon impacts the car’s performance and reliability and raises health concerns. After the 2022 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Hamilton struggled to get out of his car, visibly in pain.

Upgrades seemed to improve performance during the latter half of 2022, as Russell secured Mercedes’ lone win of the year at Brazil. Even though the team found deeper technical issues attached to the car’s design, it stuck with the concept in 2023, which included the now-infamous zero sidepod concept. The problems remained: The rear of the car was a weak point, the drivers lacked confidence going into corners, and the car was draggy in a straight line. Heading into this year, Mercedes finally overhauled its design, and Wolff called the W15 a “complete relaunch” at the season launch in February.

“There are so many mechanical changes that we’ve done that we hope are going to translate into more performance, more predictability, a car that the drivers can really push,” Wolff said.

It seemed that the team answered its questions about the gearbox, suspension, and steering rack, but optimism faded early on. What the team saw on track and in the wind tunnel didn’t correlate, and the team began falling behind again.

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It’s not that Mercedes failed. Since the regulations came into effect, the only weekend it hasn’t walked away with points is the 2024 Australian GP, where Hamilton qualified 11th and only completed just under 20 laps before retiring from the race after he reported an “engine failure,” while Russell qualified seventh and crashed out in the final laps. The weekend left Mercedes only one point from falling maybe one point from falling level with fifth-place Aston Martin.

But then came the upgrades a few months later, creating a sliver of hope.

“Sometimes when you bring a highly visible part like a bodywork or front wing, this is pretty much the talk of what has changed the performance,” Wolff said after the Canadian GP in June. “But the truth is we have, over the last three races, brought so many new parts, visible and invisible for the eye, that have contributed milliseconds to more performance.

“I think this is where those marginal gains then have that positive effect. That was just a huge effort of the factory, so I think the wheel has started to get some real motion on it.”

‘We didn’t stand a chance before’

For a brief moment, it looked like Mercedes could win the Canadian GP.

“Maybe for a few minutes we dreamt about it,” Wolff said that June weekend. “But in reality, probably not.”

Russell, who secured pole position, had the pace at times that put him on par with Red Bull’s Verstappen and McLaren’s Lando Norris fighting for the win. A few mistakes proved costly, and the Mercedes driver finished third. Russell remained adamant weeks later he could’ve won in Montreal.

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Russell and Hamilton have praised the car in recent weeks. (BENJAMIN CREMEL/AFP via Getty Images)

Mercedes had been introducing upgrades to address the car balance struggles it long faced, some visible, like the front wing, and some invisible, as noted by Wolff. Pace and performance were improving, and there was a reason for optimism.

“There’s no such thing as the silver bullet in Formula One,” Wolff said. “Therefore, it was a constant work of understanding what was wrong, and I know that everybody got tired by this answer. But you can’t reverse engineer the performance of the car and say we’re looking at Red Bull, and this is what we want our car to look [like].”

It was about finding the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle, something Wolff felt Mercedes had identified and addressed by Canada. Two weeks later, the team brought a floor upgrade to Spain, and Mercedes finished third and fourth again – this time with Hamilton on the podium. The confidence of both drivers was improving.

“What the drivers used to talk about was a lack of stability and confidence in the car,” said Andrew Shovlin, Mercedes’ trackside engineering director, in Austria. “Now they’re actually going out on new tires and saying they didn’t hit the corners hard enough, and there’s more grip than they thought. So they’re definitely more confident in it.”

The team’s belief had grown with each passing weekend as the correlation between the simulator and on-track performance improved. Between this and the upgrades, a normalcy and consistency has emerged at Mercedes.

The previous car was finicky. A change in track temperature or wind direction would impact the balance of the car, which contributed to the team’s performance fluctuating throughout a race weekend, Shovlin said. But the changes Mercedes made have led to W15 behaving “a bit more normally.”

“The drivers aren’t complaining about oversteer in one area, understeer in another. If there’s a general issue with the car, it’s easy to chase. If it’s understeer everywhere, we can fix that. So, it’s definitely easier to work with,” Shovlin said. “The key thing is the correlation on the simulator has improved. We didn’t stand a chance before because if five degrees of track temp or a 30-degree rotation in the wind put you out of balance, it’s no surprise that the simulator was struggling to capture all of those effects.”

The correlation between the simulator and on-track performance matters because this is how teams develop their cars. During the off-season, there’s less data available to check different aspects of the car design compared to during the season when they’re racing consistently. The in-season data stream of data helps confirm if the changes are improving the car’s performance, “which we can look at where we’re finishing, the gap to pole, and that’s matching what we’re finding on the sim, which is genuinely adding performance.”

Is Mercedes back?

“Yabba dabba doo!”

Russell’s amusing radio message after winning the Austrian GP, Mercedes’ first victory since 2022, will go down in F1 history. And it was a shock win. Norris and Verstappen collided late in the race when battling for the lead, both suffering punctures. Russell, running third, zipped past, staying ahead of a surging Oscar Piastri.

That weekend, the Briton knew Mercedes was the third-fastest car on the grid behind McLaren and Red Bull. “I feel that Montreal was probably a victory that we missed out on, and we ended up finishing P3,” he said after the Austrian GP. “Today was a deserving P3, and we got the victory.”

The team’s technical director, James Allison, described Russell’s win as “a Christmas present” in Mercedes’ debrief. He added, “We’ve been moving up the grid and getting ourselves from a place where we would have needed three, maybe four, people to have dropped out on top of the first two in order for this to happen, but getting ourselves in a place where we could be there to pick up these scraps.”

It may not have been a win on pure merit; however, it was a win that showed the progress Mercedes had made. F1 is a science-heavy sport, analyzing hundreds of thousands of data points to optimize the car. But, ultimately, people are making these calls. Wolff told Sky Sports after Austria that he felt decisions they made back in 2021 “were partially wrong,” but this has been addressed with a change in structure as well as people leaving and joining the company. “We have put a lot of diligence in how our meetings are organized, what the process is, and I think this is the main reason why we’ve made that step forward.”

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The behind-the-scenes work is finally paying off at Mercedes. (Photo by HOCH ZWEI/SIPA USA)

Heading into the British Grand Prix weekend, the final stop of F1’s recent triple-header, many assumed that Verstappen and Norris would be the drivers out front again. Then came the 1-2 finish in qualifying for the Mercedes duo ahead of their home grand prix. Considering where the team started the season, it was a surprise. Even Russell said, “At the start of this year, I don’t think we could have even dreamt of being on pole here.”

Hamilton commented after qualifying how the car was different “everywhere” compared to previous years. He added, “From Bahrain, for example, the car felt terrible, and the progress that we made in terms of dialing and fine-tuning the car to optimize the aero package. This team has never struggled to add performance, but where particularly they put that performance has always been, with this generation of car, has been a big question and where we’re getting the downforce from.”

The expectation was still for a battle with Verstappen and Norris, but the Mercedes duo had an early lead, though the McLaren snagged it after 20 or so laps. It came down to the final round of pit stops, Hamilton swapping intermediates for slicks a lap before Norris. He managed to stay ahead of the McLaren as Norris exited the pits, and when told they were both on the soft tires, Hamilton radioed back, “Leave me to it, mate.”

The seven-time world champion couldn’t hear the crowds roaring, but he could see and feel it at specific parts of the track. Time was on his side as Hamilton won his ninth British GP 1.465 seconds ahead of Verstappen, who was charging after passing Norris.

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“Niki (Lauda) would definitely take his hat off, but everyone that’s continued to work hard, everyone in the garage that’s continued to show up each weekend and not get downbeat by results,” Hamilton said after his emotional win. “I think George’s win last week was amazing, but it wasn’t on pure pace and I think this weekend was the first time we did it on pure pace.”

It begs the question — is Mercedes back? Wolff said, “Yeah, it does feel that way.” And it’s not just because of the win at Silverstone. Before Norris and Verstappen collided in Austria, Wolff said Russell was only around two-tenths per lap off of them, “the closest we’ve been for a long time on a track we didn’t like so much in the past.”

This chapter of Mercedes looks different. This is the closest and most consistent that the Silver Arrows have been in some time, and it could be a threat for race wins as it works to close the gap to McLaren and Red Bull. As far as constructor championships, there’s a 152-point gap between Red Bull and fourth-place Mercedes and 74 points between Mercedes and third-place McLaren.

More upgrades are set to come at the next two races, Hungary and Belgium, before the summer break. But now Mercedes seems to have figured out the regulations, pieces of the puzzle falling into place. Wolff shared how “there was a moment where, led by James, suddenly the data made sense and the gap. Mainly the way we balanced the car and how we could bring that sweet spot. That was the main thing. It wasn’t a miracle front wing, it was more the balance that we achieved.”

Mercedes dealt with two years of non-performance and seemed set to experience a third. It wasn’t a podium contender for the first third of the season and looked more like a midfield team. But as Wolff said, “Then it clicked. Suddenly, everything which didn’t make sense made sense.” It became a domino effect — finding performance, adjusting the car, and increasing lap time.

With the breakthrough finally behind it, there’s still more performance to come.

Top photo: SIPA USA





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