It wasn't supposed to be like this – and nobody saw it coming. Months after Lewis Hamilton was denied a record eighth world championship on the final lap of the very last race of the 2021 season, Formula One's most successful driver and his juggernaut Mercedes team find themselves mired in an unexpected crisis.
Without even a sniff of a win from the first five races, and suffering his worst start since 2009, Hamilton is struggling and so are Mercedes. Highly rated among sportsbook operators before the season began, you can pretty much name your price on another Mercedes Constructors’ Championship title when you use your BetMGM promo to bet on Formula One. So, what is going wrong?
The porpoising problem
The first five races of the season have seen Ferrari and Red Bull pull away from Mercedes, due largely to their inability to solve the car's aerodynamic issue, specifically, that it is “porpoising” – or bouncing – more than others. There was no hint of difficulty until the car hit the track.
According to Mercedes, the design they worked on – which was fast in the simulator – led to the bouncing problem when it was used on the track. Many teams have struggled with this issue, which has been brought on by the significant technical changes imposed by Formula One.
The bouncing movement is caused by the downforce that is generated under the cars as they speed up. The car sinks until the airflow ceases, and at that point, the downforce is lost and the car rises.
While numerous teams, including leaders Ferrari, have had this problem, it has mostly occurred on the straights, but Mercedes' porpoising continues into the corners. As you can expect, this isn't fantastic for lap time, and the team believes this is to blame for their car losing around a second per lap.
Hamilton versus Russell
There is another apparent issue, besides the lack of competitiveness of the Mercedes. Hamilton is currently 23 points behind teammate Russell, who has now finished ahead of the seven-time world champion for four races in a row.
There have been factors working in Russell’s favor, such as the late setup change for Hamilton’s car during qualifying in Saudi Arabia, and his qualifying ahead of Hamilton in Imola, thanks partially to benefitting from an unrepresentative Q2 that featured numerous red flags.
It may also be the case that Russell, who started his Formula One career at Williams, is more accustomed to a more volatile setup with ongoing chaos and changes than Hamilton, who has benefitted from and grown accustomed to years of working for a settled, dominant team.
This has led to speculation that Hamilton may be tempted to leave Mercedes as he searches for his eighth world title. Hamilton has been swift to dismiss that talk, emphasizing his connection to the team that he has been involved with since the age of 13. But there is little doubt that Mercedes will be nervous about the future if they cannot resolve their current issues.
Can they come back?
Hamilton has been clear that there was no possibility of either him or Mercedes mounting a comeback and winning a championship this year. He is already 68 points behind Charles Leclerc, while Mercedes are 62 points off the pace in the constructors’ race. The extent and speed of any recovery will depend entirely on how quickly they can solve the porpoising issue.
Up until the Miami race, Mercedes had not brought forward many modifications, as they instead focused on getting to the root of the problem. But last week, they made a number of changes that they hoped would boost their cars’ performance for the new Grand Prix. Initially, these seemed to have an effect as they seemed to improve during FP1 and FP2.
But that initial upturn was not translated into their performance in qualifying or the race itself. Hamilton qualified in sixth position and Russell was twelfth. The two ultimately finished sixth and fifth respectively in the race, with Russell once again outscoring his teammate, and the gap between Mercedes and the front-running Red Bull and Ferrari remains significant. The smoother track surface in Miami may also have helped reduce the impact of the porpoising.
With hopes of a title already more or less gone, the focus at Mercedes will be on making a challenge in the second two-thirds of the season. But the longer the problems persist, the stronger the speculation about a Hamilton departure will become.