For Mercedes, A Rare Position in Formula 1: Playing Catch-up

It has been nine years since Mercedes started a Formula 1 season so badly.

For many teams, 65 points and two finishes on the podium from the first three Grands Prix this year would represent success. But this is Mercedes, a team that has won a record eight consecutive constructors’ titles since 2014.

A resurgent Ferrari has dominated the early races, opening a 39-point lead over Mercedes after two wins and a second-place finish for its driver Charles Leclerc. This is not what Mercedes is accustomed to.

“We are on the back foot, but it’s still too early to write off the championship,” said Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal.

This season, new aerodynamic regulations have been introduced, leading to car designs aimed at making the series even more competitive.

Mercedes’ car “came with a radical concept,” Wolff said, “that on paper had great results.” The car was a second off the pace of Leclerc in qualifying at the last race in Australia.

“The reality is the physics and the theoretical physics don’t match up at the moment,” he said, but it’s physics not mystics.

“The only way to tackle it is with a plan and a scientific approach. Now that is not easy. There are no low-hanging fruits. ”

The redesign has produced cars that oscillate, or bounce, along a circuit, an effect known as porpoising.

For Mercedes, porpoising is worse than most and is carried into corners where the car loses most of its time. Ferrari’s car bounces, but not through the corners.

“I don’t understand it, I don’t think anyone does,” Lewis Hamilton, the Mercedes driver, said. “I wish ours was the same, but it’s not.

“When the car is going up and down, bouncing, and you’re turning in at 200 miles per hour and the car is loading and unloading, you can imagine it’s quite unstable. That’s what we’re faced with. ”

Ahead of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix on Sunday, Hamilton is 43 points behind Leclerc.

Whether Hamilton can win a record eighth drivers’ title this season depends on how quickly Mercedes can overcome the issues with its car.

“I prefer to stay optimistic, and there are another 20 races,” Hamilton said. “Yes, the gap is pretty big right now, but there is a long way to go.

“Realistically, in terms of the way the sport goes in terms of development, the top teams often develop at a similar pace.

“Will that be the case with this new car? Who knows. I’m just really hopeful we can get in the fight. ”

His new teammate, George Russell, who scored his first spot on the podium for Mercedes with third in Australia, is the closest challenger to Leclerc, 34 points back.

Russell said Mercedes “can’t do anything crazy” in trying to win races again.

“We know we want results and we want performance today, but I think if we do anything too drastic, we’re going to go backward and not forward,” he said.

“We’ve got to trust our team, trust the process and just recognize that it’s going to take time. But we know there is so much potential in the car. ”

Wolff said the potential for the car “is to be racing at the front” as “that is what the numbers say.”

“As long as we learn, it’s important to get the car back in a leading position and not racing in no man’s land,” he said.

Hamilton is hoping to win another title after missing out under controversial circumstances in the final race in Abu Dhabi last year that allowed Max Verstappen of Red Bull to become a champion.

“It’s only science, it’s also racing, and we owe it to Lewis to provide him with a car he can win an eighth championship he should have had under the belt in December,” Wolff said.

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