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Formula 1

Mercedes can’t progress until it understands anomalous pole

by Josh Suttill
4 min read

“In truth just generally the car hasn’t been enjoyable to drive. It really hasn’t.”

Lewis Hamilton has rarely held back from sharing his displeasure with the feeling he’s had driving the two Formula 1 cars Mercedes has produced in this ruleset – but did his first pole position in 595 days signify a turning point?

The weekend began as usual at the Hungarian Grand Prix with Hamilton saying the car was “feeling at its worst” during Friday practice before expressing his hope that things would turn around “like usual”, a wish that was granted in style on Saturday.

The pole wasn’t a result of a dramatic upgrade debut like McLaren’s leap up the pecking order at the Red Bull Ring but because Mercedes dragged the W14 into its very narrow optimum window – in contrast to Red Bull’s RB19 ending up far from its sweet spot.

“The biggest weakness we have in the car is not a lack of downforce, it is that the car is unpredictable,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff theorised after qualifying.

“The drivers never have the confidence to really push it hard in qualifying and I think the car we had today was something that gave confidence.

“It allowed them to actually push without thinking that it could step out on the entry or exit of the corner. I think this is the main area we need to work on: making a car balance that is more predictable.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Budapest, Hungary

Hamilton revelled with the balance Mercedes found at the Hungaroring on Saturday, his visibly aggressive FP3-topping lap was the first evidence of that. And it was confirmed by his highly committed pole lap – which was far more akin to his ‘on rails’ Mercedes pole laps of old than the knife-edge Q3 laps he’s had to throw together in the last year and a half.

“Last year in particular there wasn’t a day where the car was enjoyable to drive and it’s a Formula 1 car and you want to be able to enjoy it,” Hamilton explained.

“But it was so nervous, every time it’s like you’re treading on eggshells as you start to apply the steering, you’re going to lose the back end all the time because our aero balance isn’t where it needs to be.

“As I started getting this confidence back today, today was a fun day, when you can really throw it into the corners and know it’s going to just about stick with you.”

It’s not job done for Mercedes of course. Hamilton says he still has to “fight through the lap” and once again identified the W14’s rear end instability and therefore driver confidence through high-speed corners like the fast Turn 7 right-hander as its primary weakness.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Budapest, Hungary

Moreover Mercedes may have cracked this weekend’s set-up code but the team doesn’t quite understand why – and that’s troubling for its hopes of declaring this some kind of breakthrough.

“Certainly part of it is that these ground effect cars are an enigma, performances seem to come and go for all the teams,” Wolff said.

“Congratulations to Alfa Romeo, they’re fifth and seventh on the grid today. I don’t think they understand where that came from.

“Red Bull seem the only ones who have really unlocked an understanding of what happens and maybe McLaren now.

“This is not something we can reverse engineer, this is something you’ve got to work at and come to the right conclusions.”

Coming to the right conclusions is so important for Mercedes or it risks this pole becoming the one-off that George Russell’s 2022 Budapest pole (the only time Mercedes was fastest in qualifying last year) was in some respects.

“I think it needs better understanding,” Wolff said when The Race asked if he could be confident this wasn’t a one-off.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying Day Budapest, Hungary

“We’ve been able to pull out a great performance today with one car and maybe the second car would have, who knows? [But] you don’t praise the day before the evening.

“We need to consolidate that and that’s the tricky bit.”

Wolff believes Spa next week – with a far greater frequency of high-speed corners – will be “a good benchmarking exercise”, albeit one slightly obscured by the sprint weekend.

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Before Belgium of course comes the actual race in Hungary. What chance does Hamilton have of breaking Red Bull’s 11-grand prix winning streak on Sunday?

“It will be fun, no? Neither of them have something to risk or to lose,” Wolff replied when asked about Hamilton versus Verstappen.

“They will be for sure racing each other at the beginning and it’s great. Lewis I’m sure will give it everything he has to put up a great fight.

“But you also need to stay realistic, they were just in a league of their own in the long runs this morning and also yesterday.

“But [it’s] motor racing! Everything can be different tomorrow, maybe we have a car and the driver in the best state of mind to fight against them.”

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