Once the gold standard for engineering and performance, the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team faced significant challenges in the 2022 and 2023 seasons with ‘porpoising’, a phenomenon that causes the car to bounce up and down at high speeds. The problem affected their W13 and W14 cars, significantly impacting their competitiveness and raising questions about their technical capabilities.
Porpoising occurs when aerodynamic forces cause a car’s chassis to bounce vertically at high speeds. It severely affects stability, control and performance, and hampers the car’s ability to maximise aerodynamic efficiency. For Mercedes, this meant slower lap times, difficulties with tyre management and a competitive disadvantage against rivals Red Bull and Ferrari.
The W13, Mercedes’ 2022 car, was initially seen as a machine that would continue their dominance off the back of only narrowly missing out on the drivers title to Max Verstappen in 2021. However, the porpoising problem made its unwelcome appearance early in the season under the new ‘ground effect’ formula for 2022.
The team’s initial solutions, involving adjustments to the car’s aerodynamics and suspension, provided only temporary relief. In races where they faced stiff competition from Red Bull and Ferrari, the W13’s porpoising problem proved to be a significant handicap. In races where maximum downforce and stability were required, the W13 struggled to match the performance of its rivals.
A continuation into 2023 with the W14
Fans and analysts alike expected Mercedes to solve the problem with their 2023 car, the W14. Despite numerous wind tunnel tests and computer simulations, the problem reared its ugly head. Although the team made improvements and reduced the severity of the porpoising, it was enough for rivals to exploit.
The team won just one race from 2021, and by the middle of the 2023 season trailed Red Bull by a staggering 331 points, effectively conceding the constructors’ title.
Lewis Hamilton, the team’s star driver, has been outspoken in his concerns. He described the problem as intermittent earlier in the season but suggested it could plague the team throughout the 2023 season, which appears to be the case if recent comments are to be taken seriously.
Hamilton: Biggest Mercedes issue returns
Although the team appears to have largely addressed the porpoising issues for 2023, Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time Formula One world champion, has expressed concern that the Mercedes car still lacks the performance to overturn the now dominant Red Bull Racing RB19, citing the return of porpoising in the W14 F1 car.
Despite these setbacks, Mercedes have performed fairly consistently this year, securing their position as the ‘best of the rest’ and fending off Ferrari for third place in the standings. They currently lead Ferrari by a narrow 28-point margin with just five races remaining in the season.
Meanwhile, Hamilton is hot on the heels of Red Bull’s Sergio Perez as he looks to secure a top two finish in the Drivers’ Championship for the first time since the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Hamilton’s take on the problem
Speaking to the media, Hamilton explained the unpredictable nature of the problem: “It comes and goes – some races it doesn’t bounce and some races it does. But it is nowhere near as severe as when we had it [last year]…”
For Mercedes, resolving these issues has taken on added significance as they look ahead to 2024, a year the team have described as “doubly important”. Achieving both of their immediate goals – staying ahead of Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship and pushing Hamilton into the top two in the Drivers’ Championship – would provide a significant morale boost ahead of what is expected to be a pivotal season next year.
While the haunting issues of 2022 appear to be making a sporadic comeback, Hamilton remains hopeful that they can be resolved for next season. As Mercedes navigate this late-season triple-header, which is likely to be crucial in their battle against Ferrari, all eyes will be on how well the team can manage the resurgence of their ‘porpoising’ problem and whether they can secure strong finishes to keep their hopes of a more promising 2024 season alive.
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