Mercedes Formula 1 boss Toto Wolff has defended Lewis Hamilton after the seven-time champion was out-qualified by team-mate George Russell for the third consecutive race.
Hamilton qualified seventh for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, two places and 0.212 seconds behind Russell, who was 1.353secs adrift of the pole time set by Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari.
Wolff said Hamilton had been trying out different set-ups on his car as the team try to get to the bottom of their performance problems.
“Lewis has been trying some quite experimental parts of the car and there was a different floor solution on his car that didn’t work,” Wolff said.
Wolff said that although Hamilton has now lost out to Russell in Spain, Monaco and Baku, it was “too early to identify a pattern”.
Wolff said: “I am very close to it and I see one session one is faster and then next the other is. And because the car is on a knife edge, if you put a foot wrong, in terms of experiments on the car – which need to be done in order for us to learn how to perform and where to put the car – there is 0.2-0.3secs immediately between them.
“And the last three races these experiments have gone wrong with Lewis and not with George.”
Russell is five-three ahead in the Mercedes’ drivers qualifying head-to-head, but the score is three-all when only races in which a fair comparison is possible are taken into account, and then Hamilton is actually slightly faster on average.
Wolff said that in Baku Hamilton’s car had a different set-up that was exacerbating the problems with bottoming with which Mercedes have been struggling this season.
“The car was porpoising more and bottoming out to a degree that it became dangerous, and couldn’t extract the performance,” he said.
Bottoming has been the main problem afflicting Mercedes this season.
The team felt they might have fixed it with a new floor design introduced two races ago at the Spanish Grand Prix.
But while that appears to have solved the porpoising – an aerodynamic problem caused by the airflow under the car being disrupted – the car is still crashing into the track too much.
Russell said: “The bottoming has been extreme. We have finally got on top of the porpoising issue and we are now so close to the ground to get the maximum aerodynamic benefits and it’s just brutal out there, being shaken to pieces.
“You can barely see where to brake at the end of the straight because it is bouncing around so much.
“I don’t think we’re the only car. I think maybe half the grid are in the same boat and frustratingly Ferrari are in the same boat but they somehow seem to make it work. Everyone is working super-hard to try and resolve these issues.”
Hamilton said he was struggling especially though the flat-out kinks at the beginning of Baku’s long pit ‘straight’.
“For me it was just keeping the thing out of the wall on the fast high-speed curves,” he said. “We have changed so many different things we just can’t seem to (fix it). In Barcelona we didn’t have any, but everywhere else we’ve had it.”
Russell’s safety concerns
Russell believes the bottoming issue is a safety concern for the entire sport, and he raised the topic with governing body the FIA in the drivers’ briefing on Friday.
The problem has emerged this year following the introduction of new rules where cars have a different aerodynamic philosophy compared to last year.
They use a phenomenon known as ‘ground effect’, generating downforce by channelling the air under the cars, and this requires the cars to be run lower than before for optimum performance.
Russell said: It’s just a matter of time before we see a major incident. A lot of us can barely keep the cars in a straight line over these bumps.
“We are going around the last two corners at 300km/h, bottoming out, you can see how close the cars are running to the ground. It’s unnecessary with the technology we have in the current environment running an F1 car at over 200mph millimetres from the ground and it is a recipe for disaster.
“I don’t really know what the future holds but I don’t think we can sustain this for three years or however long these regulations are in force for.”
The FIA is open to discussing the idea but so far there is no general consensus that changes need to be made.
Russell was in the minority in the drivers’ briefing, insiders have said, although Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz has also expressed concerns about the issue.
Hamilton added: “It can be safety thing, for sure. Today it is bottoming through corners at 180mph – big bottoming – and there isn’t really a lot we can do to stop it. We can’t have this for four years of this car. They do need to work on it. All the drivers spoke about it.”
Hamilton said he woke up on Saturday morning in pain as a result of the bottoming, but he added that he had discussed the matter with his former team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who is now at Alfa Romeo, and the Finn had said his car does not have the issue.
And there is no widespread agreement that the cars need to be changed, especially so early in a new regulation set.
In the official news conference on Saturday, Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto and his opposite number at Haas Gunther Steiner both said it was too early to draw conclusions.
Wolff said: “We’ve seen cars that don’t have the issue. And then others who have it have it worse, clearly.
“I can talk for our two drivers: they are having issues and it goes to a point that even a physio can’t fix it sometimes. So, we need to see how that develops. And understand also why it’s much tougher in some cars than in others.”
There is no chance of 80% of the teams agreeing to make changes, as would be required under the regulations. The FIA could enforce changes on safety grounds, but that does not appear to be on the horizon.
What about the race?
Leclerc’s pole position on Saturday was another outstanding performance from the qualifying king of 2022, as he pulled it all together on his final lap to take pole by newly 0.3 seconds.
But the races have not been going so well for the Ferrari man.
He has seen a 55-point swing against him in the championship in the last four races, all of which Red Bull have won, and while Leclerc has six poles in eight races, he has not converted one into a victory since the third race of the season in Australia.
Verstappen was winner on merit in Imola and Miami, but in Spain and Monaco Ferrari lost what should have been wins, with an engine failure for Leclerc in Barcelona and a strategy foul-up in Monaco.
Leclerc was overtaken by Verstappen as the world champion won in Saudi Arabia, Imola and Miami. But he believes Ferrari’s race pace and tyre management has been improved by the aerodynamic upgrade they introduced in Spain.
“I’m really excited for tomorrow,” he said. “I think we’ll have quite a bit of answers tomorrow because tyre management is a big thing here.
“In Barcelona and Monaco we were managing it well, even though in Monaco it was difficult to see anything. But overall, our race pace has done a step up since we brought the upgrade. So tomorrow will be very interesting whether it will be the case here too.
“I just want to finish the job. The past two weekends I’ve already said that on the Saturday and it didn’t happen on the Sunday. So we need to make it… I mean, we don’t need to make it work but it will be very nice if we’ll make it work tomorrow.
“Let’s see how it goes in the first few laps, and then I will try to keep the lead.”