Analysis: Conspiracy or logic behind Mercedes stumble?

Formula 1 loves a good conspiracy theory, and Mercedes' stumble in qualifying for the Singapore Grand Prix was enough to trigger various wild ideas about what exactly had happened.

But while a near two-second swing in performance, from being marginally ahead of Ferrari in qualifying at Monza to being 1.5 seconds adrift here, certainly seemed big enough to prompt a bit of head scratching, was this really anything other than a simple off weekend?

Lewis Hamilton certainly did not help calm down the theories of something extraordinary having happened, when he challenged his team and Mercedes to find out what had really happened.

“I’m very interested to find out,” he said. “I actually challenge all you guys to go and find what the reasons might be.

“I’m challenging my team to find out what it is where we’ve lost time – whether it’s in tyre pressures, temperatures of blankets, ride heights. I’m challenging everyone to find out.”

Tyres the focus

Although there was no definitive answer from Mercedes yet about where things went wrong, it is clear this was an issue related to tyres.

Balance wise, neither Hamilton nor Nico Rosberg said that anything had felt dramatically wrong with the car's downforce configuration or aero parts – or that they were unhappy with how the car felt. It just was not quick enough.

There were some theories of it perhaps being an engine factor.

Had Mercedes been forced to turn the settings down after the reliability woes in Monza? Or had they even deliberately backed off to disguise the form of their new engine after Italy dominance, the political heat of the Red Bull rejection, and amid renewed question marks about the viability of F1's new hybrid turbo regulations?

Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolff insisted, however, that everything was normal, and pointed out quite correctly that engine performance had such a small influence on overall performance at Singapore that it would not explain their swing.

“There was no engine saving mode, or nothing happening like that,” he said. “I have seen that the other teams like Williams and Force India who have been on an upward slope didn't perform well today.

“Of course, the engine characteristics in the power department has an influence on how the car performs but I would say it is the least contributing factor today to our performance. When you look at the on-boards it is an overall lack of grip compared to the ones who are faster.”

Rubber conspiracy

Against the backdrop of the tyre blow outs in Belgium, and the pressure controversy of Monza, it is perhaps inevitable that Mercedes' rubber woes would be linked with recent events.

Had the new more conservative pressure limits and tyre blanket restrictions introduced by Pirelli on safety grounds put the tyres in to an operating window that Mercedes was not comfortable with?

After all, it was the only team whose tyres were found to be below the limit on the Monza grid.

Wolff laughed off suggestions linking what happened here to the events of Monza.

“It’s no conspiracy, it’s paranoia,” he said. “We didn't do anything dodgy, and it was cleared by the FIA. We were well within the limits, we followed the procedures so I think we can tick the box on Monza.

“We were well within the limits here today, we understand where Pirelli comes from and safety is very important for us. Pirelli limits were no contributing factor to our performance.”

Williams performance chief Rob Smedley said that the proper answer for the impact of the pressure guidelines would take time to come though.

“It [the new guidelines] certainly hasn't changed anything from our point of view. We are not operating any differently to what we have previously. But has it changed adversely for other people? I don't know is the most honest answer.

“We need more samples of qualifying or races before we can see if the more stricter regulations that they have forced the teams to adhere to, whether stricter policing of that, will have an effect. It will be interesting to see.”

Track characteristics

While there may yet be scope for some even more outlandish conspiracies (how about Mercedes being handed different compound tyres to deliberately be hobbled as a means of spicing up F1!), as often happens in F1 there will most likely be a simple engineering explanation.

Perhaps ultimately a combination of the unique demands of the tight and twisty Singapore layout, the lack of power influence and the use of the super soft may have been enough to swing things towards Ferrari and away from Mercedes so much.

Mercedes has never been as comfortable on the super soft tyre as Ferrari, and the tyre itself – which operates at the lower end of the temperature working range – is also quite hard to manage.

Smedley said: “That compound, which I have said before when we started using it in Monaco and Austria – it is very peaky and on a knife edge. If you get it dead right then it rewards greatly and if you don't get it spot on, then it can be more than the usual few tenths you are off the pace.”

Asked to explain how the get the tyre in to the sweet spot, Smedley said: “There is no single factor which dictates whether or not you have got the tyre prepared right or extracted the maximum grip from it.

“It is based on the preparation before the tyres leave the garage, based on how much energy your car naturally has or by other means put into the tyre around the lap.

“It is based on sliding energy, sliding velocity around the lap, and therefore, the range of temperatures the tyre sees. So it is not just the average temperatures.

“It is the range of temperatures and whether or not you can keep it keyed into a small temperature range. If you have more sliding then you are going both sides of the peak.

“It is based on how the driver prepares the tyres, it is based on how the driver drives his lap, in general, whether he drives it to look after it for a proportion of the lap or extracts more later on, or not lose as much later on. It is based on many things.”

Punishing track

The low-speed 90-degree nature of many of the corners at Singapore makes getting the tyre in to the sweet spot even harder: for there are no high speed corners to generate bulk temperature.

And in some scenarios, if that bulk temperature is too low, it can trigger a vicious circle where that results in less grip, which causes sliding and the surface to overheat without it importing the forces need to heat up the core.

“The tyre is constantly working here,” added Smedley. “You get quite a different relationship here between the bulk temperature and the tyre surface – and it is really knowing the key to both of them and where to target both of them.

“There is also not a lot of recovery for the tyre around the lap, so once you put it into a certain situation then trying to recover from that, it is very difficult.

“Whereas when you get yourself into a bit of a situation when you have imparted more slip or sliding energy into it on a normal circuit, you then have a kilometres of track to recover and it doesn't really remember what it did a kilometres ago – here you never stop using it.”

All eyes are now on Brackley for the proper answer of exactly what went wrong.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Event Singapore GP
Track Singapore Street Circuit
Teams Mercedes , Williams , Ferrari , Red Bull Racing
Article type Analysis
Tags smedley, wolff