It's hard to put a title to what exactly is happening to Mercedes at the minute.
The most utterly dominant run in the history of the sport came from the German giants over the course of the last eight seasons - in which the team delivered eight constructors' championships and seven drivers' championships (six for Lewis Hamilton).
But 2022 has brought a rude awakening for the Silver Arrows. Mercedes have not only lost their dominance - they are not even in contention for the title anymore.
The Mercs are firmly out of the battle, with Red Bull racing ahead and the duo of Charles Leclerc-Ferrari proving irresistible (when it can get to the finish).
This weekend's race in Baku, on the surface, looked like a positive result for Mercedes, with a podium for George Russell and P4 for Lewis Hamilton as good as they could realistically have hoped for after a poor qualifying.
Underneath that, however, is a far more complex story which shows that Mercedes may be even further behind their goals than we thought coming to the Azerbaijan GP.
Azerbaijan F1 GP: Mercedes revival continues to falter
Just three weeks ago, this author's deep dive from the Spanish Grand Prix teased the possibility of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton mounting a comeback in the drivers' standings after an...underwhelming start to the season.
The determination of Hamilton to recover to P5 from a first lap collision, coupled with a George Russell podium, had Mercedes coming away from Barcelona filled with promise for the remainder of the season.
Monaco and, in particular, this weekend's race in Baku, have brought them back down to Earth.
On paper, Baku looks like a more successful outing for Mercedes than Barcelona. P3-P4 is a solid return for a supposedly struggling team, and that was from fifth and seventh on the grid. But one only needs to look again at the footage of Lewis Hamilton trying to pull himself out of the car at the end of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix to realise all was not right.
Hamilton does not look well 🤕 pic.twitter.com/4RaXebGvfT
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) June 12, 2022
The 2022 cars produce an aerodynamic phenomenon known as "porpoising", which leads to the cars aggressively and rapidly bouncing at high speed. Mercedes have been far worse hit by the bouncing than their counterparts, with team principal Toto Wolff apologising to Hamilton after the race for the state of the Merc car.
The onboard footage from Hamilton's car in particular was uncomfortable to watch. Quoted by Autosport in the aftermath of the race, the seven-times F1 world champion gave a startling admission that he barely kept the car on track at points:
There were a lot of moments where I didn't know if I was going to make it, just whether I was going to keep the car on track. I don't know if you saw it, but I nearly lost it in the high speed several times.
There were so many times I was nearly going into the wall. That was a concern safety-wise, at 180mph, smashing into a wall - I don't think I've really ever had to think about that too much as a racing driver.
You don't really ever think about keeping it out of the wall at that high speed. A very, very, very strange experience.
I'm happy it's over. That was the most painful race I've experienced, the toughest race I've experienced.
Considering Hamilton looked on the verge of collapsing while on the podium in Hungary last year, his assertion that this was the toughest race of his career is an alarming indication of just how unpleasant this year's Mercedes has been to drive.
This is unlike anything we have seen from Mercedes since the "hybrid era" began in 2014. At points, they have been on the backfoot - that is not new. But, in 2017 and 2018 when Ferrari started strong, Mercedes stayed strong and won out on the development front.
Last year, when slight regulation changes led to a Mercedes car that was tricky to handle and which left Red Bull in the ascendancy in the opening rounds, the team at Brackley worked tirelessly to give Hamilton and then-teammate Valtteri Bottas the best car on the grid for the second half of the season.
The porpoising has been an issue for Mercedes since testing - and a major one since the second race of the season in Jeddah. They have not only failed to find a solution to the issues with the car - they actually seem further away than ever from solving these issues.
That's on Hamilton's side of the garage, anyway.
There is a curious and surprising divide appearing between the two sides of the garage. Hamilton's vastly less experienced teammate George Russell remains the only driver to finish in the top five at every race this season, and has three podiums to Hamilton's one.
— Formula 1 (@F1) June 12, 2022
Russell finished third again on Sunday, and has been a strong contender for the "driver of the year" gong so far. Hamilton has, for the most part, had a perfectly fine 2022. Aside from Jeddah and Imola, he has shown decent pace and, though comfortably behind his teammate, has suffered from his fair share of bad luck, which has had some impact on the standings.
He has also appeared to struggle far more with the physical demands of the Mercedes W13, with the porpoising taking its toll on the 37-year-old. He has, however, simply been outpaced by Russell for the most part. He was probably unlucky not to take podiums in Australia and Spain - but that would only have him on a par with his younger teammate.
Sunday saw a fighting Hamilton find his way through to P4, despite suffering throughout the race duration.
— Formula 1 (@F1) June 12, 2022
This is where the curious element of the Mercedes "downfall" comes in - I'm not entirely sure you can even call this a "downfall" or "fall from grace". Four podiums from eight races is a pitiful return for a team that had ten (and four race wins) by this stage last year, but it is still more than most teams managed in the entirety of the 2021 season.
And they have been unlucky at points. The aforementioned Australian GP would probably have seen Hamilton finish in P2 had it not been for an unfortunately timed safety car, while his first lap clash with Magnussen in Barcelona had fans wondering what could have been possible if he had been at the front of the pack for the entirety of the race.
Sporting dynasties come and go - if this is the extent of Mercedes' downfall, it will be one of the most graceful we've ever seen. They are still comfortably the third best team in F1 and, incredibly, they have scored more points than the speedy Ferrari over the past five races.
Out of 235 possible points across the last 5 races:
- Red Bull have taken 224.
- Ferrari have taken 95.
- Mercedes have taken 96.
Since Australia, it’s gone worse than we could’ve ever imagined…😞
— Ferrari News 🐎 (@FanaticsFerrari) June 12, 2022
But there is that nagging knowledge that Mercedes are only enjoying such success due to the misfortune of their rivals, rather than due to any pace advantage. The Merc is a quick car - but it's nowhere near as consistently quick as the Ferrari or Red Bull.
Reliability is a pivotal part of building a race car, that's for sure, and the old adage rings through: "to finish first, first you have to finish." But, with the comments we heard from Hamilton post-race in Baku, Mercedes are on the verge of doing neither.
Everyone in the F1 world is waiting for that inevitable moment this season when Mercedes eliminate the issues, unlock the latent pace in the car, and find six tenths and dominate their way to wins again, just as they did in 2017, 2018, and 2021.
After Baku, it seems more likely than ever that that moment may not come in 2022.
Wrapping up from the Azerbaijan Grand Prix
|1st||Max Verstappen||Red Bull Racing-RBPT||150||5 (+1 sprint win)|
|2nd||Sergio Perez||Red Bull Racing-RBPT||129||1|
|3rd||Charles Leclerc||Scuderia Ferrari||116||2|
|4th||George Russell||Mercedes AMG F1||99||0|
|5th||Carlos Sainz Jr||Scuderia Ferrari||83||0|
- Driver of the day: It was unfortunate to see Yuki Tsunoda drop out of the points after a technical issue out of his control. The Japanese driver has struggled at points during his time at AlphaTauri but Sunday brought an assured drive with great moves on both Alpine drivers, and he was on course for a great points finish. Honourable mention to his teammate Pierre Gasly for a terrific return to form
- Day to forget: Can't look anywhere other than to Ferrari here. After the Australian Grand Prix, it seemed as though the power of the title battle sat with the Scuderia, who led both championships. Five races and four DNFs later, Ferrari sit outside the top two of the drivers' standings, and 80 points behind Red Bull in the constructors. Yikes.
- The big question ahead of round #9: How bad will the porpoising be in Canada? We've seen the bouncing phenomenon produced by the 2022 F1 cars manifest itself strongest in the last two rounds, both street circuits. A third consecutive street track, with a bumpy surface, and nearby concrete walls, will have teams on edge going to Montreal - not least the ailing Mercedes...