Lewis Hamilton must stop making excuses – there is no magic bullet in F1

Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes reacts from the drivers parade prior to the F1 Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 21, 2024 in Shanghai, China
Lewis Hamilton is searching for something that might not be there - Getty Images/Edmund So

During his run to ninth in Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton complained that his Mercedes felt “broken”. It was another disappointing and confusing weekend for the seven-time champion, who has yet to beat George Russell in a race this season. Yet again he put his problems down to an “aggressive” set-up and one that was divergent from his team-mate.

If I were in Toto Wolff’s position the first question I’d be asking on Monday morning would be why did we make these decisions to change Hamilton’s set-up before the race. On Saturday in the sprint race Hamilton finished second. Yes, he was 13 seconds behind the winner after 19 laps but this was by far his best showing in any meaningful session in 2024. Why overhaul this set-up rather than simply tweaking it?

It was a bizarre decision, with Hamilton holding his hands up. “I won’t make that set-up change again, Bono,” he told his race engineer after the chequered flag. It does, however, characterise Hamilton’s approach to the troublesome Mercedes cars of the current ground-effect era – certainly in contrast to Russell.

Firstly, we have to believe what Hamilton says about his set-up. Yet when you consider that these regulations came in nearly 50 races ago, for Mercedes still to be “experimenting” like this shows that they are lost. Mercedes, with their record and resources, should at worst be fighting for podiums. You could understand teams like Sauber or Williams taking a shot in the dark with a set-up but Mercedes should be optimising what they have.

Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team W15 makes a pitstop during the F1 Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 21, 2024 in Shanghai, China
Mercedes have had deep-rooted issues with their car since the most recent regulation changes - Getty Images/Mark Thompson

This means getting the car into a set-up window and changing the car’s balance: perhaps deviating by five per cent stiffness on the front or rear or a millimetre or so on ride height. Also shifting the aerodynamic balance between the front and rear wing. In other words optimising around what you have, but certainly not radical changes.

Optimisation of the W15 is what Russell’s approach seems to be. He qualified eighth and finished sixth in Shanghai which is a good result. Mercedes is the fourth fastest car and Russell was only beaten by two Red Bulls, two Ferraris and one McLaren. He showed what the car can do, this is where they are and Hamilton and the team need to accept that.

Hamilton still seems to be searching for that magic bullet that will suddenly see him leap to the front. Well, in all my years in motorsport I have never seen that happen. Mercedes have had a fundamental problem with their car since the start of 2022 and no amount of set-up changes will fix it. It should always be about optimising what you have at your disposal, if you can do this it gives you a baseline to work from. The excuses must stop at some point.

The decision-making process on Hamilton’s side of the garage has to be questioned. He took responsibility for the decision, but you would expect any radical set-up changes to be made after consultation with a larger group. This includes the key engineers with perhaps even Wolff involved, especially if there is an element of risk to it.

However, when Hamilton talks of these out-there set-ups they are probably not as wild as he would have us believe. They are not taking the engine from the rear and putting it in the front, so to speak.

What you can actually change with these ground-effect cars is actually quite small – ride height, spring stiffness and front and rear wing aerodynamic balance. The most important thing is generating downforce from the under-floor. The fundamentals of the car will not alter with set-up changes, but they can be put out of whack very easily, which is likely what happened in China with Hamilton who complained of terrible balance.

There might be something in Hamilton chasing the few times that Mercedes have found their sweet spot in the last few years. It has been there on occasion – two poles and one win since the end of 2021 – but has been fleeting. The Mercedes is generally inconsistent. This is all likely leading him astray and Hamilton does not seem willing to accept the reality.

There is a knock-on effect that hampers the car’s development long-term, too. If you make odd choices on set-up then a team fails to find a baseline for performance and set-up. It limits learning about the car. If that is absent then the development path, knowing what to work on in the wind tunnel and improving aerodynamic performance will be confused too. It leaves a team with no positive direction.

This continues to be a recurring headache for Hamilton but he has at least an end date as he departs for Ferrari. In the meantime if he does not want to end the year as the second best Mercedes driver he should look and learn from Russell and simply take the best out of what he has to work with.