It’s rare to see genuine bewilderment written on Lewis Hamilton’s face, but his sense of shell shock at the end of the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix was palpable.
He’d just trailed home 13th, his worst result on pure pace in 13 years, counting way back to 2009 when he was driving an underdeveloped McLaren.
The entire weekend had been poor for Mercedes. Both he and teammate George Russell were knocked out of qualifying in the bottom 10 and made up no ground in the sprint, and though a great start from Russell and a slice of good luck catapulted him to fourth at the flag, there was no misrepresenting how uncompetitive the Mercedes W13 was at the classic Italian circuit.
A little wild-eyed as he stepped out of the car, Hamilton was almost lost for words at first before he found the most difficult ones to say to express his current predicament.
“I’m out of the championship for sure. There’s no question about that.”
Just four races into a 23-race season and the seven-time champion had written off his chances - and those of his Mercedes team, the reigning constructors champion.
How did things go so badly wrong?
The Mercedes car is a difficult beast to wrangle. The era’s most dominant team has gambled big on an extreme aerodynamic design - the car has essentially no sidepods, a stark departure from every other machine on the grid - but so far it’s not paying off.
Instead the W13 is difficult and unpredictable to drive. Worse, it’s the most badly affected by ‘porpoising’ - the bouncing up and down on its suspension - as the aerodynamic floor stalls as it touches the ground at high speed and then reloads as the car rises back up.
While some teams have managed to dial out the bouncing and others have incorporated it into their performance envelope - Ferrari’s SF-75 is among the more enthusiastic bouncers on the grid - none is experiencing worse porpoising than Mercedes.
Indeed it’s so bad that Russell is reporting back and chest pain from the violence of the vibrations.
The bouncing can be solved by raising the ride height, but that comes at the expense of performance, making it self-defeating. The team could stiffen the suspension, but that would make the car undriveable over the kerbs. Reducing the downforce overall would make the car difficult to handle at most tracks.
The team is running out of ideas after four rounds. More than once Hamilton and Russell have reported that set-up changes make no difference to overall performance or, at worst, make the car slower.
The team is a fortunate 47 points behind Ferrari in the constructors standings thanks largely to two non-scores by Carlos Sainz and three retirements for Red Bull Racing, while George Russell is 37 points off Charles Leclerc’s title lead, with Hamilton a further 21 adrift.
The season is long, but while Mercedes is still trying to crack its car both Ferrari and Red Bull Racing are working on making theirs faster. RBR already brought some meaningful updates to Imola that helped Max Verstappen take an important victory; Ferrari is bringing some minor changes this weekend ahead of a major update two weeks later.
“There are a couple of major issues with the car that if we can fix, we can find a lot of that gap quite quickly,” said trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin, repeating the season-long mantra of the team that there’s performance to be unlocked in the car. “But time is getting critical now.
“We need to move forward in the next two races if we are to keep the leaders within any kind of reach this year.”
The challenge starts at this weekend’s Miami Grand Prix, where the team intends to bring its first round of updates, having held off so far to avoid muddying the waters as it analysed its problems. The following race in Spain, a well-known F1 test venue, will then be the acid test of the team’s progress.
The first-ever Miami Grand Prix is being billed as a high-roller party venue, but there’ll be no time to soak in the atmosphere for Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton. Their seasons are on the line.