Will Gray

Gray Matter: What’s up with Mercedes?

Will Gray

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A disappointing Canadian Grand Prix left Michael Schumacher admitting his championship hopes are now all but over - so where did it go wrong for Mercedes this season and is there still time to turn it around?

Ross Brawn's team now sit in fourth place on 108 points, more than two 1-2 finishes behind McLaren's table-topping 215 after eight of the 19 races, with Schumacher 75 points (three full wins) behind championship leader Lewis Hamilton. Mercedes motorsport chief Norbert Haug has even taken to congratulating engine partners McLaren on their victories as a footnote to his works team's performances in post-race press releases.

Schumacher admitted in Montreal that 2010 is now about "building up and organising things for what happens from next year onwards" but followed up his title battle deferment by adding "you never know, it's still a long year..." He's right, the title is probably well beyond them but is there any chance of victory around the corner?

The team that won the title as Brawn last year admitted to being behind their rivals from the start but McLaren proved last year how quickly a team can turn things around, attacking with all guns blazing to turn a dog of a car into a winning machine while Brawn stumbled to the title.

Mercedes' disappointing start has little to do with the title efforts last year - their early-season advantage was so big they didn't need to put in a big push at the end and they were already heavily set into developing the 2010 car when still fighting for the championship. However, their rivals did have the momentum of development and, it seemed, were finding ways of getting more out of their cars where Brawn were slowly heading backwards.

Losing Jenson Button to McLaren at the end of last year was virtually acclaimed as a positive thing as he made way for the arrival of seven-times champion Michael Schumacher, while the loss of Rubens Barrichello to Williams was shrugged off too on the basis that pairing in-bound Nico Rosberg with Schumacher was ideal.

However, each of Mercedes' main rivals have at least one driver retained from 2009 and it is impossible to understate what vital continuity that offers. Neither Schumacher nor Rosberg have driven the title-winning Brawn machine, and Schumacher had not even tasted modern F1 machinery before stepping into the 2010 Mercedes. That would hurt any team's development.

And if there is anything Mercedes has needed this year, it is strong driver feedback.

They realised early on that they had made a fundamental mistake on their car's weight distribution, incorrectly predicting the performance effects of the new wider front tyres. Having based the entire design around this, even the quick fix that they introduced to increase the wheelbase will have compromises, and the drivers need to be able to give the feedback to suggest how to get over these as well as advising on the progress of the f-duct that is fast becoming an essential part of any front-running team.

Perhaps a concentration on car development has also taken their eye off the ball in terms of race strategy, normally Brawn's element. In Monaco, their two cars held each other up in qualifying and then Schumacher was incorrectly advised to make the last-lap lunge against the safety car regulations. In Canada, they admitted a mistake in leaving Schumacher out on the wrong tyres. It's strange to see this, but perhaps Brawn's overarching role at Mercedes is larger than it was at Ferrari, giving him less time to make as well-informed judgments.

But perhaps Norbert Haug hit on the main problem recently when he pointed to Mercedes' staffing levels. "We brought our people down to the right number for next year already," he said, referring to the resource restriction agreement, which aims to reduce team sizes by 2012. "This is certainly not an excuse, it's just an explanation."

True enough, with less people in the design room compared to their rivals, it will be very hard for Brawn to close the gap, let alone overcome it.

However, there is one element within the team that will continue to grow in strength - and if Schumacher can continue his progress he could still be the key that unlocks the magic.

He has been slow to recover his form, struggling with a car that didn't suit him. Now he has one that does, he is starting to get in the groove, but his aura of invincibility has gone and his midfield battle tactics are lacking. During the glory years at Ferrari he rarely had to battle in the pack, but now that is a regular occurrence and his front-running rivals are happy to give back anything he dishes out.

Schumacher is at his best when running at the front, but as he proved at Ferrari, when he is settled in the garage he knows how to get there. Sure, Jean Todt is not leading the way at Mercedes, but many believe the technical combination of Brawn and Schumacher was the key to Ferrari's success in the early 2000s.

Mercedes chief Nick Fry admitted in April: "Michael's quite remarkable, the level of feedback that he gives is something that I have never seen before and that is just not in the debriefs - when you have the headphones on you hear amazing things. Every race he is learning a little bit more and it is all coming together slowly but surely, which is probably what you would expect."

In Canada, Schumacher added: "There hasn't yet been a best race, one of those special races where things really fit together perfectly. We are not there yet, but I know I am coming there. It's part of the reason that I'm doing this, to get to that point - but you need certain ingredients and we are still searching for those."

If they do find the ingredients, though, their rivals will have to watch out because Brawn and Schumacher certainly know how to mix them...

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