By JENNA FRYER, author of AP Auto Racing
It was the roar of the fans Lewis Hamilton missed, so it was fitting that when he needed a boost most, he heard it from the biggest crowd in Canadian Grand Prix history.
After all, Montreal is the site of Hamilton’s first Formula 1 podium. That was 15 years ago, 103 wins and seven world championships – practically another lifetime considering what a terrible start this season saw Hamilton and Mercedes.
The new Mercedes, built to F1’s specifications for 2022, is abysmal to drive; Hamilton’s back hurts from all the ups and downs, in part because Mercedes drives him low to the ground for maximum performance. This pursuit of downforce has created a “porpoise” effect that is dangerous, at least to a rider’s long-term health.
Hamilton admitted he’s had more headaches than usual in recent months, but he doesn’t know if it’s micro-concussions. He uses his personal physiotherapist, takes painkillers and, along with his new teammate George Russell, drives any car Mercedes gives them.
But it must have felt like a rock bottom a week ago in Baku when the 37-year-old struggled to even get out of his car after jumping 190 miles through Azerbaijan’s streets. F1’s governing body stepped in last Thursday with a technical guideline issued by the FIA to combat harbor porpoises.
The policy engulfed the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve paddock in backroom politics and rivals found it odd that Mercedes was so quick to respond to a late notification in time for Friday’s opening practice session.
In the end, Mercedes used the technical guideline to try new setups on Friday, but it made their cars worse. So next Saturday, the team did what their rivals had been suggesting all along: Mercedes upped the ride height and Hamilton’s fourth-place qualifying performance was his best of the year. He then finished third on Sunday, taking just his second podium in nine races this season.
He was Sir Lewis Hamilton stepping out of the car, not the veteran struggling to fend off his younger team-mate and keep an eye on the lead. Hamilton heard the crowd – F1 said a record 338,000 viewers appeared in three days on the series’ return after a two-year pandemic break – and immediately addressed fans.
“How are you, Montréal?” he asked. He later reflected on what Sunday’s finish – his first podium since the season opener in March – meant to him in that terrible season.
“I haven’t been on the podium for a long time,” he said. “Well, especially when I had my first here 15 years ago, being back up there and experiencing the energy of the crowd reminded me a lot of that first year here. I’m so, so happy with it.”
Will Hamilton now be competitive enough to defend his British Grand Prix win when the next F1 race is two weeks away? Probably not. Mercedes still doesn’t have the pace of Red Bull and Ferrari, and even after raising the ride height in Montreal, the cars were still bouncing.
“We still have hops, it won’t go away,” Hamilton said. “And I really hope that going to Silverstone is such an important race for us and for me, I just want to compete against these guys. Eventually we will get there.”
Russell, who has beaten Hamilton in seven out of nine races this season, didn’t sound as encouraged after his fourth place finish. He said the porpoise is probably “less extreme” than Baku because of Montreal’s smoother surface, but the Mercedes “still slams up and down the ground.”
“The general problems of these 2022 cars are far from solved,” Russell said.
He also criticized Mercedes’ pace, saying the qualifying and race results were misleading because the pace deficit to Red Bull and Ferrari was “still quite significant”.
“We’re still a long way from where we need to be,” said Russell, “yeah, we haven’t made much progress yet.”
Your competitors will tell you that Mercedes simply missed the mark on its 2022 car build, overdramatizing driver health concerns to urge the FIA to change rules.
Although other drivers, including Red Bull’s Sergio Perez, have acknowledged the porpoises, no team has struggled like Mercedes. And if Mercedes is so concerned, opposing teams have openly considered it, why not raise its ride height to better comfort its drivers? (Answer: the lower to the ground, the faster the car).
“This is a Formula 1 car. This is not a Rolls Royce. And the drivers should be aware of that,” said Franz Tost, the former driver to the head of AlphaTauri. “If the cars are too stiff or it’s too difficult for them, maybe they should stay at home, in the living room, sit in the chair, and then they can do the races on TV or wherever. I do not know.”
Alpine boss Otmar Szafnauer was just as blunt: “We tend to run the car at a ride height that still performs where we need it, but it doesn’t hurt or injure the drivers or destroy the car.
“We operate it safely. And I believe every team has that opportunity to do that,” he added.
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