(Photo credit: Alan)
Can Mercedes (and Hamilton) bounce back?
Mercedes are suffering their worst winless run of the V6 turbo era, but before you go feeling too sorry for them, remember that it's only three races! This shows not only how successful the team has been over the past few years, but also the effort those around them, namely Ferrari, have made to get back on terms and beat the Silver Arrows at their own game.
The season didn’t start off too badly at the qualifying session in Melbourne, where Lewis Hamilton claimed his 73rd career pole position, but it has all downhill from there. A strategy error cost the Brit the race win, and Valtteri Bottas’s qualifying crash meant he could only finish eighth.
From there to Bahrain and China it seems Mercedes has lost their edge in qualifying although Bottas has showed us what the car is capable of in the races. The Finn pushed Vettel hard for the win under the lights in Bahrain and looked on course to win in China after a masterful bit of strategy from his team got him ahead of Vettel’s Ferrari. However, his hard work was undermined by a badly timed safety car and a hard-charging Daniel Ricciardo.
The real problem for Mercedes is the form of reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton, which after the disappointment of Australia seems to have declined dramatically. He has been out-qualified, and out-raced by his teammate in the last two races and looked powerless in China, even at the start of the race, to hold off the challenges of those around him. So what’s the issue?
Hamilton spoke candidly about his performance in China, saying: “I was in no-man's-land today. I had no pace. I was just trying to hold on for whatever I had. We’ve got a tough battle ahead of us, particularly on my side (and) also for us as a team. We have been under-performing. Yesterday and today was a disaster on my side. I have got to rectify that and get back into normal performance mode otherwise more points will be lost.”
Mercedes have been tight-lipped on the source of Hamilton’s issues, with Toto Wolff suggesting that Hamilton might not have been ‘in the best place’ in Shanghai.
"Like the car, he was maybe not in the best place this weekend," said Wolff. "He's the best driver in my opinion, but the best ones have days when it's just not 100%, and if underneath you have a car that's not performing as expected, and tyres that are not doing what you think they should do, and then the strategy goes against you. Actually, we discussed that scenario this morning. Then everything just goes in the wrong direction."
No doubt Lewis will put pressure on the team to rectify whatever issues he feels he has, but whether this will come in time to help him in Baku this weekend - at a track where he hasn’t yet stood on the podium - remains to be seen.
Ricciardo’s warning to Red Bull
After the Chinese GP, Red Bull boss Christian Horner suggested Daniel Ricciardo would be better off staying at Red Bull for 2019. The Australian is contracted to Red Bull until the end of this season, but his future is a subject of intense speculation, with Italian media last week calling for Ferrari to sign the Chinese Grand Prix winner. But as Horner asks: “If we can give him a car like we did today, why would he want to leave?”
This answer from Horner seems to ignore that Red Bull are consistently the third fastest team in qualifying, and as good as their strategy was in China, it seems unlikely that Ricciardo could have won without the Safety Car (unless this is the ‘car’ Horner is referring to?). Ricciardo also didn’t seem too impressed by that comment, although he was much more diplomatic in his response.
"I want to be with the best car because I think the weekend (China) proved that if I got the opportunity, I can pull it off, I can handle that pressure and that intensity. If we can win a few more now with Red Bull, then that looks very attractive. If not, then I guess there are probably other options. Obviously the win helps but if we were finishing sixth every race this year, then that's not the most attractive option to me."
The message from Ricciardo seems clear: Red Bull had better make winning a habit, or he will be off.
Ferrari’s flawed strategy
Ferrari have had a stellar start to the season. After two years of playing second fiddle to Mercedes it finally looks as though they have produced a car that’s up to the task, with lead driver Sebastian Vettel winning the opening two rounds of the championship, a feat that has always been followed by a title win at the end of the year.
The German was also on course for at least a second place in Shanghai before a safety car and Max Verstappen put paid to Ferrari’s plans, resulting in an eighth place finish. Despite this, Vettel still sits nine points clear of Lewis Hamilton in second and looks to have the early potential to build the gap up even further. So what’s the problem?
The problem is clear if you take a glance at the constructors’ championship, where despite Ferrari winning two of the three rounds so far, they still trail Mercedes, albeit by one point. You could (correctly) argue that Ferrari would be ahead if Raikkonen hadn’t dropped out of the Bahrain Grand Prix following the botched pit stop, during which a Ferrari mechanic was badly injured, but even if that was the case, it is a situation that doesn't appear sustainable.
Ferrari have a real issue with their Vettel-oriented strategy, and this was most illustrated by what happened last time out in China. Having dropped back from second at the start after getting squeezed by his teammate, Kimi Raikkonen was then deployed by Ferrari to hold up Valtteri Bottas. The Mercedes driver had undercut Vettel spectacularly on lap 21 was charging towards his stricken countryman who was circulating well off the pace at the front of the field.
This gambit failed spectacularly as Bottas swept past Kimi who then pitted, coming out in sixth, way off the rest of the front-runners. Fortunately, the Safety Car intervened and allowed him to use his fresher tyres to fight his way back to a podium place. Had this not happened, sixth place looked like his best hope.
This just doesn’t seem like a sustainable strategy for a team that is supposedly chasing the constructors’ title. People may argue that Mercedes did a similar thing with Bottas last year in Spain, but the holding up of Vettel to aid Hamilton didn’t take too much time out of Bottas’s original strategy, while the same cannot be said for Kimi in Shanghai.
Vettel may look like the favourite for the drivers’ title, but Ferraris ‘Seb-first’ approach may yet again deny them the prize that pays the bills.
Which Baku will we see?
This weekend will see the third visit of Formula 1 to the Baku Street Circuit, the first being for the 2016 European Grand Prix, and the second for the inaugural Azerbaijan Grand Prix last year. Each of these previous editions was different not only in name but also in the quality of race produced.
The first was a somewhat forgettable affair, won comfortably by Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes, so imagine our surprise when last year’s running gave us a bonkers race that thrilled from start to finish. Red flags, red mist, showers of pink carbon fibre, loose headrests, and a photo finish for the podium which saw the second-youngest ever podium-sitter in F1 - last year’s race had it all.
Whether this year can produce something similar really depends how feisty the guys down at Force India are feeling this year, and whether Hamilton and Vettel fancy trading another round of blows. We expect a race more in the mould of 2016, but hope for a repeat on 2017!
The Verstappen question
A lot of time, effort, and column inches have gone into debating Max Verstappen’s temperament over the past few years, and just when it might have been time to let it go for another few months, he comes back with a failed move on Hamilton in Bahrain that resulted in a puncture, followed by another close call with car 44 in China, and a collision with championship leader Sebastian Vettel at the Turn 14 hairpin.
Whether you are a defender or detractor of the Dutchman, there is no disputing his talents, or that he deserves a place on the grid, but he really needs to show that he has the ability to pull off an overtake without flying off the track, hindering himself and others in the process. He only needs to look across the garage for a prime example of a driver who knows how to make a fair move stick.
What are you predictions for Azerbaijan? Let us know in the comments below.