How Mercedes' biggest strength is its main weakness

Mercedes escaped from Imola with its lead of both Formula 1 world championships still intact, but the team is under no illusions of the gap to Red Bull that remains.

How Mercedes' biggest strength is its main weakness
Listen to this article

Lewis Hamilton scraped pole position for Mercedes on Saturday, aided by mistakes from both Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez behind. A rocket start by Verstappen then put Red Bull in control of the race, leading to its first win of the year, with a brilliant - albeit fortunate - recovery to second place sparing Hamilton's blushes after a rare error.

Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin conceded after the race that it was a "relief" to still lead the drivers' and constructors' points standings, and that there remains a performance deficit to Red Bull that must be overcome.

"They will win this championship if we don't improve our car very quickly," Shovlin said of Red Bull. "That's really our mindset - that we are still the ones chasing."

Red Bull F1 boss Christian Horner said after the race that he expected the title fight to be settled by marginal gains between the two teams, with one early battleground in 2021 surrounding tyre management.

Mercedes may have struggled with rear-end instability on the W12 car as a result of the downforce cuts for 2021, but the team has worked to remedy the issue over the first two races. Valtteri Bottas said he felt "a lot happier" with the car after topping both practice sessions on Friday, giving the Finn hope of taking the fight to Red Bull.

But Bottas's weekend unravelled in qualifying due to a very different issue. After setting a time in Q1 that would have been good enough for fourth on the grid had it been set in Q3, his pace plummeted, leaving him a lowly eighth on the grid.

Bottas said after qualifying that he was struggling on corner-entry, marking a new issue to that encountered in Bahrain, which Mercedes later related to tyre warm-up. The problem was even more noticeable in the race as Bottas struggled to get his tyres into the right temperature window in the cool conditions, leaving him stuck behind Lance Stroll in the first stint. George Russell was able to gain time on the Finn by virtue of his warmer slick tyres - fitted two laps earlier than Bottas's own mediums - before their race-ending crash on the approach to Turn 2.

It marks a change in fortune for Mercedes. The team has traditionally fared better in cooler conditions and struggled more in the heat with its recent cars. Now, it has the opposite issue.

Read Also:

"Over the years, we quite often struggle in hot conditions, and cold has been normally good because we've had good tyre warm-up," Bottas said. "We've been really trying to develop the car, but didn't overheat the tyres, but obviously with the negative that if we need to get quickly into the tyres, then maybe some other cars can do it better than us.

"For me personally, for example compared to Lewis, it's on such a knife-edge in qualifying, that sometimes you get it to work - like me in Q1, when I did a much faster time than in Q3, I got them to work.

"It's all about one or two degrees of surface or tyre temperature. It's hard to explain. Obviously track temp was changing a bit, depending how much cloud there was, so maybe that had a bit of a factor."

Shovlin said the tyre warm-up issue was something Mercedes had to go away and work on in order to help Bottas turn his tough start to the season around.

"The thing with tyre temperature, it's often a very small difference has a very big impact on grip," Shovlin said. "Unfortunately for Valtteri, he was just the wrong side of a lot of cars, and that gave him a very compromised start position. That's one thing we've got to go off and work on with him, and help him understand.

"In the race, he was struggling following and being able to overtake, just because he was losing front-end in the toe, but also the rear wasn't strong, and again it was that theme that warm-up was a problem for him.

"On the transition to medium, the warm-up meant that he got caught in that bunch of cars where some backmarkers, Max was there as the leader coming through, and that is what really triggered the sequence that ended his race.

"I think all the negatives have come down to this issue of warm-up in those conditions, and we need to find a solution to that, then I think if we do that, the rest of it should click into place."

But while tyre warm-up might be a current Achilles' heel for the W12 car, its tyre management as a whole is in fact one of the areas Red Bull believes it trails on.

In Bahrain, Hamilton was able to keep his hard tyres alive for half the race and hold on - with some thanks to the track limits controversy - to beat Verstappen, who was running much fresher tyres.

Horner felt a similar picture unfolded at Imola towards the end of the first stint on intermediate tyres. Hamilton had hung around five seconds back from Verstappen throughout the first half of the race, only to then bear down as they neared the crossover point to switch to slicks.

Verstappen was radioing his engineer lap after lap, asking when it was time to pit, and managed to get a one-lap advantage on the Mercedes by coming in early. It caused the gap to grow again to five seconds, only for Hamilton to quickly close up before his mistake at Tosa.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W12

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

"The pace is obviously very close with Mercedes and I think there are strengths and weaknesses of the cars in different areas," Horner said.

"I think if you look at the performance on the inter, we were quicker at the beginning of the stint, they were quicker at the end of the stint. The wear pattern across the tyres looks quite different between the two cars and I would say.

"Once they're on, obviously the same spec of tyre, in clean air, [Mercedes] looked very, very competitive. Indeed, he got the fastest lap.

"It's very tight and it's about getting the most out of the car on a case-by-case basis. But I would say Mercedes again, like in Bahrain, looked a bit stronger at the end of the stints than we did."

Shovlin explained how Mercedes worked the balance between quick tyre warm-up and keeping the compounds alive for a long stint, leaving him unsure just how much of an advantage Red Bull had.

"It's always a bit of a compromise between the warm-up and then the longer run," Shovlin said after the race.

"Whether we got that compromise right, we need to go off and have a look at it. The glimpses we saw on the inter, it looks like yes [Red Bull] did [have better warm-up] - although Lewis has obviously sustained that damage.

"On the medium tyre, it's not so clear. I thought we were actually pretty good on warm-up there compared to them."

As F1 heads towards the European summer, it could be the warmer conditions naturally help solve some of the tyre warm-up issues - and help Bottas in particular.

But for now, it is a trade-off that Mercedes is trying to manage as it tries to protect its points advantage against faster opposition.

shares
comments

Related video

Ten things we learned from F1's 2021 Emilia Romagna GP
Previous article

Ten things we learned from F1's 2021 Emilia Romagna GP

Next article

Why Imola was "brutal" for F1 drivers who changed teams

Why Imola was "brutal" for F1 drivers who changed teams
Grading F1's 2022 drivers at half-term Prime

Grading F1's 2022 drivers at half-term

Over the first 13 races of Formula 1's new ground effects era, Max Verstappen has surged into the lead in the world championship over Charles Leclerc. But as the 2022 season prepares to roar back into life, who stacks up as the top of the class, and who must do better? We graded every driver based on their performances so far

The 10 stories to watch out for across the rest of the 2022 F1 season Prime

The 10 stories to watch out for across the rest of the 2022 F1 season

It’s 13 down, nine to go as the Formula 1 teams pause for breath in the summer break. But what can we expect to happen over the next three months from Belgium to Abu Dhabi? Here's the key storylines to keep an eye out for the rest of the 2022 season

Formula 1
Aug 18, 2022
Nicholas Latifi: The under-fire F1 driver fighting for his future Prime

Nicholas Latifi: The under-fire F1 driver fighting for his future

Personable, articulate and devoid of the usual racing driver airs and graces, Nicholas Latifi is the last Formula 1 driver you’d expect to receive death threats, but such was the toxic legacy of his part in last year’s explosive season finale. And now, as ALEX KALINAUCKAS explains, he faces a battle to keep his place on the F1 grid…

Formula 1
Aug 13, 2022
The strange tyre travails faced by F1’s past heroes Prime

The strange tyre travails faced by F1’s past heroes

Modern grand prix drivers like to think the tyres they work with are unusually difficult and temperamental. But, says  MAURICE HAMILTON, their predecessors faced many of the same challenges – and some even stranger…

Formula 1
Aug 12, 2022
The returning fan car revolution that could suit F1 Prime

The returning fan car revolution that could suit F1

Gordon Murray's Brabham BT46B 'fan car' was Formula 1 engineering at perhaps its most outlandish. Now fan technology has been successfully utilised on the McMurtry Speirling at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, could it be adopted by grand prix racing once again?

Formula 1
Aug 11, 2022
Hamilton's first experience of turning silver into gold Prime

Hamilton's first experience of turning silver into gold

The seven-time F1 champion has been lumbered with a duff car before the 2022 Mercedes. Back in 2009, McLaren’s alchemists transformed the disastrous MP4-24. And now it’s happening again at his current team

Formula 1
Aug 11, 2022
Why few would blame Leclerc if he leaves Ferrari in future Prime

Why few would blame Leclerc if he leaves Ferrari in future

OPINION: Ferrari's numerous strategy blunders, as well as some of his own mistakes, have cost Charles Leclerc dearly in the 2022 Formula 1 title battle in the first half of the season. Though he is locked into a deal with Ferrari, few could blame Leclerc if he ultimately wanted to look elsewhere - just as Lewis Hamilton did with McLaren 10 years prior.

Formula 1
Aug 9, 2022
The other McLaren exile hoping to follow Perez's path to a top F1 seat Prime

The other McLaren exile hoping to follow Perez's path to a top F1 seat

After being ditched by McLaren earlier in his F1 career Sergio Perez fought his way back into a seat with a leading team. BEN EDWARDS thinks the same could be happening to another member of the current grid

Formula 1
Aug 8, 2022