Despite bringing home another race victory in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix, Mercedes haven’t managed to rid their W08-Hybrid of its “Sepang demons,” according to Technical Director, James Allison.
Lewis Hamilton was inexplicably beaten to victory by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen at last weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix, despite taking a dominant pole position.
“We leave Malaysia with a lot of question marks,” Teadm Principal Toto Wolff said following Verstappen’s victory.
On Friday in Japan, Lewis Hamilton reported to media following the first two practice sessions that, “The car feels back to normal.” However, Allison’s comments after Sunday’s race seems to contradict this claim, as he believes, “We have not exorcised all of our Sepang demons.”
Despite Hamilton’s claims, which he didn’t rebut after the Japanese Grand Prix, his final race stint certainly suggests Mercedes were not running at full strength here, either.
The below graph is a visual illustration of Lewis Hamilton’s gap to second placed Max Verstappen between laps 23 and 53 (excluding the Virtual Safety Car laps).
Over these 28 racing laps, you can see the gap fluctuates, but never exceeds 3.5s… This means Max Verstappen spent the entire second stint in the dirty air of Lewis Hamilton, yet never lost touch with him.
This is uncommon in modern Formula 1, as cars generally struggle to follow this close due to the excessive dirty air produced.
This effect was notable during the Hungarian Grand Prix back in July. In that race, Lewis Hamilton had a major pace advantage over the leading Ferrari’s, but as soon as he got close to the back of Kimi Raikkonen, the Briton suddenly couldn’t go quick any more.
Valtteri Bottas explained after that race, “[O]nce you get within 1.5 seconds to the car in front of you it becomes so difficult to close the gap.”
Given Verstappen’s ability to keep a sub three second gap to Hamilton’s Mercedes over the final 30 laps, it’s reasonable to assume the Red Bull actually had greater raw pace than the Mercedes during the Japanese Grand Prix.
If this hypothesis is indeed true, then it poses the interesting question as to why Mercedes are seemingly slower than a team which they beat by 30 seconds in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
But more, importantly, this hypothesis also suggests James Allison’s original conclusion that the team haven’t “exorcised” their “Sepang demons” is more-than valid.
Quite simply, Mercedes have openly admitted, and statistics agree with them, that the current Championship Leaders still have issues which are affecting the outright pace of their car.