This year marks the first time since 2014 that Mercedes haven’t won at least one of the first three races in a Formula 1 season. 2018 has been dominated by Ferrari and Red Bull, despite common feelings that “Mercedes had something in hand” – if you listen to former Williams Technical Director, Pat Symonds.
“The first few races haven’t really shown that,” he said.
Unlike previous seasons, Sebastian Vettel burst into 2018 with back-to-back wins in Australia and Bahrain. It may have been three-in-a-row if the safety-car hadn’t flipped last fortnight’s Chinese Grand Prix on it’s head. In the end, Red Bull and Daniel Ricciardo caught a lucky break and stormed home for a sensational win.
The problem is that Mercedes’ performances in 2018 haven’t been wholly representative of their raw pace. In each race weekend, the team has made revealing comments that suggest their performing below what they think is actually possible.
On the subject of strategical error in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff said, “It was clearly a problem on our side and we need to analyse that to understand what happened and correct it.”
Valtteri Bottas felt the need to comment about his failed, final-lap effort to steal the Bahrain Grand Prix from Sebastian Vettel’s grasp, saying, “Only in the last three laps I started to struggle with the tyres and once I got close to Sebastian everything got more difficult.”
Toto Wolff was vociferous about Mercedes pace issues in China, telling media, “it’s clear that we still have much to understand about our car and how to get the best from the tyres.”
Mercedes clearly cannot get a proper race weekend together. But, does that leave them as a threat? Has ‘unfortunate issues’ been the only thing between them and another year of total dominance in 2018?
But, the aforementioned Pat Symonds has a theory which might disprove this. In a recent interview published by Motorsport.com, the former Williams Technical Director suggested that ‘problems’, most of which are tyre related, have always affected the Mercedes team.
“I think things were masked from 2014 to 2016, simply because they had this big power advantage,” he said, referencing Mercedes cracking, and consequently dominating, the V8-hybrid era.
“One thing that they’ve never quite got on top of is tyre management,” he admitted.
Symonds believes that the problem of 2018 “is not really explainable in aerodynamics or vehicle dynamics” because those types of issues don’t give major performance increases. Instead, Symonds believes “big shifts” – like Mercedes seemingly dominating in Australia and then failing produce similar race pace – “has to be down to tyres.”
So, the point is that Mercedes may not have been unfortunate throughout the first three races of 2018. And perhaps more surprisingly, luck may not have been the only thing on the side of Ferrari and Red Bull.
If Symonds is indeed right, then Mercedes’ issues may not begin receding in the near future. This weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix will be another interesting look at which theory is right. Are Mercedes just getting unlucky, or is there a systematic problem which limits the Mercedes W09 from its true potential?
Only time will tell if this is a fundamental issue.