“This is definitely the worst weekend that I can remember for a long time.”
That’s what Lewis Hamilton said after a costly retirement in Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix. The script just didn’t go to plan for Mercedes, who lost both drivers during the race to mechanical issues.
The team has left Spielberg with no points. The Silver Arrows also surrendered the lead of the Drivers and Constructors Championships.
“This is the most painful day of the last six years,” Team Principal Toto Wolff said.
Mercedes have never had a double-DNF purely because of reliability in the turbo-hybrid era. Their power unit has been the most reliable since 2014. Was Spielberg simply a freak coincidence? Or do the two failures have rational explanations behind them?
Rewinding to Friday
Although Lewis Hamilton topped FP2, the Briton failed to complete an Ultrasoft long run during Friday afternoon. He struggled to string together the laps. In the end, he could only post a five-lap soft tyre simulation.
“Lewis wasn’t comfortable on the UltraSoft on the long run, but the Soft tyre looked strong,” Mercedes engineer Andrew Shovlin said after FP2, a session he described as “tricky.”
“The harder tyre seems to be the better for me,” Hamilton said in the afternoon. But, he hinted something was wrong. He felt the car had “got a little worse during the afternoon session and we will try to figure out why.”
“I’m sure we can rectify it,” he said.
Valtteri Bottas hinted more directly at the apparent issue with the Mercedes, telling media on Friday, “we do still have a bit of balance work to do to get the most out of the car.”
He also recounted his experience with blistering in 2017, which he said could “potentially be an issue again” because of Sunday’s temperatures, which he acknowledged were predicted to be hotter-than-usual.
Mercedes may have topped both ninety-minute practice sessions on Friday, but their closest championship rivals, Ferrari, had long run numbers to rival them. Sebastian Vettel’s 10-lap long soft tyre run was just a tenth off the pace of Hamilton’s. The German also had an impressive Ultrasoft long run of 17-laps to his name.
“We normally see Ferrari take a big step forward from Friday to Saturday so we are not paying a lot of attention to the lap times from today,” Shovlin said. Instead, he said Mercedes’ focus was on fixing the issues highlighted by both Bottas and Hamilton.
Although they may not have been as quick on paper, there was certainly no feelings of worry within Ferrari after Friday practice. “Today we didn’t have any issues,” Vettel said on Friday, adding, “we should be well prepared for tomorrow and for Sunday.”
“In general it was not too bad,” the typically reserved Kimi Raikkonen said.
Although Mercedes had topped FP2’s timing sheets and they both had the quickest long runs, the Silver Arrows were at a disadvantage. Their long runs had been split across drivers and were not as long as Sebastian Vettel’s. And, there was worry within Mercedes when no such feelings could be found at Ferrari.
Saturday in Austria for Mercedes can be summed up quite well by a simple quote from Andrew Shovlin. Yes, Mercedes locked out the front row, but Shovlin knew what was really going on.
“The day has run quite smoothly, we made some changes to the car overnight that seemed to be a step in the right direction but we still had a bit of time to find in the slow corners that required some fine tuning for qualifying.”
“Seemed” is a powerful word choice, because it suggests their step was a theoretical one, not a proven one. Valtteri Bottas did admit the car felt “really well-balanced”, but somewhat cursed himself, adding, “I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t feel that way tomorrow.”
Vettel felt he had another tenth to give in qualifying on Saturday. His P3 efforts were marred by a three-place grid penalty for impeding Carlos Sainz. Without the penalty and with the extra tenth, Vettel would’ve been just two tenths off the pole time.
Ferrari was reserved in their assessment of their race pace ahead of the Grand Prix, but don’t forget, they were coming off a strong Friday.
When Grand Prix day rolled around, the Austrian climate brought hot conditions with it. Bottas had eluded to the conditions on Friday, meaning they weren’t completely unexpected.
But, the extremity of them were; at the race start, track temperatures sat near 50 degrees Celsius, 20 more than FP2’s conditions and 10 more than what Christian Horner said he was expecting.
Pirelli confirmed that the conditions were hotter than both Friday and Saturday and their Head of Car Racing Mario Isola said this “had the effect of generating blistering on some cars.”
The Austrian Grand Prix was the perfect race for Mercedes until lap 14. Hamilton was leading, in clear air, whilst Valtteri Bottas was never more than three seconds behind. In effect, the Finn was running in dirty air.
His loss of hydraulic pressure on lap 14 is a problem that doesn’t actually seem related to Ferrari. But then again, with hotter-than-expected temperatures, dirty air, Mercedes’ historic overheating issues, and the pressure Ferrari had applied earlier in the weekend – it’s not unreal to suggest that perhaps Bottas’ W09-Hybrid was pushed just a little too hard.
Equally so, it’d be fair to say that this one actually isn’t directly related to Ferrari, even if their pressure had forced Mercedes to run their cars harder. Bottas’ incident seems like that ‘one’ time in the season where Mercedes seem to have an engine choke; such as Hamilton’s Malaysia 2016 and Bottas’ Spain 2017.
But, Hamilton’s fuel pressure issue that ended his Austrian Grand Prix on lap 63 seems to be different. In fact, since Bottas’ retirement, Ferrari had walked all over Hamilton’s Mercedes, and here’s how:
- Hamilton was not pitted under the virtual-safety-car, unlike his direct Red Bull and Ferrari rivals. Thus, when green flag racing resumed, Hamilton would’ve most likely have been told to push to try and shut the competitors out of his window. Max Verstappen defiantly held a 13-second gap to Hamilton. Vettel remained out of the window, though.
- Once Hamilton was eventually pitted on lap 25, he came out between Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel – all three drivers were on the soft tyres. Vettel was within two-seconds of Hamilton and the Briton had to push in order to keep the up-to-speed Vettel behind whilst his own tyres warmed up.
- Vettel was then pushing as hard as he could, to try and pass Hamilton. Viewing a battle like this in the context of Friday practice, Hamilton most likely had the car in an uncomfortable position whilst Vettel had everything under control.
- Over the next ten laps, Vettel closed Hamilton down until he had DRS and when the Briton lost momentum due to traffic on lap 39, Vettel pounced at Turn 3 and pulled off a stunning overtake.
- After this, Hamilton had to push in order to try and regain the place from Vettel but was unable to do so. Instead, his tyres had blistered severely and were affecting his overall performance and Hamilton eventually pitted again on lap 52.
Throughout this period of the race, Hamilton was forced to push in order to try and keep in-front of title rival, Sebastian Vettel. Hamilton had little choice – and the blistering tyres serve as the best proof of how hard he actually pushed. Plus, on lap 31, half the number of laps before his fuel pressure issue, Hamilton said over the radio: “I feel like I’m running out of power.”
Allowing Ferrari to apply that sort of pressure to Hamilton can actually be traced back to a mistake first made by Mercedes; not pitting Hamilton under the VSC. Toto Wolff gave this explanation for the mistake, which may have ultimately cost Hamilton the race.
“We decided to leave Lewis on track for one lap, because we thought it would take longer to clear the car from its position, and be able to react what the cars behind us did on the following lap. But the VSC cleared sooner than predicted; we simply made the wrong decision. That left Lewis with an uphill battle.“
In the end…
The key thing is that Ferrari seemed to be calm and collected in their approach throughout the weekend. Sure, Mercedes were quick, but they were never together. Just look at Andrew Shovlin’s assessment of their race:
“We weren’t reliable enough, we didn’t make the right strategy call, our starts weren’t good enough and we didn’t manage the tyres as well as we could have done,” he said.
It’s starkly different from the assessment of Ferrari, delivered by Team Principal Maurizio Arrivabene.
“During the race, the handling of the car, the perfect management of the tyres, the strategy and reliability, all made the difference,” he said.
Here it is in the simplest form: Ferrari didn’t have blistering. Mercedes did. Ferrari didn’t have any issues with the handling of their car on Friday. Mercedes did. Ferrari didn’t make any strategy mistakes. Mercedes did.
Seeing their rivals with everything together, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Mercedes simply ran their cars too hard in an effort to try and compete.