After Max Verstappen and Red Bull gave Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes their first real spanking of the season, the return to Austria was a test of how well the defending champion team could respond.
There was a big shift in the competitive balance to react to, as while Verstappen was on pole position in Bahrain and France, the Styrian Grand Prix was the first weekend where the Red Bull stood out as a much faster and overall better package.
Mercedes went off with its tail between its legs to study the data and find some solutions at least to close the gap. Even Hamilton signed up to spend time in the driver-in-loop simulator hoping to find a miracle.
In qualifying for the Austrian Grand Prix, Mercedes suffered an even worse beating when Lando Norris in his McLaren was second-fastest and missed out on pole position by the tiniest of margins. The gap was only 0.048s – and while I haven’t worked it out precisely that’s something like a metre going across start/finish line. Mercedes also has Sergio Perez’s Red Bull ahead of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
For this second consecutive Red Bull Ring weekend, the only differences were if any team had found that magic bullet and the tyre compounds being one step softer, with Pirelli bringing the C3, C4 and C5 compounds having had C2-4 last week.
So that means an offset in laptime for everyone of about 0.4 seconds – if you listen to Pirelli, that is. For me, around this very short circuit it’s more like two tenths if you are lucky.
The only team that we saw with a few small car differences was McLaren. It has increased the amount of small turning vanes on the first half of the upper surface of the floor.
These vanes improve the performance of that front corner of the floor, so in effect it boosts the performance of the complete underfloor. That would contribute to some of its laptime improvement but, at best, I’m pretty sure if McLaren saw a gain of 0.1s, then the team would be over the moon.
So let’s look at who improved the most from a week ago. I have ranked them in order of improvement in time, so the largest time improvement first. The first column is time and the second is the difference in percentage to the fastest overall time of each weekend
|Time gain/loss (s)||Percentage change (%)|
As you can see, Red Bull, or more importantly Verstappen, was fastest over each weekend so is the percentage datum.
Topping the list is the Haas. That’s a massive improvement for that team from one weekend to another. Its car has had more or less no development this year and both its drivers are new to the game, so I suppose they have benefited more than the others from the extra tyre grip and just that little bit more driver experience.
As for the others, we all know they are trying as hard as they can during this part of the season because by the summer break, it will be all hands on deck with next year’s very new regulations.
To get a rough tyre compound offset, I have averaged the improvements and taken away the two outliers – the team that gained the most, Haas, and the team that gained the least, Mercedes (given Ferrari didn’t set its fastest time on the soft but the medium). That produces a tyre offset of -0.192s, which is just shy of my predicted two tenths.
However, it’s not quite as easy as that as a softer tyre normally brings that little bit more understeer to the car. So if last weekend the rear was a bit lively, then it would have improved the balance, but if you had a bit of understeer, then it would be worse.
Why don’t the teams just dial that out, I hear you ask? Well, it’s not as simple as that because sometimes these balance problems are inherent in the concept and whatever you do doesn’t affect the balance and just makes the car slower.
So any team that has done better than the average tyre compound offset has used the last seven days positively, and any that has done worse probably has a little bit of an inherent understeer problem.
This is only out-and-out performance and because points are awarded on race day, it’s only a small part of the big picture. But if you have a quick car over a lap, you are more likely to score big points – you just have to execute the race and strategy well.
Based on all of the evidence we have, there’s nothing Mercedes can do about Red Bull.
Having two consecutive weekends at the same track is an unusual chance to run the weekend again and just dot the i’s and cross the t’s, be confident you are getting the most out of the car and maybe implement some small improvements.
That’s what Mercedes tried to do. But having started the weekend with a direction based on the simulator work, it seems to be struggling even more. And the gap might have been even bigger had Verstappen found the extra time he should have done on his final run.
All circuits are different and this one plays into Red Bull’s hands that little bit. Its car is good in slow corners, but more importantly over one lap it seems to be able to get the tyres to hang on that little bit longer. The ultra-demanding part of this track is the last section and with better tyres for that section the Red Bulls are able to pick up laptime there.
Hamilton has just signed a new two-year contract with Mercedes and I hope it doesn’t mean he has to do too much driver-in-loop simulator work. And he probably thinks the same.
He needs to stick to the day job, which he is brilliant at, and let the Anthony Davidsons of this world get on with their back-up role behind the scenes.
You do get the impression that perhaps Hamilton was looking for something in the car that simply isn’t there to be found.
What I am confused about is that after last weekend Toto Wolff was adamant that Mercedes had no developments in the pipeline, and Lewis said the same. Then mid-week James Alison said they did. Do you think that all points to a lack of communication within the team?
What our second visit to the Red Bull Ring has proved is that Mercedes really is up against it and has found no magic bullets to fix its deficit.
And that means Mercedes will need every bit of help it can from the factory with development bits, and the team trackside will have to execute faultlessly to avoid being behind Red Bull consistently.