Mercedes does not expect to immediately recover or overcome the deficit it believes it has to Red Bull after its rival’s car looked so “planted” in Formula 1 pre-season testing.
Red Bull topped the three-day test in Bahrain with Max Verstappen and had good reliability with its RB16B, which caught the eye with how stable it was – while Mercedes suffered from a clear rear-end instability issue.
World champion Lewis Hamilton had two spins in testing, one of which caused a red flag, and Mercedes ended the three days in Bahrain admitting it was behind Red Bull and confused over its lack of progress on lower fuel.
In a post-testing debrief video, Mercedes’ motorsport strategy director James Vowles and trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin reiterated that Mercedes felt it had a deficit to Red Bull ahead of the season opener.
It has prompted suggestions that Red Bull may finally start the season as a genuine threat to Mercedes, which has won the last seven drivers’ and constructors’ championships, though also drawn comparisons to 2019 when Mercedes was struggling in testing before a last-gasp breakthrough.
However, Vowles said that based on the outcome of the test Mercedes is not expecting to find “all the performance that is missing” or be ahead of Red Bull.
“Where we finished that test, there are a lot of unknowns,” he said.
“No one up and down the paddock will be able to pinpoint exactly where they are, but there is a few trends that have come out.
“I would say Red Bull are ahead on performance, they are the class act from the test, but it is a test, it is not a race and it is one event out of 23.
“Are we going to have a close season? I would say so. Red Bull are a fierce adversary, they’ve got a strong package and clearly came out of the box very, very quick.
“The result of that is across the season and across different types of track layouts, I am sure you will see us move forwards and backwards relative to them.
“But I don’t believe we are going into this particularly finding all the performance that is missing or being ahead of them.
“I think we are going to have a close championship this year.”
The opening race of the season takes place in Bahrain next weekend.
In the meantime, Mercedes is seeking to establish the cause of its W12’s rear instability, and address it.
Vowles said Mercedes’ car was “handling poorly” and “conversely the Red Bull in fact looked what we would call planted”.
“It was a very stable car, especially through the last sector of the lap,” said Vowles.
“And I think that’s a fair observation, it was visible to the outside and I would say the laptimes mirrored that as well.
“But it’s also fair to say that we don’t have answers as we are sat here now. Huge amounts of data available to us and now a long journey ahead to try and understand what was causing that.”
Shovlin added that Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas needed to be given an easier car to handle for the grand prix, and said various factors contributed to Mercedes’ struggles.
“The wind made it tricky,” he said. “When the wind is behind the car you lose a lot of downforce because effectively the air speed is reduced.
“Some corners where the wind was behind, it was prone to doing that, and then also the tyres are quite easy to overheat on that circuit and if you start sliding, you tend to lose grip and it gets worse. So, there are a few problems.
“Now, importantly we could see that some of our competitors weren’t struggling in the same way as us, so we need to put quite a focus on understanding why the rear end was a bit weak, how we can get it more stable and predictable and that work is going on now.
“Hopefully when we get to the race weekend it won’t be so difficult for the drivers because they were having to work pretty hard to do the lap times that they were doing.”