Mercedes itself says it’s going into the 2021 Formula 1 season slower than Red Bull and with problems to solve.
All possible analysis of what happened in last weekend’s Bahrain test suggests that’s absolutely true – right now.
And yet this wouldn’t be the first time Mercedes has looked vulnerable since it began to dominate F1 in 2014, and still it has never been seriously challenged for a championship in that time.
Is it ‘crying wolf’ right now? Is the media guilty of overhyping Mercedes’ problems to drum up interest in the new season?
Or is the reigning champion team genuinely in trouble?
Here are our verdicts:
It’s visibly not right, and Red Bull is rising
Totally we should believe it. As a snapshot in time, Mercedes absolutely was in trouble – as you could see with the evidence of your own eyes with the car bucking and sliding where the Red Bull, doing faster lap times, was a vision of grip and balance.
Whether that means Mercedes will still be in trouble once the season starts is a different question.
But the car is clearly not behaving as intended and that’s obviously some complication from the many changes which have taken place since last year – whether it be the change in aero regs or the switch to a different tyre or some combination of both.
The Mercedes, with its highly-loaded outboard wing, has always been crosswind-sensitive and we certainly had a lot of crosswind last weekend. Is it just that – or is it something more fundamental?
But the other factor we should consider is that even disregarding Mercedes, the Red Bull looks much better than last year.
Right now, yes Mercedes is in trouble
Testing produces an imperfect data set, but all you can do is take the available evidence and, based on that, Mercedes does have a problem.
So the key questions are why might this be the case, and how serious is it?
There is an obvious ‘why’. Technical director James Allison has repeatedly pointed to the challenge of adapting to the tweaked aerodynamic regulations. Given the challenges of generating downforce at the rear and sealing the underfloor so effectively, there’s a strong candidate for the source of the rear-end instability.
Last year’s Mercedes was particularly strong in this area and there’s a long history of rule changes causing a headache for those who have optimised things under old regulations.
As for how serious it is, it’s certainly not serious enough that it can’t be resolved in time for the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend. But at the same time, there’s no guarantee that it will be.
All we can be sure of is that there is work to be done by Mercedes, which has the benefit of running a promotional day in Bahrain tomorrow.
This shouldn’t be regarded as some great crisis, merely a problem to be solved. Mercedes will likely do so as well, the only question is how long it takes and where that leaves it relative to Red Bull.
But most importantly, it does raise the tantalising possibility of things being close at the front in Bahrain.
It’s not a bluff, but…
Mercedes isn’t bluffing. The team lost one-sixth of its track time, Lewis Hamilton had two spins in two days (one of them causing a red flag), and the car looks less convincing than the Red Bull.
These are signs of trouble – in testing.
It seems logical to me that with time to properly dissect the data, Mercedes will swiftly be on top of it. Things like not making progress on lower-fuel runs are the sort of thing that an intense post-test debrief will quickly find an answer to.
Quelling the loose rear should also be a matter of methodically working through set-up solutions.
I expect Mercedes to make a big step for the season opener, but it won’t be because it suddenly stopped sandbagging and turned the performance up – it’ll be because it figured out the root of its troubles.
Mercedes will fix this problem
If we take it on face value from its pre-season test performance, Mercedes was neither reliable nor fast.
But this is not the first time this has happened and when it has had to recover in the past, it has come back even stronger.
For sure, it is not as far away from Red Bull as it looked and the engineers will be trawling through bucketloads of data to see if they can recognise why the gap exists.
With the GPS data all the teams now have, Mercedes will know pretty precisely what fuel load the Red Bull was running, what speed profile it had through the corners and what the acceleration profile was down the straights.
From that, it will be able to identify if the deficit was corner entry, mid-corner, corner exit, drag, ERS deployment or just the simple fact Mercedes was running about 30 kilos heavier with fuel.
In reality, modern teams’ levels of data means there is no hiding place or, to put it another way, no negative performance trait that can’t be identified.
The biggest problem comes, as always, in rectifying it and Mercedes has managed that in the past. I would expect the same to happen again.
We’ve been teased like this before
I’ll never forget the start of 2019 Formula 1 season. Remember it?
It was the time that Mercedes appeared to cry wolf that it was in trouble in testing, and then promptly turned up in Australia with a heavily revised car introduced right at the end of pre-season and once again dominated F1.
I’m approaching this more from a zoomed out view than my illustrious F1 colleagues, but even after seeing how impressive Red Bull was last weekend and how much Mercedes appeared to struggle, I just can’t bring myself to write off the seven-time double champion.
Yes, the aero rules have changed, but with carry-over cars with just a few tokens to spend, it’s very hard to see how Red Bull will have closed the enormous deficit that existed last year. Bear in mind Red Bull’s gains at the end of 2020 came when Mercedes had already stopped developing last year’s car to focus on 2021.
Aero and Honda improvements combined with rules tweaks may get Red Bull there, but this is Mercedes it’s up against.
It would be hasty to read into a few headline test times and a bit of whinging from Mercedes.
It’s a great story either way
I wouldn’t actually be too disappointed if the reality on the Bahrain race weekend is that Mercedes’ troubles weren’t as bad as they seemed. From an entertainment and anticipation point of view, the feeling right now is probably worth it either way.
Considering it’s a dominant steamroller that keeps making the outcome of motorsport’s top echelon a foregone conclusion, Mercedes is very hard to dislike. The way it goes about its business and nurtures its people is almost always highly admirable. It’s by some distance the least arrogant of F1’s long-term dominant forces.
But even though I wish no ill whatsoever on Mercedes, uncertainty and rivalries are sport’s greatest selling point. All neutral fans deserve a proper Lewis Hamilton/Mercedes vs Max Verstappen/Red Bull-Honda season-long scrap that’s too close to call.
The sight of those Mercedes garage shutters up and the spinning W12 hinted that maybe, just maybe, that’s what we’ll get. That maybe will do for now.