Mercedes boss Toto Wolff says Red Bull did not maximise the opportunity it had across the opening two races of the Formula 1 season.
Despite starting the season believing it has a slower car than Red Bull, Mercedes leads both championships heading to this weekend’s Portuguese Grand Prix after its world champion Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull driver Max Verstappen shared the wins at Bahrain and Imola between them.
Wolff said that scenario “almost feels like a get out of jail free card”, with Mercedes’ Imola challenge hurt by Valtteri Bottas non-scoring after a massive accident with George Russell.
Red Bull dropped points across the two races as Verstappen failed to win from pole in Bahrain, while Sergio Perez could only finish fifth in the season opener after being forced to start from the pitlane and then turned a front-row start at Imola into a point-less result with a messy race.
Hamilton holds a one-point lead over Verstappen by virtue of his fastest lap at Imola while Mercedes has a seven-point advantage in the constructors’ championship.
“Imola was a crazy race and the kind of grand prix that lives long in the memory,” said Wolff.
“There were so many ups and downs and there were a few moments where it felt like we wouldn’t score any points at all.
“It was a rollercoaster of emotions, from the disappointment of Valtteri’s scary accident to the thrill of Lewis’ recovery drive [after Hamilton went off and fell a lap down but was given a reprieve by the mid-race red flag for Bottas’s crash].
“To come away leading both championships almost felt like a get out of jail free card, because our rivals didn’t maximise the opportunity we gave them.
“It just proves what a challenging season we have ahead of us and how quickly things can turn around in Formula 1.”
Mercedes has worked intensely to try to improve its car early in the season after discovering the aerodynamic rule changes introduced this year have hurt its low-rake car concept more than Red Bull’s design.
Wolff expects “another close fight with Red Bull” in Portugal this weekend and suggested “both McLaren and Ferrari could also be in the mix too”.
His Red Bull counterpart Christian Horner believes the Algarve circuit will “play to Mercedes’ strengths” but expects the battle between the two teams to produce an “epic season”.
He said Hamilton was “extremely fortunate” to be rescued by the red flag in Italy two weeks ago but admitted that the seven-time world champion’s recovery drive was “very strong” and that Mercedes’ race pace proved there is “not a lot in it at the moment”.
“It is about getting it right on the day, not making mistakes and developing the car efficiently within the budget cap rules and getting the most out of each weekend,” said Horner.
“We will try and put as much pressure on Lewis in his title defence as we possibly can.
“He made a fundamental error when he went off which is easy to do in those conditions but after Max’s victory, he still leads the championship thanks to the single point he won for setting the fastest lap in the race.
“So, if the next 21 races are as exciting as the first two, then it is going to be an epic season.
“I am excited for both races [the back-to-back in Portugal and Spain] and you can be sure that we are full of energy and motivation.
“If we can put Mercedes under a little bit of pressure at these tracks then that bodes well for the rest of the year.
“I always said it would take four races to get a clear picture of form, so now is the acid test.”