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F1: Mercedes cry Wolff

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

There's an old story of the boy who cried wolf: he told villagers that a wolf was coming so often that, when it was true, no one believed him. Mercedes have the opposite problem: they have been so dominant for so long that they could rely on Hamilton's genius and a rock-solid car to win race after race, championship after championship, break record after record.

Nothing in Formula One is easy but getting a great start and bolting out of reach, for so long Mercedes' stock in trade, has made it look simple. And they have been complacent.

It seems that they have failed to develop the thing that wins races when there are competitors: they don't know how to build winning strategies.

Mercedes have long been trapped in a mind-set that says "we've got a plan and we're sticking to it." Only Ferrari are more stubborn.

It's caused problems and friction in the past as Hamilton's domination has been challenged when other teams, with inferior cars, have made significant inroads into LH44's lead or, even, passed him. But, mostly, those have been isolated incidents that have not caused serious disruption to the general thrust of the championship.

This year is different. This year, the difference is Honda. We know it's Honda because the Red Bull cars are not fundamentally different from last year's - and nor are the Alphatauri - but they are thrusting forwards with all four cars. But Honda is not the only difference: Renault has suddenly come good, too, and its Alpine (pronounced "alpeen") cars are forcing their way up. Ferrari, some years having chassis problems and others power problems seem to have got the balance between those right and are pushing up, too.

All this means that the Mercedes engine, which powers a large slug of the grid including both McLaren and Williams as well as Aston Martin, is not the guarantee of front-of-the midfield status that so many teams have gambled on.

And for sure it is not the guarantee of front-of-everyone status that the works team has come to consider as a norm.

To be clear: the team has never been complacent about the technology. There isn't a single person there who says "this is good enough. Let's take a few weeks off." But it is now clear that the technical dominance is no longer there, Hamilton has more than one driver capable of challenging him in machinery of similar performance.

The situation isn't in the garage: it's in the office.

Mercedes don't lack data. They don't lack intellect and they don't lack determination. They do lack the ability to think on the hoof, analyse multiple options - and adequately predict the most likely result.

Yes, in France this afternoon, according to the team, Bottas damaged a tyre early in the race and the team decided that prudence is the better part of valour, especially after the exploding tyres of Baku. Good decision. When both drivers said that the surface was shredding the tyres and that the team should develop a two stop strategy, the team stuck with the plan: we said one so we're going with one. They even heard the eventual winner of the French GP, Max Verstappen, telling his crew "at this pace, we cannot get to the end."

Red Bull got the tyres out, did a typically rapid pit-stop, and sent him out to chase down the leaders and what, once he was up to full speed, became an inevitable conclusion. His passing of Hamilton was almost embarrassing. It came from nowhere.

But we know that, this season, Mercedes are struggling with set up: they can't switch the tyres on, even after a restart, and when they do they grain and wear badly.

Hamilton had lost his tyres with more than 15 laps to go; Bottas a couple of laps later. The decision was obvious: get Bottas in, change, get Hamilton in the next lap. Bottas would sweep the back markers for Hamilton so both Mercedes could attack both Red Bulls.

The waters were muddied: Vettel didn't stop until way later than anyone else thought possible: the Aston Martin, with essentially a Mercedes design and a Mercedes power plant uses its tyres far, far more gently than the works team.

That Mercedes' power isn't all it should be was demonstrated by Lando Norris: finishing fifth after inheriting it when Vettel eventually stopped, he'd been, on average, more than a second slower per lap than the first four. Take that in: a second slower on every lap. Having said that, much can be laid at the door of the aero, chassis and brakes: in a straight line, Norris' speed is comparable with the works Mercedes.

Red Bull and Mercedes had dropped the Ferraris early, leaving them to be torn up by the pack but there is no doubt that LeClerc is the next most likely to challenge Hamilton in the current car-driver line-up.

Mercedes cannot afford to throw away points, especially not a win and a third, by making poor decisions. Red Bull had already taken the lead in both Championships and now they have extended both.

The scale of how lost Mercedes are is that instead of listening to Bottas, they left him out to trundle around behind Perez. Wolff says the did that to keep within five seconds of Perez because they thought there might be a penalty for a botched overtaking manoeuvre. The stewards determined that there would not be so Bottas even lost the chance for the fastest lap point. In the other side of the garage, the team apologised to Hamilton: "that one's on us" they said.

In the car, Hamilton was cross; by the time he parked, he had not only calmed down but was on the party-line for the post-race interviews. He said that having lost out to Verstappen in the first round of pitstops, due to the "undercut", once Verstappen went in for a late second stop, he had no choice but to stay out and try to race. This seems like rationalisation but Hamilton was clear: Red Bull, he said, were just too fast on the straights.

True, but with no grip v tyres that were only 15 laps old, they were also just too fast around the bends and the twiddly bits have not been a Mercedes weak point, even when they've had the fastest car in a straight line. It is also true that Verstappen went through a period where he wasn't catching Hamilton as rapidly as before so maybe they thought he'd arrive later and slower. He didn't.

The more explanations that pile up, the more they sound like excuses.

They really, really, really need to get their act together. Other teams are coming, too.

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