In the last two races, Mercedes failed to make a big gap with Red Bull and Max Verstappen in Monza and Sochi. And that while the team from Brackley used to be very strong on those circuits. Where did it go wrong?
“This feels like a win,” is the general feeling in the Red Bull camp after the Russian Grand Prix. Max Verstappen had expected to miss out on quite a few points in the past two races. But the Dutchman almost managed to keep his lead. Before Formula 1 traveled to Monza, Verstappen was three points ahead of Lewis Hamilton. The Red Bull driver is currently second in the championship standings just two points behind.
The Monza and Sochi circuits were seen as the best opportunities for Mercedes to overtake the Red Bull driver. It is therefore no surprise that Verstappen’s team is beaming from ear to ear. So what happened that could have prevented Mercedes from living up to the favorites role?
The Italian Grand Prix
Mercedes had expected to comfortably prevail in Monza. The Mercedes engine is still the engine to beat and so-called ‘power circuits’ usually suit the team. The weekend also started well for the Germans with a one-two on Friday in qualifying. But it was the wrong Mercedes that took the pole position for the sprint race. Valtteri Bottas had to give Lewis Hamilton a slipstream in the closing laps of Q3, but that was not enough for Hamilton to come out on top. Bottas improved his time, while giving Hamilton a slipstream, to take first place in the sprint qualifying.
The Finn had a perfect start on Saturday, but the same cannot be said of Hamilton. The Englishman messed up his start and saw Bottas disappear into the distance. Due to an incorrect clutch setting, Hamilton fell back to sixth place. He was given one spot as a gift when Pierre Gasly crashed with a broken front wing, but Hamilton was stuck behind Lando Norris’ McLaren for the rest of the sprint race.
The W12 Mercedes suffered from ‘engine clipping’ and Red Bull team boss Christian Horner couldn’t hide his smile when he saw how difficult the Mercedes had to overtake. “When they engage the hybrid systems, they consume quite a lot. At the end of the straight you see the taillight flashing to indicate that the extra power is used up and that makes for a worse straight-line speed,” Horner told Sky Sports. “We call that ‘clipping’.”
“You saw that Lewis could come within half a second, then usually an overtake attempt follows. But he didn’t have enough momentum at the end of the straight,” the Red Bull team boss explains.
Verstappen was happy with his second place in the sprint qualifying and two points for the championship. He also inherited the pole position for the race from Bottas because the fin had a grid staff after changing his engine. Hamilton moved up to fourth starting position for the race as a result. Hamilton started on the hard tire and that surprising tactic almost paid off on lap one. The Mercedes driver was able to attack Verstappen, who had a lesser start. Hamilton, however, fell back when the Red Bull driver blocked the Briton in the second chicane. In addition to his unusually bad start, more went wrong for the Dutchman. Red Bull had a slow pit stop and it looked like Verstappen would come out on track behind Hamilton.
The Mercedes driver was leading the race at the time and soon after, ducked into the pits to change his tyres. But Hamilton, like Verstappen, had a slow pit stop. This ensured that the Englishman came back onto the track right in front of the Red Bull driver’s door, rather than far in front of it. Verstappen had more speed at the end of the straight and tried to overtake Hamilton which eventually resulted in the famous accident, which left both drivers out of the race.
It was a rollercoaster for Hamilton. It looked like he would lose points to Verstappen, but the Dutchman’s bad stop meant he saw opportunities again. It was his own Mercedes that failed to capitalize on those opportunities due to a slow pit stop. All of that happened on a track where Hamilton was expected to win or score more points than Verstappen. Instead, it was the Dutchman who increased his lead to five points.
The Russian Grand Prix
It almost seemed destined that Hamilton would score well in Russia. Mercedes could have won all previous races on the Sochi circuit relatively easily. In addition, Verstappen was left with a three-place grid penalty from the Monza incident and Red Bull announced on Friday to change his engine. That meant that the Dutchman would have to start from the back and therefore it seemed that the Dutchman would not be able to offer any resistance. Bottas said he would step aside if necessary. All in all, it looked like Hamilton wouldn’t get much resistance.
Nevertheless, coincidence, which usually seems to work in Hamilton’s favor, threw a spanner in the works this time as the weather turned worse on Saturday. Mercedes handled the wet conditions in Q1 and Q2 admirably. But when the track dried up, Hamilton hit the pit wall and damaged his W12. He lost time because his front wing had to be replaced. As a result, Hamilton only had time for one quick lap on the soft tyre. That pressure seemed to be too much for him. Hamilton made another mistake and only finished fourth.
“It was just my mistake. I’m very disappointed in myself,” Hamilton told Sky Sports after qualifying. “Up until that point I was in my groove, I was in the zone. I’m sorry for the team here and everyone in the factory. Obviously that’s not what you expect from a champion, but it is what it is. I’ll try to make up for it tomorrow.”
In the race Hamilton made up for it, although it was not without a struggle. In the beginning, the Mercedes driver was stuck behind Daniel Ricciardo and appeared to suffer from the same ‘engine clipping’ problems as in Monza. In addition, both Mercedes suffered from understeer. Bottas started sixteenth after having to re-install a new engine and was quickly overtaken by Verstappen in turn 13. That was an important moment in the race.
Hamilton seemed to be heading for second, behind Lando Norris in the McLaren, but then the rain came. Mercedes saw Verstappen dive into the pit and reacted by bringing in Hamilton. The team later admitted that they were willing to hand over the win to make sure they finished ahead of Verstappen. This turned out to be the right choice in the end, as Norris decided to stay out on dry-weather tires. Hamilton could drive much faster than the McLaren on wet tires and overtook him in no time. However, Red Bull had brought in Verstappen at exactly the right time and that resulted in a second place and a minimal number of points loss.
Red Bull’s goal for the weekend was to take third place with Verstappen after his engine change. To be second and to have the new engine and therefore the grid penalty, and that also on a circuit where Mercedes has proved dominant in the past, that is the kind of luck that somewhat compensates for the bad luck of Baku, for example.
The fact that Hamilton only managed to score seven points more than Verstappen and therefore only has two points ahead of the Dutchman could be decisive. It looks like Red Bull could have a little more upper hand in the coming races. In addition, it seems that Hamilton will also have to install a fourth engine and therefore receive a grid penalty. Monza and Sochi were the biggest challenges for Red Bull. Leaving there with all the cards still in hand could make the rest of the season easier for the team.
“I have stopped trying to predict whether a race is historically good for us or not,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff told RacingNews365 after the Russian Grand Prix. “Because with the new rules everything changes and a lot has also changed. But indeed, we knew that we should have more advantage in Monza and Sochi,” said the Austrian.
“The reality now is that we are where we are and this is the points difference. I doubt that either of the two teams will make any big leaps. We just have to try to keep doing the best we can,” Wolff looks ahead. the rest of the season.