It seems inevitable that Lewis Hamilton will have to use a fourth engine after one of his three engines gave up the ghost in Zandvoort. Where can he best take a possible grid penalty?
Ideally, Lewis Hamilton will finish the next seven race weekends with the two engines still in his pool, but in practice it looks like it will be a very difficult story. His first engine change took place after five race weekends, in Azerbaijan, after which Mercedes opted for engine three six races later, in Belgium.
When engine number one in Zandvoort, which Hamilton was still using during training, broke down, he only had two engines left in his group. And so since the Belgian Grand Prix, after which ten more race weekends were to follow, he had to do it with two engines, one of which had already completed six race weekends. He can still use the older one in the training sessions on Friday, in order to drive as few meters as possible with the latest engine.
And it seems an impossible task, which means that Hamilton and Mercedes will have to carry out an engine change somewhere in the coming weeks or months. The fact that Valtteri Bottas is now working on engine number five also gives little hope for the German champions. Where is the best place for Hamilton to pay his penalty?
Turkish Grand Prix
This weekend there will be racing in Turkey. There is still little knowledge about the circuit in combination with the current Formula 1 cars. Last year was the first race since 2011 at Istanbul Park, but we saw mixed conditions during both qualifying and the race. As a result, the exact power ratio is still unclear.
In rainy conditions it was certainly possible to overtake each other, but it remains to be seen whether it will be possible when it is drier. In Sochi we saw that the Mercedes car still had a hard time overtaking slower competitors in traffic. The long straight at the back of the track could make it easier with a little help, but it’s only during free practice that it will become clear what it’s like to ride behind someone else in dirty air.
Also, an engine change in Turkey would mean that a total of seven races still have to be completed with that engine, unless the current engine can be used in another race. To date, no engine at Hamilton or Bottas has lasted longer than six race weekends, so that’s something they will have to take into account as well.
United States Grand Prix
Two weeks after the Turkish Grand Prix, there will be racing in Austin, Texas. The Circuit of the Americas has raced every year of the hybrid era except last year. So there is enough data available on the basis of which Mercedes can make calculations about a possible catch-up race.
Moreover, ironically, major competitor Max Verstappen has already shown in the past that it is certainly possible to set up a great catch-up race in the United States. Twice he started far behind with a grid penalty and twice he made it to the top four, once on the podium.
One caveat to that information is that the gaps between the top teams and the midfield teams are a lot smaller these days. We also saw in Sochi that the difference in pace with McLaren was not big enough, so that a lot of time can be lost behind that orange car. Bottas didn’t even manage to get past Gasly’s AlphaTauri, so danger is lurking.
Still, the United States, with its long straight, seems ideal for catching up. The disadvantage is that in the past it was a very strong circuit for Mercedes and especially Hamilton, so a grid penalty can also hurt a lot here. But hey, on any track a penalty probably won’t be nice for the end result.
Mexican Grand Prix
There are just five more races to go after the races in Turkey and the US, so it seems possible to receive a grid penalty in Mexico as well. The question is whether the Mercedes engine will survive until then. A DNF, like Toto Wolff talking to RacingNews365 and others have said, Mercedes absolutely cannot afford. That’s why the Mexican GP may be a bit late.
It is, however, a circuit where Red Bull normally performs very well. What Sochi was for Red Bull, Autodromo Hermano Rodriguez seems to be for Mercedes, as Verstappen and Red Bull have been very strong in recent years. His two wins and his pole position in 2019 show that.
Unless Mercedes takes a lot of risk, this seems to be the last real option for an engine swap. The Brazilian Grand Prix weekend could also be a possibility, because Verstappen has been very strong there in recent years.
The two subsequent Grand Prix weekends, in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are unknown territory for all parties, making it difficult to make a good estimate. Qatar with all its curves does not seem to lend itself to a catch-up race anyway, while the street circuit in Jeddah also does not seem the perfect backdrop for a motorcycle penalty. Anyway, then we are already working on the penultimate race weekend of the year, so it seems very illogical to collect a grid penalty only then.
There are, of course, other factors that play a role in Mercedes’ decision to take an engine penalty. We have already discussed that a circuit is better suited for Verstappen and Red Bull, but the conditions on the circuit and the result of qualifying can also cause the Silver Arrows to suddenly make the decision.
If, like last weekend, a lot of rain is forecast for Sunday, that could make overtaking easier during the race. Certainly for someone like Hamilton, often very fast in the rain, that can increase the chance of limiting the damage as much as possible. With possible rain in Turkey, Hamilton may already opt for a new power source there.
Should Verstappen, or Hamilton himself, make a mistake or underperform during qualifying, it is not illogical that Mercedes opts for an engine change. With Verstappen starting from, for example, P11, the damage for Hamilton can be limited. Conversely, it makes sense for Hamilton to immediately take a grid penalty if he himself conquers a bad starting position.
All in all, the choice is not easy for Mercedes either. A DNF can be disastrous in the battle for the title, so taking the risk of singing out the bike all season with this bike seems downright stupid. Or did Toto Wolff and co. another monkey hidden in a sleeve, such as a repaired engine, which was written off after the GP of Zandvoort. It’s just possible, because Mercedes is only too happy to throw sand in the eyes of its competitors.