Mercedes’ woes this campaign have taken the entire paddock by surprise. In previous seasons, they have downplayed their car’s speed during preseason testing, such as the last term. Before the curtain-raising Bahrain Grand Prix last year, Toto Wolff and Lewis Hamilton both lamented their car, saying that they would struggle to keep up with the far superior Red Bulls.
As we all know, that bluff worked magnificently, as Hamilton managed to fend off a late charge from eventual World Champion Max Verstappen to seal his first victory of the year. But this season, their proclamations were honest.
The Silver Arrows are around one second per lap off-the-pace and have struggled with horrific porpoising all year, with their 7-time World Champion looking in agony after the recent race in Baku. Online bookmakers such as Unibet, who provide betting and free offers on Formula One, have the Brackley-based outfit as outsiders for a ninth consecutive constructors crown. But a former Red Bull star has warned us to write them off at our peril.
Speaking to the UK’s Channel 4 post-race in Baku, nine-time Grand Prix winner Mark Webber said, “they’ve got a mountain to climb, but you never underestimate them; they can fight back at any point.”
And he should know better than most about how they can rise to the top. Mercedes knocked the Australian’s former team off their perch back in 2014, stopping their run of four consecutive world championships.
The rise of George Russell
What Webber says is true; you cannot write them off. George Russell – who replaced the outgoing Valtteri Bottas in Brackley – has shone this term, regularly outperforming his GOAT-level teammate. Despite being in a far inferior car, he is 16 points ahead of Carlos Sainz and just 17 points behind his Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc.
Russell has been Mr Consistent this campaign so far, never finishing outside the top five and securing three podiums on the way. Admittedly he is someway behind championship leader Verstappen, who, even after just eight races, appears to be on the brink of a second World Championship.
But as we saw last season, Mercedes can up the ante at a moment’s notice.
Verstappen was 19 points clear after his dominant win in Mexico last season, with just four races remaining. From somewhere, Wolff’s team found some extra pace which meant Hamilton won three of those last four races, including an incredible last-to-first victory in Brazil, which left the pair level on points heading into the title decider in Abu Dhabi.
By now, we all know how that finished. Still, there can be no disputing that Hamilton was once again the quicker man on that fateful day in the Gulf State, leading by as much as 12 seconds by the time Nicholas Latifi’s crash brought out the safety car with five laps to go.
Too little too late?
Toto Wolff will have to galvanise his team, though, if they are to narrow the gap. One second per lap may not sound like a lot, but in F1 terms, they need to find a way to climb Mount Everest. And if their Research and Development department can find that missing time, who will Wolff prioritise in the fight for this season’s championship?
Upstart Russell is best positioned to take the fight to Christian Horner’s Red Bulls; he’s a full 37 points ahead of his more illustrious teammate, albeit still 66 points adrift of the Flying Dutchman.
But how can you not prioritise the record-setting Hamilton? He has won more races than his young teammate has even competed in, and by some distance. His 103 wins are the most in the history of the sport, and he has proven often that he will deliver when it matters the most. The only question is, is it too late?