Expect Mercedes to step up in Bahrain and give F1 rivals a sterner test
In Bahrain this weekend, Mercedes will be confident they have eradicated the problem that cost them an almost certain win at the opening round of the Formula One season in Australia. The debriefs will likely have been uncomfortable, with Lewis Hamilton after a race he thought was in the bag. But setting aside the number-crunching glitch or Sebastian Vettel making the most of it and the virtual safety car to take the win, there were questions raised at Albert Park to which we may see answers at the Sakhir circuit.
Hamilton had led comfortably in Melbourne until he pitted to cover off Kimi Raikkonen’s stop. Vettel stayed out and then, taking advantage of the slower track speed imposed by the VSC and by accelerating between the safety‑car line and the pit-lane entry, came out ahead of the British driver.
The Mercedes chief race engineer, Andrew Shovlin, admitted that it had not been race strategy software at fault but an offline tool used to calculate required lap times. “The number that we were calculating was around 15 seconds, and in reality the number was slightly short of 13 seconds,” he said. “That is why we thought we were safe. We thought we had a bit of margin and then you saw the result.”
In short, the team needed to have had Hamilton going marginally quicker than he had been before the imposition of the VSC. Mercedes have said they will go about solving the matter in the same way they would were it a mechanical failure and given their efficacy in that department a repeat seems unlikely.
Hamilton’s exasperation was understandable but what was intriguing was that he clearly felt he could have bridged the gap required to keep him in front even through a VSC stop.
That Mercedes were quick was clear. Hamilton was never under threat from Raikkonen in second, but they chose not to push that pace in Melbourne. They were, it seems, trying to do just enough – as dictated by their misleading figures – to keep the lead.
That is ominous on several levels. For their rivals it raises the question of just how much further down the track Mercedes could have been if they had really let Hamilton go. The intimation from both the team and driver was that they had much more in hand.
Shovlin said: “In future we are going to make sure we have more margin because we want to be able to cover for Vettel doing an amazingly good in-lap to the pits, or having an incredibly fast stop.”
They may well have more than what was on show in Melbourne then. The team explained this week how the power deployment works at different phases of the weekend and the race. It had become a talking point after Hamilton called their qualifying specification “party mode”. The team went on to describe how they will switch modes during the race according to the scenario. The one in Australia, an unthreatened lead, strongly suggests they had felt no need to turn the wick up. We may see them do that in Bahrain and hence that race could be a better indicator of how close Ferrari and indeed Red Bull might be.
Equally, however, once Hamilton had lost the lead he hared off after Vettel and closed him down but could not pass, at which point he backed off to save his engine. It was a decision he was not happy about, saying it “goes against my spirit of racing”.
The teams are limited to three engines this year before incurring grid penalties, a cost-cutting measure that has failed in its intent.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo started in eighth after a grid penalty but had made his way to fourth and caught Raikkonen whom he pushed hard, before the Australian opted to settle for fourth place.
The difficulty in passing at Albert Park will have been a key factor in this and so Sakhir this weekend, where passing is possible, could demonstrate how much more backing off we might see this season. If the leading protagonists again choose to settle for the final third of the race rather than to attack, it does not bode well.
If however that is the case there is a further corollary, which is that qualifying is going to become even more crucial. Passing in these cars proved to be tricky last year and does not appear to be any easier now. If this is combined at the sharp end with increased concerns over engine longevity, the first half of the season may prove to be one of cagey, tactical conservatism rather than all-out racing. Hopefully Bahrain will be decided by something more dramatic than a mere numbers game and prove that drivers will genuinely feel able to push to the flag in 2018.