Formula 1 Race Review – Mercedes are under pressure like never before, how they respond is crucial
After what was a quite a dull Styrian Grand Prix there were some pretty interesting quotes. In the latest edition of Race Review, Pete Sharland tries to figure out what it all means for the once-dominant Mercedes whilst tipping a cap to Max Verstappen and Red Bull for their impressive performances so far.
Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) hatte in der Steiermark keine Chance gegen Max Verstappen
Those words from Lewis Hamilton, a seven-times champion of the world, speak absolute volumes. Throughout his career Hamilton has been a bastion of neutrality. He rarely gets into spats with other drivers and he will often talk up his rivals without putting his team in a tough place.
During Mercedes dominance in the hybrid era he has always looked to play down the team’s monopoly on the sport, insisting that he was in title battles, whether that was with a team-mate like Nico Rosberg or a rival like Sebastian Vettel. Even during the most competitive of seasons, you never really believed him.
SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 27: Second placed Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talks in a drivers press conference after the F1 Grand Prix of Styria at Red Bull Ring on June 27, 2021 in Spielberg, Austria.
Image credit: Getty Images
But we believe him now.
These are the full quotes from Hamilton after he took second behind a dominant Max Verstappen at the Styrian Grand Prix.
"It was a bit of a lonely race. I was trying to keep up but the speed they have, they've obviously made some big improvements over the last couple of races and it's impossible to keep up.
"I don't know where we're losing all the time but I think their long run looks to be a bit better. We lose a lot down the straights.
"We got good points as a team today and we need to keep pushing.
"I try not to concern myself (with Red Bull's momentum). They're just faster. I've got to do my best job I can each weekend and we need to find some performance. We need an upgrade of some sort. We need to find some performance from somewhere."
Sorry Lewis, but that upgrade isn’t going to be coming any time soon.
Speaking after the race, his team director Toto Wolff said “It’s not a bad result indeed, but what’s tough is that it’s been the first race, really, in eight years where you’re just lacking the pace,
You see that we have stopped developing for this year because we believe that the next years are so important to get it right. And [Red Bull] keep adding bits with aero parts, and all credit to their strategy.
“You feel like their eking away at their new power unit has been consolidating their performance. So we’ve just got to put our heads up together and do the best out of the package that we have. This is far from over.”
Wolff doubled down on that last point in his interview, saying again “the fight is not over” but this is the closest we’ve come to hearing Mercedes admit defeat in nearly a decade.
SPIELBERG, AUSTRIA - JUNE 27: Mercedes GP Executive Director Toto Wolff looks on ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Styria at Red Bull Ring on June 27, 2021 in Spielberg, Austria.
Image credit: Getty Images
For the first time they are being pushed, they are under pressure, and they are not the ones in control. And they really don’t like it.
It’s surprising to see Wolff admit openly that there will be no upgrades. This is what Christian Horner had to say afterwards.
“We know Toto loves to throw the light somewhere else.
“I cannot believe they’ll go through the rest of this year without putting a single component on the car.
“All we can do is focus on our own job. It’s a balancing act between this year and next year but if that means we’ve got to work a bit harder we’re fully up for it.”
We’re inclined to believe with Horner, it seems extremely unlikely that there will be no changes at all between now and the end of the season. As Wolff himself said there are still 15 races to go and the gap between Verstappen and Hamilton is still under 25 points (currently 18) whilst the gap in the constructors’ is at 40.
Christian Horner and Max Verstappen
Image credit: Getty Images
Speaking of gaps. The one between Verstappen and Hamilton was 35.743s. To put that into context you have to go all the way back to China 2016 for a bigger gap between first and second, when Vettel was 37.776s off Rosberg. Of course that was in part down to Hamilton stopping to go for the fastest lap but still, the dominance was remarkable.
This is the first time since 2013 that Mercedes have gone four races without a win. They need to find something. Whether it’s a set-up or another small tweak, or something bigger, something has to change before the next race. It sounds obvious to say but if Mercedes can create something from this mess that will be a sign of a top organisation. If they crumble and let Red Bull run away with it there will be questions asked ahead of the 2022 off-season. This is the biggest test that Hamilton and Wolff have faced since the drama with Rosberg before the German’s retirement.
Shall we talk about some of the other drivers? In reality it was a pretty dull race, something that we expected from the French Grand Prix. Away from the top two it was a brilliant day from Ferrari who saw Charles Leclerc hold onto seventh in tricky circumstances, you have to wonder what was possible without that early incident. His team-mate Carlos Sainz Jr flew up the standings, going from 12th to 6th in what was a brilliant drive.
A word too on Lance Stroll, it seems appropriate. It’s easy to dislike Stroll, with his billionaire father paying his way onto the team, and his general attitude can rub people the wrong way at times. It has to be pointed out however, that he is driving beautifully at the moment. He now has scored points in five of eight races so far this season and it could have been more had his tyre not imploded in Baku.
At the other end of the grid it was another brutal day for George Russell, whose second retirement of the season means he is one of only two drivers (along with Valtteri Bottas) to retire more than once this season. Sunday really felt like it was a chance for him to take his second points finish ever. Alas it wasn’t to be. He’s rebuilding well though after that early season incident with Bottas and it’s hard to see anyone but the young Brit partnering Hamilton next season.
But for now that big Dutch smile will just keep on smiling. It was a two of three for the Dutch on Sunday, with Verstappen and Mathieu van der Poel showing their class. Unfortunately the national football team failed to cover themselves in glory. We’ve got three races until the break. The question has gone from “who will be in the lead?” to “how big will Verstappen’s lead be?” That is a staggering shift in the way we’re looking at this season. It’s amazing what can happen in a month.