For the first time since mid-2018 Mercedes finds itself trailing in the Formula 1 world championship after a dismal weekend in Monaco. What went wrong, and is it an aberration or a cause for concern?
Mercedes had talked down its chance of victory in Monaco, hyping Red Bull as favourites, though surely never expected such a disastrous weekend.
Not only did it relinquish the lead of both championships, having been firmly beaten by Red Bull, but it was outscored too by Ferrari, Aston Martin and AlphaTauri.
It never had an outright performance advantage all weekend, and was chasing its rivals, though the race was the nadir of a problematic four days in the Riviera.
As ever in a finely-balanced season getting Pirelli’s notoriously tricky tyres into the right operating window was key. This is magnified at a circuit where drivers require maximum confidence and the right rhythm through the weekend. Tyres provide a tedious narrative – one unlikely to ever appear in an episode of Drive To Survive – but are a fundamental chemical reaction that exists in Formula 1 between the car and the track, creating a relationship that all 10 teams are constantly chasing and perfecting.
At the previous two events, in Portimao and Barcelona, Mercedes had thrived at those high-energy venues on harder compounds but the W12 traits that were a boon in Iberia proved problematic in Monaco. The long wheelbase, added to the low-energy nature of Monaco’s corners, left Hamilton all at sea.
“This has never generally been a track for us, we have the longest car, it’s like a bus to turn through the corners, it’s not as nimble on a small track like this but it’s great elsewhere,” said Hamilton. “There are things that don’t work here which bode well for the other circuits.”
Mercedes’ technical chief James Allison concurred that “at this particular track we always struggle a bit [with tyres]. We never really get them happy on a Saturday and then on Sunday, we are okay at the start of the stint, then where most of the crucial action takes place at the end of the stint we’re normally all out of ideas with a tyre that has died a little sooner than our competitors. It’s understanding that which we’ve failed to do for a number of seasons. We need to figure out what we’re doing wrong at this track and what we’re doing year on year that’s not right for here.”
Add in a resurgent Ferrari – aided by the SF21’s friendly tyre usage, low-speed corner prowess, and absence of lengthy full throttle sections – not to mention Red Bull’s expected performance level, particularly in the hands of Max Verstappen, and Mercedes was struggling.
Bottas provides promise – until it goes nuts
Hamilton’s awful Saturday left him consigned to the fourth-row of the grid even before Charles Leclerc’s session-ending accident.
A scruffy wall-brushing lap meant he abandoned his second Q3 push effort and ducked into the pits, leaving him only seventh on the grid, moments before Leclerc crunched the wall.
Leclerc’s error had no impact on Hamilton’s prospects but it did on Valtteri Bottas’ chances. The Finn had got the car into a happier window and was legitimately in contention for pole position.
“Valtteri was able to get the front tyres happier at the beginning of the lap,” explained Allison. “He had more confidence then to welly into the lap and take the car nearer to the barriers.”
Unfortunately for Bottas the red flag thwarted his pole prospects – a claim also made by Verstappen and fourth-placed Carlos Sainz – but third was a strong result in the circumstances. Third became second after Leclerc’s non-start but hopes of challenging Max Verstappen dissipated when Mercedes was first of the front-runners to struggle with the Softs.
“I felt the tyres at Red Bull they lasted a bit better, the Soft tyres, so he pulled a gap towards the end of the stint,” said Bottas. “My front left tyre was graining.” It is an element Mercedes still needs to understand – why was it afflicted by warm-up issues yet also worst on overall wear in race trim, as Allison alluded to.
But Mercedes’ hopes of salvaging a result dissolved when Bottas pitted to discard his Softs for Hards. Three of the four tyres were changed in the blink of an eye – but the right-front Soft remained resolutely jammed on the W12.
“I was kind of counting and thinking, “now we’ve lost a place to Sainz, then probably to Norris and then it was just getting so long that I couldn’t believe it,” surmised the luckless Bottas. The wheel nut had machined onto the axle, meaning the wheel could not be removed, and Bottas was stranded. 18 points had been thrown into the sea.
“There’s always many factors that contribute to such a catastrophic failure,” said Wolff.
“In that case we need to review the design, we need to review the material of our wheel nut because the mechanics that operate the wheel nut need to do it in a way that you can’t machine it off.”
Allison explained that “it’s like when you take a Phillips Head screwdriver and you don’t get it squarely in the cross of the screwdriver and you start to round off the driving face of the screw and then can’t take the screw out. If the gun starts spinning and chipping off the driving faces then in quite short order, given the violence and power of the gun, then you machine the nut down to a place where there’s nothing left to grab hold of.”
Even several hours after the race the tyre was still affixed to Bottas’ forlorn W12.
Hamilton left carrying Mercedes’ hopes
Hamilton’s weekend was effectively scuppered after qualifying only seventh and conveyed a frustrated figure as he hinted that engineers had not truly taken his feedback onboard.
“There are things that should have been done which haven’t been done,” he said on Saturday. “We’ll learn from it and come together stronger in the next race. Also I don’t want to be critical of team, but behind closed doors, I will be. We’ve got to work harder.”
Hamilton revealed that Mercedes did “lots of changes to the car after FP3, as FP3 was a disaster, and that was from the work done over the last day or so. [It was] completely [the] wrong direction, [we] completely missed the ball. Then we made some changes to try and take steps backwards and move the car into a different place and the car was worse than ever. I think we really lost our way from Thursday.”
At a historically processional event Mercedes still held out hope of lifting Hamilton into podium contention. But the wear on the Soft tyres meant the undercut was, in the words of Wolff, “the only chance we had. We saw the tyre that came off and there was nothing left.” However the tyre warm-up issues meant Hamilton’s out-lap pace on the Hard tyre was insufficient to jump Pierre Gasly, with AlphaTauri responding soon after. Hamilton was then at the mercy of Gasly’s pace, which was not outstanding, and both were then vaulted as Red Bull and Aston Martin utilised the overcut to great effect with Sergio Perez and Sebastian Vettel respectively.
“We have to look at data and figure out why we’re in this position, we’ll be in calls over these next days when we get analysis,” said Hamilton, wary that the issues may be repeated in Azerbaijan. “We all want answers within the team, so I know everyone will be working flat out to make sure hopefully this sort of weekend doesn’t happen again, but we’ve shown time and time again in the past that we can bounce back from these weekends.”
Silver lining for Mercedes?
A return of seven points was lacklustre by Mercedes’ lofty standards but there are silver linings. Hamilton, for all his eye-watering statistics, has rarely been at his best in Monaco in Formula 1. Only in 2015, a race he ironically did not win after a computer-related strategy blunder, was he truly dominant. And dropping the ball will hurt less for Mercedes on a weekend when big points were always unlikely. Finishing seventh to his title rival in Monaco was also how Hamilton’s 2017 race played out – and he went on to comfortably win that year’s championship.
In Monaco terms Mercedes won the race in 2019 but in recent years received a slice of fortune to triumph in 2016 before being out-paced by Ferrari and Red Bull in 2017 and 2018. It can now add 2021 to that list.
“Monaco has never been a happy place for us,” conceded Wolff. “We had outliers, 2019 I believe in terms of pace, but it is similar to kind of events we had in Singapore in the past.
“It’s somehow ingrained in our DNA where our car goes well or not and the answers are not always easy to find. There seems to be like an inherent DNA in the car. But in our case, we know where we need to optimise the car and how we need to get the tyres in a better window. You are building a car for 23 races and there will be outliers in both directions where you will underperform, and Monaco is definitely an outlier where you need a totally different car than let’s say the average tracks.”
Few will doubt Mercedes’ ability to bounce back given the fact it has won seven world titles on the bounce. Hamilton, though, stressed the importance of avoiding a repeat of a weekend in which he fell behind Verstappen in the championship for the first time in his career.
“I told you at the beginning they’ve [Red Bull] got a championship-winning car, and they’re going to be very hard to beat,” he said. “I’ve been serious about it all year, these races, and we’ve won races which we shouldn’t have won, like in Bahrain, but it’s not over. There’s a long, long way to go, we can’t afford another weekend like this.”