F1 | Sandbagging or truth? Mercedes expects high and lows going into the new season
Mercedes is expecting a very close title battle for 2021 with Red Bull being “the class act from the test”.
After an intense three-days of testing in Bahrain, the Brackley-based team surely did not impress. During the 2021 W12 car launch, engine chief Hywel Thomas claimed that the team had encountered some "issues" with their power unit for the upcoming season, however, he was also pretty convinced that the team was able of progressing well in terms of reliability and resolved any problem they had.
Regardless of Thomas’ words, reality seems a bit different. During the last afternoon session of pre-season tests, the seven-times World Champion Lewis Hamilton lost a significant amount of time precisely because of some technical problems. Moreover, he suffered a spin in the gravel during Day 2 of testing, because of a reported high instability of the rear of the car, which teammate Valtteri Bottas also lamented.
While neither Hamilton nor his teammate Bottas appeared among the top fastest drivers in the final concluding sessions of testing. Max Verstappen greeted Bahrain with a grand first position.
We cannot say whether Mercedes is sandbagging or they’re really struggling, yet one thing is sure: Red Bull made a very good impression.
Commenting on the W12’s rear-end issues, chief strategist James Vowles revealed there were no immediate answers as to what was causing the problems.
"It was pretty evident from that, that the car was handling poorly, and conversely the Red Bull in fact was a very stable car especially through the last sector of the lap," Vowles explained.
"It's fair to say that we don't have answers as we are sat here now, it is just 24 hours after the end of the test. Huge amounts of data available to us and now a long journey ahead to try and understand what was causing that."
Supporting what already claimed by chief strategist, Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin said that Bahrain’s weather conditions made the testing tricky, admitting that the strong winds seemed to hurt the W12 more than other teams, masking its true potential.
"The wind made it tricky," Shovlin commented. "When the wind is behind the car, you lose a lot of downforce because effectively the airspeed is reduced, so some corners where the wind was behind, it was prone to doing that.
Shovlin has also admitted how their rivals were not struggling as much as they did, so there must be some issue to be investigated.
"We could see that some of our competitors weren't struggling in the same way as us, so we need to put quite a focus on understanding why the rear end was a bit weak, how we can get it more stable and predictable and that work is going on now.
Despite Mercedes’ hustles, chief strategist Vowles wanted to put some pressure on their closest rivals at Red Bull, claiming that “there are no points scored for being strong in testing”, suggesting that at Milton Keynes they better not claim victory, just yet.
Red Bull set the pace during last week’s testing, with the Dutch talent Max Verstappen setting the fastest time in the closing evening. Vowles admits that based on testing performance, there is a big gap to Red Bull, but he’s also convinced that it won’t last for the entire season.
“I would say Red Bull are ahead on performance, they are the class act from the test, but it is a test, it is not a race and it is one event out of 23. Are we going to have a close season? I would say so. Red Bull are a fierce adversary, they’ve got a strong package and clearly came out of the box very, very quick.
Mercedes is thus expecting a pretty close championship battle with Red Bull in 2021. Some circuits will favour the Silver Arrows while others will be more aligned with Red Bull’s strengths.
“The result of that is across the season and across different types of track layouts, I am sure you will see us move forwards and backwards relative to them, but I don’t believe we are going into this particularly finding all the performance that is missing or being ahead of them. So, in short: yeah, I think we are going to have a close championship this year.” Vowles concluded.