Mercedes domination of the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix was due to the team’s W12 gaining time in the corners as well as matching Red Bull’s RB16B for straight-line speed, according to the team’s technical director Andrew Shovlin.
Formula 1’s first visit to Losail was a trip into the unknown for virtually all of the teams and drivers, with Sergio Perez and Nikita Mazepin the only two drivers on the current grid to have previously raced at the Doha-based circuit.
Last weekend saw the latest twist in what has been a thrilling championship battle, with Lewis Hamilton leading from lights to flag to win his seventh race of the year ahead of championship adversary Max Verstappen and Fernando Alonso.
The Brit’s victory meant that he had reduced the gap between him and Verstappen to just eight points.
Shovlin explained why they were much quicker than Red Bull throughout the Qatar weekend, adding that Hamilton’s dominance was helped by a balance that enabled him to attack Losail’s sweeping corners.
“Well, if you think about it in a very fundamental sense, you make your lap time from a combination of the straight line, where the drivers are at full throttle, and then the cornering performance. Now, in some recent tracks, we've been matching Red Bull in the corners and extracting a benefit in the straight line. But in Qatar, it ended up being the opposite. We were matching them in the straight line and finding all our time in the corners. So, where does that time come from? Well, really there are two areas. One is the downforce that you can get on the car and clearly, our package was working quite well there, helping us generate a lot of apex speed.”
“But then also you've got the balance of the car and that's the thing that we tune with the mechanical settings, the springs and bars, also the front wing we can tune that. And for our drivers they had a balance that they were very happy with, they had stability on the way in, they could attack the corner, carry speed and ultimately you saw the demonstration of that with that fantastic lap from Lewis for pole position.”
Although Hamilton came away from Qatar with 25 crucial World championship points and his 102nd Grand Prix victory, his teammate Valtteri Bottas was less fortunate as he endured a diabolical race that was already compromised after the Finn received a three-place grid penalty for ignoring single waved yellow flags in Q3.
Bottas’s day got worse when the lights went out, as he dropped to 11th at the culmination of the opening lap after making a bad start from sixth. The Finn’s day got worse as he picked up a puncture when attempting to chase down Alonso, forcing him to limp back to the pits on three wheels before eventually retiring on Lap 48 due to damage caused by the puncture.
Shovlin explicated the reasons why Bottas’ race went so wrong and how he managed to pick up his late-race puncture.
“First and foremost that dirty side of the grid didn’t have anything running on it the whole weekend, there were no support races and Valtteri wasn’t alone in starting on that side and losing positions as a result. A lesser problem was that the tyres weren’t quite up to temperature, that cost him a bit of grip off the line, it also cost him a bit of grip in the opening corners. So, it gave us a bit of a challenge.”
“At the end of that first lap Valtteri had dropped down to P11, but from there he actually mounted a really good recovery drive and our simulations were showing that he was going to finish P3 or P4 but looking like a really solid drive when unfortunately we had that puncture that took him out of contention.”
“We were trying to clear Alonso. He was on relatively fresh Hard tyres in our pit window. Valtteri was faster, he was finding a few tenths a lap and if we had stayed out another three or four laps, we would have been able to build that window to Alonso, pit Valtteri for fresh Hard tyres and drop out in front. That was the plan. As you saw, we had that puncture. The timing of that was really unfortunate. Valtteri felt it at about the same time we were seeing it on the data, and this was too late for him to get into the pit lane.”
“So, he had the whole lap to do and when you lose the pressure in one tyre effectively you've got a three-wheeled car, it's got no grip in the right-handers and ultimately that in lap was very costly from a race time point of view. But not only did it cost us race time it also cost us performance, and that's because when you haven’t got the wheel holding the car up the wing is dragging on the road, getting damaged, the floor as well and a lot of the aero furniture around there is getting damaged just from its contact with the road. So, ultimately, we had quite a big performance hit from that.”
With the driver and the constructor championships seemingly going down to the wire, both teams are keen to save their best components for the two final rounds of the season at Jeddah and Yas Marina.
It was for that reason that Mercedes decided to use an older and less powerful engine for the Qatari weekend, rather than use the fresher Sao Paulo power unit that helped propel Hamilton to victory in Brazil.
“It wasn’t the engine, the fresh one, that we took in Brazil. This was an older engine and because it is older, it's got a bit less power. Now, why do we do that in Qatar? Well, of the remaining circuits, Qatar has got the shortest amount of straight line, the shortest amount of full-throttle running and it's got an awful lot of cornering. So, the power advantage you get from that engine in Qatar is much smaller than if you run it at the two remaining circuits.”
“All we are doing is really trying to balance the mileage across the pool but make sure that when we use the less powerful engine, there is less of a penalty for it and that also means when we get to the final two tracks, we are going to have the most power that we possibly can.”
“Considering that we have just come off from a triple header, we are feeling pretty good, but we are very excited to be part of this challenge. It's shaping up to be an absolutely fantastic battle, we've seen the car working really well and that gives us hope that we can go to the next two tracks and fight for pole position, fight for wins and that's what we need to do.
“But we are all feeling good, we are excited, we are full of energy and we are going to make sure that we do absolutely everything we possibly can to bring these championships home.”