Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff predicts the competitive order could change significantly at the Bahrain Grand Prix compared to the season-opening race.
Valtteri Bottas took a dominant victory in Australia, leading home a Mercedes one-two after Lewis Hamilton had taken pole position. Ferrari had looked strong throughout pre-season only to struggle in Melbourne and finish nearly a minute adrift of Bottas, but Wolff thinks a permanent circuit in Bahrain could have a big impact on the various teams’ competitiveness.
“For sure, Ferrari didn’t meet their expectations,” Wolff said. “But I think it’s tricky to find the sweet spot of these new cars. In a race weekend where you have three days to find the right set-up, I think they took the wrong junction. I don’t think there’s a base performance problem.
“Yes, I was surprised to not see them on the podium, as they were really strong in Barcelona. Bahrain is a completely different ball game – very rough surface, very hot, and I think we could see quite some variances in terms of performance levels of the teams.”
Mercedes was not completely happy with its car performance during the first pre-season test, but Wolff is cautiously optimistic it will remain strong in Bahrain due to the way it has recovered from a difficult start to testing.
“When there is such a regulation change, it’s an opportunity but it’s also a massive risk, and we saw the various aero concepts hit the road in Barcelona and us not having the pace,” he said. “We just gave it our all, tried to understand, and tried not be too distracted by other people’s lap times.
“All due credit to Loic (Serra, performance director) and his team, and (chief race engineer Andrew) Shovlin’s team, that we continued to follow our program during the tests and back-to-back testing – baseline, new component, baseline, set-up change, baseline, set-up change – and finally towards the end of the second day, things came together and the drivers liked the car more.
“But honestly coming to Melbourne, we didn’t know whether the pace was good enough or not. It was a bit of a surprise the advantage that we had, a bit of a surprise the non-pace that Ferrari had, and probably the truth is somewhere in the middle. They took a wrong junction on set-up and we got things right.”
The inquest into Ferrari’s struggles has been ongoing since Melbourne, with the way it ran its power unit suggested as a potential explanation for the lack of pace, but Wolff doesn’t believe the Scuderia was down on performance in that area.
“I don’t think it’s the power unit because we were all having the same speeds on the straight,” he said. “In qualifying, when nobody was hiding any more, you can see the power traces all overlay. So the stability of the regs made the power unit a less decisive factor.
“I think it was a question of set-up, but I can’t tell for them. I just know they are a strong group of people with all the resources, and certainly they will analyze hard what went wrong and come back stronger.”