It’s easy to become complacent when repeating the same thing over and over again. And that doesn’t apply only to those carrying out the action, but also those witnessing it.
Mercedes came into 2019 off the back of five consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championship doubles. Lewis Hamilton owned four of those drivers’ titles, and any session that ended with a Mercedes on top was largely greeted with a knowing sigh from both hardcore and casual followers of Formula 1.
During pre-season testing, the signs pointed to a very different situation this year. And when that has hasn’t translated into what we’ve seen over the opening races, that same air of inevitability can make it easy to forget what we saw in Barcelona.
“You know that it didn’t look good,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff says. “We weren’t where we expected to be in the first testing sessions. Then we came back with the new aero package, the race one aero package which we hoped would have a real impact on the car’s performance, and it didn’t on the first two days.
“On the third day, we found the right setup direction, and on the fourth day we were able to post a time that was encouraging – but no more.”
It was rather unfortunate timing that Mercedes had finished all of its scheduled media sessions on the final day before Hamilton took over the car for the afternoon and ultimately matched Ferrari’s pace. It had not been what the team was expecting.
As Wolff says, it was encouraging, but even so, Mercedes’ absolute dominance compared to Ferrari in Australia was a shock given how 2019 had started.
“Obviously Melbourne came as a great surprise when everybody let their pants down that our performance was good enough,” Wolff says. “Then you get caught out. We came to Bahrain and we weren’t fast enough at a layout that is very much a rear-limited track with the most abrasive asphalt on the calendar, and Ferrari was the one that should have won the race in terms of pure car performance.
“These things… although we have scored three one-twos, I think this is not what we’re seeing in the [big] picture. The Ferrari is very strong, and we expect this fight for pole position, and as a consequence race wins, to continue.”
It’s natural for a team that is winning to talk up its opposition and talk down its own car performance in order to make itself look even better. I can still sense your skepticism, and to that end, can totally understand it.
But it’s what Ferrari is saying and doing that tells so much of the story, too. The signs are there within the Scuderia suggesting the pre-season performances and Bahrain turnaround are where it truly believes it should be, and playing second fiddle to Mercedes is not the team’s true potential.
After the end of qualifying in China, Sebastian Vettel was told over team radio what the lap times were for Hamilton and pole-sitter Valtteri Bottas, in turn informing him of the deficit Ferrari faced. His response?
“We had it! We had it. We know why though, we know why…”
Something still isn’t right at Ferrari. Changes to the Control Electronics (CE) were introduced after the problem that denied Charles Leclerc victory in Bahrain, and concerns over the cooling system remain after first surfacing during pre-season.
Christian Horner even referenced the potential performance the top two teams can tap into on certain occasions during a race, just not at all times.
“We saw after the pit stop Mercedes and Ferrari go back into a qualifying setting because, particularly with Sebastian, his one-lap pace was a 1m 34.8s and then goes into the 1m 36s,” Horner said. “So there is one standout lap that looks fairly good.”
While the peak is very high, Ferrari is unable to match Mercedes’ baseline at the moment, and as a result found itself slowly slipping back in China.
But the incredible job Mercedes has done so far this season still shouldn’t be overlooked.
The team itself produced the perfect example on Sunday; the double-stack to pit both cars in order during the second half of the race offering a microcosm of its ability to react positively to all the challenges currently thrown at it.
In Melbourne, the car was in the sweet spot. In Bahrain, that wasn’t the case, but reliability is still a major player in getting a result in F1, and so far Mercedes has had that, too.
As a team it has responded to what looked like a significant Ferrari challenge, and in delivering its own counterpunch, has left its main rival dazed.
“I think with what we have, we are operating with what we have at its full potential,” Hamilton says of Mercedes’ strong start. “But there will be more improvements to come in the future. We will make steps forward.
“(Bahrain), you can’t say that was necessarily on full merit, because we weren’t quick enough to win the race really. But things happened along the way, and you have to put yourself in position to get the wins, and we did that. I think particularly the first one and this one, [were] on merit.
“I think the others… they have a good car, the Ferraris. They’re just not extracting; it doesn’t look like they’re extracting their full potential on the weekends. And then the execution doesn’t look as faultless as they have shown in the past.”
After the first three races in 2017, Vettel led Hamilton by seven points, and last year the German’s advantage at the same stage was nine. On both occasions, Hamilton was crowned world champion at the Mexican Grand Prix, with two rounds still to run.
This season, Hamilton is already 31 points up.
As much as Ferrari needs to look at its part in that gap, Hamilton can reflect on a stronger start to the season than in previous years, calling upon his experience to win when not at his best. The Briton has always been closest to his full potential when he feels like the underdog, and that trend means his impressive performances so far could be an indicator of just how seriously he was taking Ferrari’s threat at the start of this year.
There has been no complacency from the defending champion or his team, and if it stays that way then it will be the tallest of orders for Ferrari to force its way back into the reckoning.