INSIGHT: Mercedes isn't sandbagging, but don't count it out yet

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INSIGHT: Mercedes isn't sandbagging, but don't count it out yet

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Mercedes isn't sandbagging, but don't count it out yet

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I know, I know, you’ve heard it all before. Mercedes says it’s struggling with a new car and doesn’t think it is quickest, talks up some rivals and then blows everyone away at the first race while insisting it is surprised, even if you aren’t.

It’s happened on a number of occasions, but there’s subtle differences between when a team is not high on the timing screens because it is sandbagging and when it is in a genuine spot of bother.

For Mercedes right now, it’s the latter.

Well, I say “right now”, but for all I know, it has sorted all of its problems out already.

Because a little like the last two years, there are genuine problems that Mercedes needs to get on top of. Aspects of the car that just don’t work as the team had expected, and that are proving to be a roadblock between it and its potential performance level.

You can see it when it’s out on track. The car just doesn’t always look planted: it bounces badly on the longer straights, some runs are cut short, and Lewis Hamilton even failed to get the better of a scrap with Pierre Gasly during race simulations on the final day, when Gasly appeared to be on higher fuel.

Another way you can tell things aren’t going totally to plan is in the way the drivers themselves speak. Hamilton loves to downplay Mercedes’ chances, and a headline that he says they can’t win races gets taken to the utmost extreme and turned into an attempt to make us believe Mercedes are out of the title race already. But that’s not what he really said…

“Obviously it’s a little bit too early to get into that (title hopes), or have those kind of thoughts, but at the moment I don’t think we’ll be competing for wins,” Hamilton said. “But there is potential within our car to get us there, we’ve just got to learn to extract it and fix some of the problems.

“That’s what we are working on and everyone is doing an incredible job back at the factory working as hard as they can, but we have some hurdles to overcome. Obviously next week we’ll get a much better showing of our pace but I think people will be surprised, maybe. People keep saying that we keep talking ourselves down but it’s a bit different this year.”

The team was in a similar situation a year ago when Mercedes was struggling with the impact of changes to the floor regulations on its existing car concept, and suddenly the Red Bull was a stronger proposition. Hamilton uncharacteristically spun off into the gravel on one timed lap where the car looked a real handful, and Red Bull ended testing as the clear favorite.

Given that the title went down to the wire, that wasn’t hugely unrepresentative, but Mercedes turned it around quickly to win the first race. Despite not having the fastest package, it was close enough to be able to take the opportunities that came its way, but Hamilton says that was a very different scenario to the one the team now faces.

Mercedes can solve its porpoising problems by raising the car – but that also means trading off performance. Zak Mauger/Motorsport Images

“No, it feels a lot different,” he said. “It’s not as good, I don’t think it’s going to look as it did last year with the difficult session we had in (testing) and then switch over into the race. I think we have far bigger challenges this time and there not one-week turnarounds, they’ll take a little bit longer. But from what I told, we have a considerable amount of pace to find.”

You might still be skeptical at Hamilton’s claims that it’s not the same situation this year, but given the huge change in regulations his comments are not a big surprise. These cars are so new that teams just don’t have the historical data to fall back on, and are still learning how the aerodynamic concepts work, let alone how to solve issues with them.

The wide variations in terms of car concepts – even within highly restrictive rules – tells you there are multiple ways to create good downforce from these cars, but in turn that means any number of problems that could be encountered. Some will be easier to solve than others, and for Mercedes it has been struggling with the porpoising phenomenon whenever it tries to lower the car to gain further performance.

Fix that, and there’s a clear step forward in performance possible for any team, but the majority appeared to make progress in Bahrain. Red Bull and Ferrari were certainly far happier with their cars in terms of the porpoising, with George Russell admitting the solutions are proving harder to come by for Mercedes.

“We’ve yet to find one, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be able to find one ahead of next week or later in the season, this is a long game,” Russell said. “I do believe the performance is there somewhere, we’ve just got to find it.”

You might be noticing a theme here. While the Mercedes drivers are both keen to point out they don’t have the quickest car at their disposal, they are also regularly warning people not to write them off. It’s a team that’s confident it hasn’t been left behind by its rivals this year, but it hasn’t been able to show exactly what its car can do yet.

Bahrain and then Saudi Arabia as a double-header is a tough pairing to start the season, with little time to analyze problems and run further tests. A street circuit is where a driver needs confidence in their car, so if Mercedes struggles this weekend then there’s every chance it will in Jeddah, too.

But there are 23 races this season, and taking two or three to really get a car performing the way you want is not going to be disastrous in that context, even if you’d rather avoid a slower start.

As Hamilton has warned, the first race might come a little too soon for Mercedes to find solutions, and either the car will be bouncing a lot in the race or running a higher ride height that negates the problem but also costs it performance. But it has managed to understand how to get the most out of its car after a tough pre-season before, so you’d be brave to count against it at this stage.

It could be that Ferrari and Red Bull took three days to find out how to get their cars working properly when it will take Mercedes six, but by the start of FP1 all things will be equal. Or, Mercedes will continue to seek answers that are likely to come at some point, and it’ll suddenly be fighting for those wins Hamilton says it can’t right now.

That doesn’t mean Mercedes is hiding the performance but that the performance is hiding from Mercedes.

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