The era of the cups thrown to the sky from the top step of the podium seems distant. Today the Mercedes team staff arrives under the podium walking and chatting in low voices, and both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas lift the second and third place trophies at elbow height, with a shy nod to the team.
The Styrian Grand Prix post-race was the toughest of the season for Mercedes, even though they lost only 5 points to Red Bull in the stage balance. In the World Champion box they know how to smell the air and what they feel is not good.
In the last four races, held on very different tracks and conditions, the fastest driver on the track was Max Verstappen, who without the Baku tire burst would have celebrated his fourth consecutive victory today. The Dutchman’s points of advantage over Hamilton are not so many (18), but this is not what worries Mercedes.
To take away the sleep from the Brackley team is the perception that the next appointments on the calendar have everything to be an opportunity to extend Verstappen rather than a chance for Hamilton to recover.
Mercedes will not change its plans
The Red Bull package is simply faster, between two and three tenths per lap. It seems little, but in reality it is enormous at a time when teams cannot afford major interventions on the single-seaters.
Mercedes (like all the other teams) has long planned in detail the activity on the 2022 project, a strategic plan that cannot be changed. Technically it would be possible to take the 2021 single-seater into the wind tunnel, and most likely this work would guarantee an important result in the economy of the current season, but Mercedes will not.
The 2022 project is strategically too important and in Brackley they know it very well, since no one like Mercedes has capitalized over the years the initial advantage that it confirmed at the beginning of the hybrid cycle. In addition, there is also the sword of Damocles of the budget cap, another variable that is hardly reconciled with the need for those who would need an unexpected amount of work to try to make up for a technical gap.
“We are called to balance two situations – commented Toto Wolff – time will tell if we have made the right choices. We will know in a few years, when we can look back and evaluate, but this season is not over yet and we will continue to fight ”.
The timid hope on the reliability front
In this context, the Mercedes situation is confirmed to be very complicated. It is now clear that the superiority of the Red Bull package cannot be countered without interventions on the single-seater and power unit, but underneath there is still a timid hope, the only variable that could overturn the scenario in favor of Hamilton and his team. .
Nobody says it openly, but it is the reliability of the power unit, the ‘number 2’ that Honda made Paul Ricard debut and that allowed the Japanese technicians to definitively hook up to the Mercedes engine.
Nothing confirmed, of course, but at Mercedes someone is hoping for a last chance to take home that title number 8 which today appears to be a decidedly uphill goal.
Red Bull can wait
Another puzzle also concerns the management of Red Bull’s internal resources. That Milton Kynes’ team and Honda are pushing hard to aim for the 2021 World Championship is there for all to see, to the point of suggesting that if it becomes necessary, the technicians under Adrian Newey’s orders could also steal the workforce from the 2022 project.
It’s a chess game no less strategic than the one we see on the track every race weekend, because a Mercedes reaction would lead to a change of plans for Red Bull, but Horner and Marko seem quite calm on this front.
After the verdicts of the last few races, and especially after the triumphal ride completed today in Spielberg by a spectacular Verstappen, in Red Bull they know they can wait for an eventual move by the opponents, which probably will not come to the extent that it would undoubtedly have come in previous seasons. .
Mercedes has some small updates to the W12 in the pipeline, improvements that will not be able to reverse the situation, as already whispered by the same team.
“Today was the first race in eight years in which we lacked pace – commented Wolff – and we can say that the consequences of the stop to development have emerged. We believe that the challenge that awaits us in the coming years is very, very important, and we want to face it in the best possible way. We see that our opponents continue to bring news, and there is a feeling that they are running away. For our part, we will do our utmost to get the most out of the package we have, and the battle is far from over ”.
The chase for the World title is not over, it is true, but with no unexpected events that are not on the horizon at the moment, a tremendously uphill road is shaping up for Mercedes.