Formula 1: Mercedes need to tame their ‘diva’ quickly

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Formula 1 (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Formula 1 (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images) /

Formula 1 preseason testing threw Mercedes a curveball. They completed the fewest laps out of anyone, and both their drivers struggled with the W12. On the eve of the new season, they’ll need to draw on their experience of taming a “diva”, and quickly.

“Toxic to drive” and a “little diva” is how Mercedes boss Toto Wolff is reported to have described his team’s 2021 challenger, the W12. Formula 1 preseason testing at Bahrain International Circuit proved tumultuous for the Silver Arrows, as it seemed Red Bull closed the gap on the seven-time reigning champions.

Each team is saying the other is the favorite for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix this Sunday, March 28. But success on the opening weekend for Mercedes could come from what they learned from taming their 2017 car.

Although changes on cars for this season are limited to help financially and ahead of the overhaul for 2022, downforce levels on 2021 cars are cut by 10% compared to last season’s.

More from Formula One

When aerodynamic changes were announced back in 2017, with the aim for cars to be much quicker with more drag, Mercedes produced a “diva”. It seems with aerodynamic tweaks again for 2021, a similar pattern is emerging.

For the start of the 2017 season, when Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes would still eventually be crowned champions, the team struggled to find the right balance in the car and could not get the tires to work in the way they wanted.

With continuous developments through the campaign, Mercedes got on top of the issues, but it was the closest Hamilton was pushed by a non-Mercedes driver since the V6 turbo hybrid era started in 2014. Sebastian Vettel, then in a Ferrari, finished 46 points adrift of Hamilton in second place in the driver standings.

With Red Bull looking strong in testing, this could be the closest any driver has gotten to Mercedes since the start of 2014.

Max Verstappen posted the fastest time on the final day, but he has since downplayed his team’s pace again.

Ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend, he said the team would be “stupid” to think they are ahead of Mercedes. Speaking to Autosport, he said:

"“For sure the test was a positive start for us and you can always be happy when you get that number of laps in and get a good understanding of the car but it doesn’t say anything about pure performance.“I’m sure Mercedes also want people to think we are the favorites and put the pressure on us, but we are just focused on ourselves. You can be sure that everyone in this team and at Honda is pushing to beat them and anyone else who may be quick this year.“I personally can’t wait until we are all pushing in Q3. That is when you will see everyone at full power with low fuel and that is the time to see who developed performance wise, and then in the race we will see who can keep that performance over a race distance. Let’s hope we can be good at both.”"

While Red Bull set the fastest single lap time and were quicker than Mercedes on shorter runs by more than half a second, data from the Formula 1 website shows Mercedes were still quicker on longer runs by just under four tenths of a second per lap.

In terms of that data, it seems that the biggest concern for Mercedes is qualifying pace, and Red Bull’s priority should be strengthening race pace. But another area Mercedes will need to get on top of is the car’s stability, as Hamilton beached himself in the gravel in testing and Valtteri Bottas has described its rear as “quite snappy and unforgiving”.

Although the pace may be there on the longer runs compared to their closest rival, Mercedes may have to hope their drivers can actually make it through a race distance without any drama, and that could lead to the two drivers having to drive within their capabilities to keep the car on the road, compromising maximum pace.

And that’s why Mercedes need to get on top of their new “diva” quickly.

To coin a phrase Martin Brundle uses in commentary for Sky Sports F1, “to finish first, first you must finish”. And the W12 looks as if it’s ready to chew up and spit out the very best.

If 2017 is anything to go by, expect Mercedes to develop their way out of this as the season goes on, which means Red Bull will need a quick start to take full advantage.

Going into the season opener, will Red Bull actually be on top? As Verstappen said, Q3 is where we’ll really see the first glimpses of true performance for this season. But if Red Bull keep up their short run pace, the front row could look very different to what we’re used to. If that’s the case, with Mercedes potentially starting behind them but quicker on race pace, we could be in for one heck of a weekend.

Next. Top 25 Formula 1 drivers of all-time. dark

The 2021 season is scheduled to get underway with the Bahrain Grand Prix this Sunday, March 28. This race is set to be broadcast live on ESPN from Bahrain International Circuit beginning at 11:00 a.m. ET.