Lewis Hamilton's costly error at the restart has cost Mercedes crucial points
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55 races. That is how far back you must go for a race where Mercedes failed to score a single world championship point. Go back another 100-odd races and nearly nine years and that was the last time the team had both cars finish the race and not score a point. Since then, they have won 108 grands prix and seven double championships. We are so used to their week-after-week success that their seven points in Monaco a fortnight ago felt like a near-disaster.
What happened at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on Sunday will be even more painful. After Max Verstappen’s catastrophic high-speed tyre failure from the lead in the closing stages, Hamilton’s luck was in in a large way. But instead of gaining a hefty haul of points on his rival he squandered a golden opportunity for a championship sucker punch. Mercedes leave Baku looking as fragile and vulnerable as they have since their dominance of the turbo hybrid era began in 2014. They are failing to answer Red Bull’s questions.
It can be foolish to look too much into one or two results and exaggerate and misconstrue what we have seen clearly with our own eyes. Mercedes are not yet imploding. Hamilton still managed to drag his under-performing Mercedes into contention as team-mate Valtteri Bottas languished towards the edge of the top 10. Two weeks ago in Monaco those roles were reversed. Yet neither can you ignore how uncharacteristic these consecutive messy weekends are and, ultimately, how important they could turn out to be.
Why is this happening? Firstly, though still at the front, the landscape has changed for Mercedes. They have rarely faced this type of sustained pressure and their margin for error has never been so small. When Ferrari were contending in 2017 and 2018 it was not quite the same, as some tracks clearly suited Mercedes more and others suited the Scuderia. At every single race this year Max Verstappen has been in contention. After a very tight opening few rounds, Red Bull are starting to make their promise count, forcing cracks to appear at Mercedes. The stakes, it seems, are bringing about mistakes.
For both teams, every small driver error comes with the risk of a championship swing and every pit stop – Red Bull were better strategically again in Baku – comes with the possibility of being jumped by your biggest rival.
Red Bull's quick pit work helped Max Verstappen into the lead
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Which man and which team are responding best? If you look at who has made more of what they have then the answer is the challengers, not the champions. There will have been understandable disappointment at failure to win races in Bahrain, Portugal, and Spain when victory was possible. In those races, Verstappen finished second. Mercedes have had the upper hand in performance in a few rounds, but it has been marginal.
So far, the larger errors from team and driver have come from Mercedes. Verstappen has made a few but they have been small and – perhaps disproportionately – costly. He has not yet made a single error of the magnitude of the two his rival has made in six races this year. If, as Hamilton claimed, the Dutchman feels he has a lot to prove (he denied it), then he is certainly doing it.
In Imola, Hamilton was extremely fortunate to be able to finish second after crashing and losing his front wing lapping George Russell in the wet. But in Baku he paid the full price for his unusual and uncharacteristic mistake at the restart. After 40-odd laps of the usual Hamilton magic, he hit the "brake magic" button on an upshift as he briefly took the lead. With his brake balance thrown heavily forward he locked his front wheels and was passed by every car on track. A weekend’s hard work undone in an instant.
Beyond Hamilton vs Verstappen it is now Sergio Pérez who is having the better season of the “second drivers”. Bottas had another weekend to forget. Six races in and the Finn has scored points in just three of them. Yes, Monaco was not his fault, but he found himself stuck – and then moving backwards – in a midfield fight against inferior cars for the second time this year. His very public criticism of his team’s pit stop practices earlier this week hints at a lack of harmony and a man under pressure as he fights for his seat. That may improve with time and better results, but it is far from a guarantee and has as much chance as souring.
Mercedes need Bottas to be a factor at the front, though his position at the moment seems he could be used to Hamilton’s advantage rather than his own. With Bottas on the downward slope, Pérez will head to France feeling like a million dollars after keeping pace with Verstappen and holding back Hamilton to take victory.
In many ways Mercedes should still be thankful as it could have been worse for Hamilton. Had it finished how they were with five laps to go then Verstappen’s championship lead would have extended to 15 points. As it was, the gap is still razor-thin and it is Mercedes’ constructors’ hopes that took the biggest hit. They now sit 26 points behind Red Bull – a turnaround of 55 points since the Spanish Grand Prix.
Like their lead driver, disastrous Mercedes weekends have usually come with little consequence in recent seasons. In Germany in 2019 they scored just three points with both cars crashing – yet they left with a 148-point championship lead and it was only the second race of 11 that they did not win. In Sakhir last year it had been done and dusted for weeks when a litany of errors left George Russell and Bottas only eighth and ninth. Now their mistakes are coming at a far greater cost.
After two unusual street circuits where Mercedes were clearly second best, F1 now goes to Paul Ricard in France and a double-header in Austria. The Silver Arrows could bounce back emphatically, but that would represent a turnaround. This is not yet a crisis – we are some way from these sorts of weekends becoming characteristic for Mercedes. But it will not take a great deal more for them to become defining, especially if Red Bull and Verstappen keep up their relentless pressure.