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2018 F1

Austrian Grand Prix: Mercedes’ Errors and Reliability

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After Mercedes race result in Austria, it has thrown up some serious concerns about strategy errors and reliability. The last time the Silver Arrows had a double retirement in a race, is Spain 2016 when both Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton had a clash, taking each other out in a feisty duel for the lead. Mercedes did have reliability woes with Hamilton’s engines that year, but there were none with Rosberg’s engines. The result at the Spielberg circuit might lead to a lot of headlines and click bait but the underlying issues that causing it raised brows on the ‘bullet proof’ record of the team and engine provider. Their pole and race records have been smashed at circuits where they had a dominating streak, is it the reliability or end of a dominant era?

In 2017, they had no such retirements raising reliability concerns, however this year they delayed their power unit upgrade to Paul Ricard with such concerns. When they finally introduced the power unit, they boast of no more reliability concerns and said there were more than six engines experimented on at Brixworth, to make sure the update was good enough. They also termed it as a ‘Phase 2.1’ with ‘some added fun’. However, over the French GP weekend Valtteri Bottas had a water leak and Sergio Perez who also had a Mercedes powered car, retired from the race due to a water pressure problem.

Apart from engine power, the team had many weaknesses such as tyre management issues on softer compounds, an inherent problem of excessive over-heating of the rear tyres from the inception, and sometimes strategy botch ups. The weaknesses never showed in their dominant years in the V6 era of the sport, especially when their rivals were too far off to pose a threat. However, when their rivals Ferrari have lift the game in terms of horse power, the performance comes down to managing these tiny weaknesses such as tyres, strategy, and reliability.

In the V6 hybrid era, the development curve of Ferrari, Renault and Honda have been on the upswing, where Honda and Renault are almost equal in terms of power output, but reliability can be a concern. In terms of Ferrari’s curve, it has been that of progress resulting in equalling Mercedes in engine power, but the latter seem to have reached the edge when it comes to developing the engine any further or extracting any more from it. The critical question is have Mercedes pushed too much to extract performance out of the current engine? Toto Wolff has dismissed the concerns saying, that the recent retirements aren’t related to the engine upgrade. However, the team has been left exposed on the reliability of the package as a whole.

The strategy error took place at lap 15, when Hamilton’s rivals Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, Max Verstappen changed tyres under the Virtual Safety Car period. While Red Bull Racing and Ferrari execute quick double stacked pitstops, Hamilton was left out leading the race. The team feared him coming out behind Raikkonen or Verstappen, which would affect his lead. The decision whether to or not to pit him left him struggling, until his tyres were in a poor condition and he had to forcefully pit at lap 26. Although he came out in front of Vettel, 19 laps later it was easy for the German to pass him. A top two finish that seemed to be a cake walk for the team this weekend, turned out to be their biggest nightmare.

Mercedes Chief Race Engineer Andrew Shovlin has commented on the issue saying “We don’t have any excuses for today. We weren’t reliable enough, we didn’t make the right strategy call, our starts weren’t good enough and we didn’t manage the tyres as well as we could have done. We have a lot to improve by Silverstone and we need to put all our focus into remedying our weaknesses today.”

At a circuit where tyre management is key, the characteristics of this track are such that managing those rear tyres was key. In the second Free Practice the track temperature was 25 degrees, while the air temperature was 20 degrees, in which case it is easier to manager any temperature builds up. However, since the circuit comprises of a majority of right hand turns the left tyres remain cold and less used as compared to the right, and that is where the temperature builds up. it is also a track where rear tyre thermal degradation is high, and with the temperatures in race conditions being at least 10 degrees more than expected, the soft tyre too could not last.

According to Pirelli’s tyre report Vettel, Verstappen, Raikkonen and Grosjean were not the only drivers to make the tyres last that long. There were many others such down the grid, but the top six had to push them to the maximum since they were within close distance of each other for majority of the race. Grosjean did comment post the race saying, ‘The last 20 laps were not fun – there were blisters on the rears – and I was afraid they were going to explode at any time.” Verstappen’s tyres had a few marks but had the race been slightly longer, it would have played out differently.

The Ferraris on the other hand have always been maestros in managing their tyres in these temperatures, and towards the end of their 55-lap stint, the drivers managed posting some quick laps on them with Raikkonen’s fastest best being the new track record on the final lap of the race. At circuits like Hungary, Monza or Singapore where temperatures are warmer, tyres are the least of the scarlet squad’s concerns. The warmer the temperatures the better the red cars look when it comes to managing tyres.

In the long run pace analysis from FP2 Ferrari was showing immense pace on the soft compound, where they were a tenth of a second quicker than the Mercedes, and six tenths of a second quicker than the Red Bull Racing car. The three drivers to conduct race simulations on the yellow tyre were Hamilton, Vettel and Verstappen. In theory on heavier fuel loads, Ferrari were expected to be even more quicker, than their times post in the FP2 session and if one had to recall Vettel’s lap times on the soft compound, they were effortless and consistent. If FP2 track and weather conditions were to be replicated on race day, and the track characteristics of smooth asphalt were to be considered, then a Mercedes 1-2 finish was inevitable.

The change in temperature and track conditions, turned tables in Ferraris favour, enabling them to pull out a bigger advantage on that compound over other drivers. For Mercedes it was no more than human error under the pressure of race conditions, that lead to a botch up in the pitstop calculations.

The errors Mercedes made in the Austrian race might have not been as expensive at other circuits than here. As mentioned several times before in the practice analysis reports, this circuit is normally about team and drivers making the least number of errors being successful here. This track is demanding on the skill level of both the driver and the engineer, therefore the smallest error can be unforgiving, and an error free run can be immensely rewarding. They have had three circuits namely Barcelona, Paul Ricard and Silverstone resurfaced with their tyre degradations concerns, which they expressed to Pirelli.

To conclude, all one can say is what happened to Mercedes is a combination of human errors, miscalculations and reliability issues playing out in one day for both their drivers, at a circuit that is least forgiving in such conditions. Unfortunately, this triple header weekend meant 75 valuable points for a driver who could take consecutive wins or dominate at least two out of three weekends. It cost Hamilton the most in his battle with Vettel, since all three circuits of the triple header favoured Mercedes in theory. The Silver Arrows can only hope for a turnaround at Silverstone next weekend to help them return to their invincible form. For fans of the sport, there couldn’t have been a more thrilling turn to the title battle than this, but with 12 more races to go one cant discount more twists and turns.

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