Suffice to say, it has not been the best start to the new era of Formula One for the Mercedes team that has dominated the sport since 2014. The opening three races have seen the usual suspects sharing out the podium positions among themselves. But while Ferrari and Red Bull have both taken wins with supporting podium finishes. The highest Mercedes have finished this season in third. Everyone watching was stunned to see seven-time World Champion Lewis Hamilton fail to progress from the first qualifying session in Saudi Arabia and start the race in 16th. He would finish in 10th, the last points scoring position but for a driver and a team that has been at the top for so long, this is new and unwelcome territory as they look to put the heartbreak of Abu Dhabi behind them.
This season was already being seen as a reset because of the new vastly different technical regulations. Some have emerged at the front and some seem to have taken a step back. It may be that Mercedes regret their unusual sidepod redesign. While they posted the fastest time at the first test at Barcelona back in February, they’ve looked well off ever since the new car broke cover at the Bahrain test. Hamilton’s podium at the season opener was little more than a happy accident after both Red Bulls had engine problems and had to retire. Something similar allowed George Russell to claim a third-place finish in Australia. Red Bull have put together a package that seems to be quick but lacks the reliability needed to properly wage a fight for the title. As the saying goes, “To finish first, first you have to finish.” So, it looks like that will be Red Bull’s big focus for the year in terms of development. Making sure that both of their cars will actually make it to the end of the race.
That isn’t Mercedes’ problem. Their problem is that they just aren’t as fast as Ferrari and Red Bull at the moment. And I think it may be because of the fact that the title fight went so far into the season. I think that both Red Bull and Mercedes kept developing last season’s car to try and gain an advantage, and thus development of this season’s car was sacrificed to try and not lose ground. We have actually seen this a number of times in the past, particularly when there was a major regulations change. Both Ferrari and Mclaren were caught on the back foot for the 2009 season after going deep into the previous year’s title fights and developing their cars later and later into the year. 2009 was, of course, the year when Brawn rose like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes of Honda to take an unprecedented drivers’ and constructors’ championship double. Red Bull was similarly flat-footed when it came to the introduction of the V6 turbo hybrid rules in 2014. Add in the fact that the cost cap came into effect at the start of this season and the new sliding scale for aerodynamic testing and I think you end up with what we are seeing at the moment with the Silver Arrows.
Of course, there is a lot of time for Mercedes to rectify the issue. The season is only three races old and there are another 20 still to go. But I fear Hamilton’s chance of challenging for that historic eighth driver’s title this season may have already gone. And whether he stays in the sport beyond this season is something that is far from certain.