Mercedes talks down its chances
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Just six races into a 20-race season, it is amazing to hear Niki Lauda, the non-executive chairman of Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 Team, say the team’s title chase is on the brink of being finished.
“One thing is clear.” he said. “Vettel needs to retire at least once, otherwise it’s over.”
This from the man who made headlines about “cheating death” after a crash in 1976, missing two races of a 16-race calendar as a result of his severe injuries only to come back and lose the title race narrowly to James Hunt.
He went on to win the Formula 1 Drivers Championship by just a half of a point at the last race of the 1984 season after starting the final race 11th and finishing 2nd.
Lauda’s statement was backed by Toto Wolff, the executive director of Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 Team, who maintained: “From now on Ferrari is the favourite for the championship and we are just the underdogs.”
It seems extraordinary that a team so dominant over the past few years — having arguably the fastest driver on the grid as a de facto number 1 in the team and with, arguably, the strongest engine on the grid — can so quickly start talking of needing the competition to fail in order for it to succeed.
Has this team forgotten Formula 1 is in a constant state of change with developments coming almost day by day?
In the first six races of 2017, Ferrari announced its campaign in the Australian GP with a win for Sebastian Vettel from the Mercedes pair of Hamilton and Valterri Bottas. Next was Shanghai where Hamilton dominated.
On to Bahrain and it was Vettel again winning from Hamilton.
Then to Sochi in Russia where Bottas scored his, so far, solitary win. Next was Barcelona and the turn of Hamilton.
And, finally, just two weeks ago in Monaco came that celebrated “one-two” for Ferrari with Vettel winning from Kimi Raikkonen — the first Ferrari one-two since the 2010 German GP, seven long years. So six races into the season and the score is Mercedes three, Ferrari three.
Hamilton’s “disastrous” (Niki Lauda’s word) performance at Monaco was blamed on the difficulty the Mercedes had in getting the Pirelli tyres, made in Italy, up to the correct operating temperature.
This problem clearly did not affect either Ferrari, prompting a veiled reference by Wolff to an “Italian mystery”.
Pirelli president Tronchetti Provera replied: “The tyres are the same for everyone. Perhaps Mercedes have been used to lots of success and now face an uphill task, but they will come back.”
He said: “It was a very serious piece of work on the part of Vettel and Ferrari. Vettel was always ready, with humility, to test when others were ‘not available’ and the results are the fruit of a lot of passionate work from a team that is totally focused on winning.”
That was a clear reference to Mercedes not putting enough effort into pre-season tyre testing.
The Ferrari duo completed more than 3200km of Pirelli tyre testing to Hamilton’s mere 50km. Perhaps the politics of Formula 1, suppressed among paddock bonhomie for weeks, are starting to bubble to the surface again.
This weekend the circus moves to Montreal’s Ile Notre-Dame circuit. Mercedes cars have dominated at this track for the past two years: Ferrari has not won there since 2004, with Michael Schumacher. However, Vettel and Raikkonen have one win each to their names, with Red Bull and McLaren respectively.
Maybe after this weekend we will see Mercedes back on top of the title chase and its management will get back on an even keel of talking competition and not vague accusations or defeatist talk undeserving of their stature.