The first ’painful’ race for Mercedes in 2019 – Analysis

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Shock for Mercedes, but delight for their competitors: the Anglo-German outfit played only second fiddle to Ferrari and Red Bull in the Austrian Grand Prix after scoring eight triumphs in this season’s first eight rounds. Mercedes’ team boss Toto Wolff labelled it as painful to have witnessed Mercedes’ uncompetitive form in Spielberg.

Shocked by the rival’s form, Mercedes realized already during the qualifying session that they did not enjoy the performance advantage it has had during the season up until the Austrian Grand Prix, not to mention their demoralizing form in France. In the dying minutes of the qualifying, Lewis Hamilton could secure the second starting position thanks to the slipstream behind Lando Norris’ McLaren, but Valtteri Bottas only qualified fourth. On Sunday, both went backwards after gaining position due to the slow start of Max Verstappen and ended the race fifth and third respectively. Mercedes’ rare lack of pace was obvious after Sebastian Vettel could beat Hamilton and he would have only needed a lap to overtake Bottas, as well, despite starting the race from ninth position.

Chronic cooling issues

Wolff said the slump in form was completely down to the cooling issues which Mercedes encountered in the heat of Styria. According to the Austrian, his engineers had to take counter-measures by turning down the engines and remove some parts of the bodywork to avoid any reliability issues during the 71-lap-long scorching race. However, the drivers also had to play a part to saving the technique by adjusting their braking points, increasing the amount of lift-and-cost procedure and avoid driving in slipstream.

"We knew that it was our Achilles heel, and we were carrying the problem since the beginning of the season. We tried to work on mitigating the performance loss, but at the end, it was really painful to watch, cruising and not being able to defend or attack. We were right on the limit, we couldn't do anything any more. It was already very damaging for performance, what we did. There was no step left any more,” Wolff is quoted as saying by motorsport.com.

Asked what Mercedes could have done any better, Wolff joked: "The next step would have been to remove all the bodywork. So that was not really an option, because the sponsors wouldn't have liked it!”

Unflattering track layout

While Wolff explained Mercedes’ sudden and rare lack of speed with the hot weather, there was more behind it. The high temperatures did undoubtedly not favour the W10. On Friday, the car looked quite competitive on the race simulation while Lewis Hamilton were racking up the mileage on high fuel loads during the second practice session. With the temperature climbing up by 3-4 degrees to 34-35 Ceslius degree compared to Friday and Saturday, the W10’s cooling requirements increased.

However, the real problem was the track characteristics. The Spielberg race track does not favour the W10 as it does not highlight its strengths. The Red Bull Ring is in stark contrast to the Paul Ricard circuit where Mercedes enjoyed a demoralizing performance advantage over their rivals Ferrari and Red Bull. Despite suffering from high tyre degradation, Valtteri Bottas finished second in the French Grand Prix. In contrast to that, both Mercedes drivers had to be spot on with all their qualifying and race laps in Austria. When both Hamilton and Bottas had to use two sets of tyres in the first and second qualifying session to wrestle their way up into the next segment, it became obvious that Mercedes found themselves a bit on the back foot.

The concept of the W10 build on producing incredible amount of downforce at the expense of top-speed. This approach has proved brilliant as Mercedes were the only team to get the inconstantly-behaving 2019 Pirelli tyres with small operating window to work on every track. So far this season, the W10 was losing time on every straight compared with Ferrari’s SF90, but it could gain huge amount of time back in every type of corner. However, this advantage regarding the cornering speed was mitigated in Austria thanks to Ferrari’s latest upgrades. The Italians could cure the understeery nature of their car with the changes to the front wing and front brake ducts. On top of that, the Red Bull Ring lacks of long, never-ending medium-speed corners which dominate the first and last sector of the Paul Ricard circuit.

Wildly over the daunting kerbs

Hamilton’s small mistakes during the race were only an addition to Mercedes’ headaches. The Briton locked up a few times during his first stint and drove in a wild fashion over the punishing kerbs of the Red Bull Ring. On lap 27, the reigning world champion was too aggressive out of Turn 10 and damaged his front wing. As the balance of the car changed as a result of the incident, Mercedes had to change the front wing, losing eight seconds during the pit stop.

Mercedes has now a week to solve their problems before the season continues with the British round. In fact, the Anglo-German squad may get more time as only 21-22 Celsius degrees are expected for next weekend in Silverstone. If typical British weather welcomes the field next weekend, then Mercedes’ engineers could delay the refinements and necessary changes to the W10 until the German Grand Prix which only takes place at the end of July.

"But then there is no question, there is no alternative than to fix our problems for a the coming hot European races, Hockenheim and Budapest. The question is not how or if, but we will react. There is no other option," said Wolff.