Don Kennedy: Mercedes facing challenges on and off track

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Daniel Ricciardo is struggling at McLaren after move from Renault. Photo / Don Kennedy

Two races into a 23-race championship schedule and it is even-stevens between Mercedes and Red Bull, the latter having emerged as a serious challenger to the seven-time champions Mercedes.

Lewis Hamilton won the season opener in Bahrain, with pole-sitter Max Verstappen second, after being deemed to have exceeded track limits in overtaking Hamilton, and having to give the place, and as it transpired, the race victory to Hamilton.

In round two at Imola for the Emilia Romagna GP, it was Hamilton who took pole, but in wet conditions, Verstappen drove away from everyone to take a relatively easy victory.

He was aided by the fact that Hamilton went off track and damaged his front wing, but he was saved by the safety-car intervention and the race being red-flagged to clear up debris from a huge crash between Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas and Williams driver George Russell.

Hamilton’s recovery drive to second place demonstrated that the Mercedes has similar pace to the Red Bull, if not being slightly quicker.

Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin believes the Mercedes car is still slower than the Mercedes even though Hamilton took the extra point for fastest lap at Imola.

“I like to think we could have put them under some pressure in the race,” Shovlin said referring to Red Bull. “Whether or not we had the car to win, I don’t know because I don’t know how hard Max was pushing at times. But looking at the sectors Lewis was doing and where we were in the corners, we felt it was really close.

“But we are not going to walk away from this patting ourselves on the back, saying that we might have had the faster car by a small amount.

“We are walking away from here saying, we are not good enough and they will win the championship if we don’t improve our car very quickly. That is our mindset, that we are still the ones chasing.”

So, what does Mercedes’ boss Toto Wolff think about that scenario?

“We are still having a deficit with the car,” Wolff claims. “We were on pole, but if Max had put in a decent lap, we were probably 0.24s behind, maybe 0.3s.

“That is simply what the pecking order is at the moment.”

Irrespective of the pace of the Mercedes versus Red Bull, off track there is another challenge looming for Mercedes.

The reality is, if you dominate a sport, your competitors will come after you with whatever they can muster, and every team faces the prospect of losing an important or crucial team member to a rival team, because F1 staff want to make as much money as they can, they are excited by new challenges and given they see a champion like Hamilton earning around $40 million per annum, they too want to be well remunerated for their skills.

Red Bull has poached Ben Hodgkinson, one of Mercedes’ senior power unit engineers, to head up their Powertrains division, his future task being to develop the Honda engine, given Honda itself is pulling out of F1 at year end.

Hodginson won’t be able to work with Red Bull as such this season, being currently on gardening leave from Mercedes, but that probably won’t stop him passing on his knowledge of the Mercedes powertrain.

 Lando Norris has a  growing  reputation as a likely lad. Photo / Don Kennedy
Lando Norris has a growing reputation as a likely lad. Photo / Don Kennedy

“We are delighted to welcome Ben to Red Bull Powertrains as technical director,” Red Bull boss Christian Horner said.

“He comes to this hugely exciting project as a proven winner and as an innovator capable of leading a like-minded team of highly skilled engineers.”

Hodgkinson has worked for Mercedes for nearly two decades at its Brixworth factory. It may be some time before his input pays dividends as such, but it is yet another example of the competitiveness between teams. Protecting a team’s intellectual property is essential but sometimes unavoidable. At least this ‘poach’ is a legitimate one, even if it may concern Mercedes hierarchy, and Hodgkinson is excited to be joining Red Bull.

“It was not easy to make the decision to leave Mercedes HPP after almost 20 years but the opportunity to take on such a far-reaching and important project is a great honour,” he said.

“Red Bull is a serious player in Formula One and have been our biggest rival in the hybrid era, so I’m looking forward to seeing what we can achieve together in this new phase of the company’s journey.”

Bottas, who received an apology from George Russell after their collision at Imola, thinks that Red Bull is the team to beat at present.

“I still believe we can catch them,” he says. “I still believe from the feeling in the car that there is more to unlock from it. Twenty-three races is a long time to learn about the package and it just means we need to be more efficient than the other teams. We know Red Bull are good at in-season development, but we just need to outpace them.”

Bottas also thinks that no one driver will dominate this season like Hamilton has since winning his first championship with Mercedes in 2014.

“I think dominating a grand prix this year will be difficult seeing the starting point,” he noted. “We’ve seen quite big swings in performance track to track, but you never know. But I can’t see anyone really dominating this year.”

There may not be one driver dominating the championship like Hamilton has, except when Nico Rosberg beat him in 2016, but for the first time in seven seasons, drivers from two different teams, namely Hamilton and Verstappen, look like turning the title race into a two-horse race after just two races.

McLaren driver Lando Norris, currently third in the championship, looks to be the surprise package of the season. Imola was just his second podium in F1, but he is definitely a driver on the rise, as is the McLaren team, although his teammate Daniel Ricciardo is yet to come to grips with the McLaren car in the way Norris has.

Norris appeals to young F1 fans, not just because he is just 21, but due to his nonchalant ‘bit of a lad’ attitude. He is not afraid to have a go and has a mischievous sense of humour to add to his appeal. He has 2.8 million followers on Instagram and 981,000 on Twitter.

McLaren team boss Andreas Seidl believes Norris has moved up to another level despite the presence of a more experienced and seemingly quicker teammate in Ricciardo.

“Lando is flying at the moment, he’s definitely made the next step as a driver also,” Seidl said. “It’s normal also that these young guys make steps, in the first years they have to make it or they will never make it to the top but its just great how he’s pulling it off.”

So how does Norris see his progress as an F1 driver in just his third season?

“It’s nice to be fighting these guys,” Norris said after finishing third behind Verstappen and Hamilton at Imola. “It’s nice to be there on merit and there on pure pace, and hopefully we can have some more in the future.”

By contrast, Ricciardo in his 10th full season in F1 has struggled moving from Renault to McLaren. He was only 14th in Bahrain and although improving to seventh at Imola. By comparison Norris finished fourth and third in those first two races.

Seidl understands what is happening with Ricciardo.

“We know it is not just straightforward to jump from one car into another one, and only have one and a half days of testing,” Seidl noted.

“And we have seen from other drivers, all these drivers are very talented and they adapt very quickly and straightaway. But these cars are complex, and to find these last two, three, four, tenths, but also make the difference when how comfortable they are to push these cars to the limit, that is not straightforward to find and get out of these cars. That takes time. It is not a surprise.”

The next chance for Norris to try and get closer to Hamilton and Verstappen, and for Ricciardo to get more comfortable in the car and challenge his younger teammate, is in this weekend’s Portuguese GP at the Portimao circuit.

Hamilton won the race last year from Bottas and Verstappen, but the latter will be hoping to reverse that order, while Ricciardo will be hoping his team doesn’t ask him to let Norris through again like it did at Imola because he was faster than him.

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