🇯🇵 F1'24: R4: Decision

What's eating Mercedes?

There are many ways you can overtake in a modern Formula 1 car. However, most of them have been simulated on a computer, sometimes thousands of miles away at a team headquarters several hours before that move has even been made.

However, the one thing your best plans can never account for is how the human in the car will react and respond to what is going on around them. Suddenly your computer (and the people operating them) need to be agile, playing out hundreds - if not thousands - of different permutations, aided by gigabytes of data, and often, your best work might not actually never be seen.

The Japanese Grand Prix may well have been one of those races, with an opening lap incident taking out Daniel Ricciardo and Alex Albon - the former is getting a new chassis in China and the latter’s mechanics cancelling any holiday they might have coming up, with repairs to the two chassis Williams are carrying until they get to Florida.

The crash rightly brought out the red flag and the best laid plans suddenly need a rethink. For some, it was a case of stay the course, burn off a couple of laps of fuel quickly and run the 50-lap race in Suzuka. For others, it was time to throw the dice and hope that the combination of white, yellow and red-banded Pirelli tyres allows you to convert those simulated overtakes into real life moves and valuable points.

We saw two of those dice rolls from teams who this season are inextricably linked. Mercedes and Ferrari tried different ways to take seconds off their overall race time. Pirelli brought their hardest compounds for the abrasive surface, which made teams consider a one-stop strategy after the restart, with Hard-Hard being an option for teams that started on Medium or Soft. 

However, among the points scorers, only Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc made it work, the driver of the day finishing in fourth when an extra stop would have placed him seventh, as a handy graphic showed at the end of the race.

And a sidenote of credit to Ferrari here, who did not force their cars to hold position and let Carlos Sainz race with Leclerc. It could have been very easy for them to protect the position of the driver who is staying with them, but they let them race, with Leclerc’s ageing tyres no match for Sainz, who has three podium finishes in the three races he has entered.

But while it worked for Ferrari, it was a different story for Mercedes. They committed to the one-stop, but as Lewis Hamilton and George Russell fell through the field, Hamilton told his team to “change this strategy” - which, once Mercedes were out of the window, they did. Unfortunately, it was not a difference maker, with the cars starting P7 and P9… and finishing P7 and P9, with the only change being a Hamilton-Russell swap.

Despite the change, Hamilton said after the race that he didn’t know what the alternative strategy would have been, saying the hard tyres were really bad.

It’s difficult to diagnose what is going on with Mercedes. The last era’s standard bearer, a seven-time World Champion and all-time great paired with a fast young driver, both hugely popular within the Brackley walls and around the world, and a team principal who everyone seems to like. 

But when it goes wrong, it continues to go wrong. Hamilton has four more points than Oliver Bearman so far this season and has not finished higher than seventh in the four races so far. Russell has gone 5, 6, DNF, 7. 

Even Toto Wolff seems indecisive. He was originally not due to travel to Japan with the team before changing his mind. Each F1 team relies on the mind of more than one person, but I cannot imagine any other team in any other sport choosing to attend a fixture without its head coach on the sidelines, regardless of who the other voices are on the coaching staff.

Wolff changing his mind was the right thing to do, but should not have been contemplated in the first place, even when the team were winning everything, so now that they’re not taking huge points every weekend, it’s even more unacceptable. The fact that he was even asked if he would be in China (he will be) shows where the team is at the moment.

And yet, all of this feels solvable. There is always optimism and a feeling of being one breakthrough away from being competitive again at the team. Morale still seems high, but I think it’s fair to question whether the driver decision is weighing on the team’s mind. Your most public faces being settled helps the whole team, and therefore Mercedes have a big decision to make, with the open seat having all sorts of names thrown at it, and with only two per team, putting the wrong driver in the seat can set a team back several years.

One example of that (and this is a bit harsh on Lance Stroll) is seen at Mercedes’ biggest competitors. With little pressure below them, Aston Martin are close to Mercedes and fourth in the Constructors’ Championship would bring with it extra money that can be reinvested. Fernando Alonso has finished ahead of both Mercedes drivers at all four races so far with the exception of Bahrain. Stroll has had an ok season so far - being just one point behind Hamilton. But can it last? If you had, say, $20m riding on it, would you want Hamilton’s notice period or Stroll’s infinite job security in what is now your second car?

It might be the winner of this battle that decides who finishes fourth and takes that extra prize money. Strategy and decision making will be a key decider in this battle, and right now, Mercedes are not where there own standards say they need to be.

Working out tyre strategies at 6am UK time the morning after Wrestlemania is difficult enough, so fans in the UK will be delighted to see that F1’s return to China starts at 8am! Sorry to all American fans for the 12 midnight or 3am start time. The Shanghai track with the never-ending spiral staircase bend also features a Sprint weekend. It’ll be the first Sprint of the season too. 

Since F1 last raced around Shanghai, the sport is almost unrecognisable. There are new names at the top. Lewis Hamilton has won four of the last six races in China, but even if the car is not as competitive as it could be, Mercedes is hurting itself through strategic errors and indecisiveness. Of the top four teams, Lewis Hamilton finishing first seems like the most unlikely result.

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