Mercedes have begun the 2020 season strongly, winning all three of the races held so far.their largest such margin since the 2015 Australian Grand Prix.
Back when they last enjoyed this kind of performance advantage, Mercedes won all bar three of the races. Small wonder some are already suggesting they might sweep every race on the schedule this year.
However, as team principal Toto Wolff pointed out, Mercedes have not enjoyed their unprecedented success of recent seasons through being complacent.
“If we will take the 2020 season for granted as a walk in the park, and it’s basically just about picking up the trophy in Paris in December, we wouldn’t have won these past championships,” he said. “So there’s not one fibre in us that thinks that this championship is done. It’s something that can really catch you out.
“We have one key objective, and it is about finishing every weekend to the best of our abilities, hopefully score many points and challenge for a championship. There’s nothing else we can do.”
Nonetheless, it’s hard to look at their performance so far and not wonder whether they might even outstrip their achievements of 2014-16, when the team was at the peak of its considerable powers.
“We have a very decent points lead,” admits technical director James Allison. “In qualifying, we’ve looked very strong for a couple of races now. The race day, though, is tougher. The margin is not the same size in the race that it has been in qualifying.”
That may be so, but Lewis Hamilton was still on course to win the Hungarian Grand Prix by half a minute before coming in for an extra pit stop to guarantee he bagged the bonus point for fastest lap.
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Allison suspects the team’s significant performance gain since last year is at least partly to do with the difficulties their rivals are experiencing. He believes they’re “a sneak ahead” compared to last year, but “that might be more to do with the competition having a little bit of a tougher time rather than us having done something remarkable.”
Ferrari’s performance has slumped alarmingly since last year, leaving Red Bull as the only likely threat to Mercedes. But having been reasonably close to the black cars in the two Austrian races, the RB16 was surprisingly off-song in Hungary.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner believes something on the Red Bull is “misbehaving aerodynamically”. Allison is particularly wary of his rivals who he believes have the potential to get on teams with Mercedes quickly once they correct whatever troubled them in Hungary.
“Normally you can fix something that has got a little bit wrong. And so the gap might be big now, but it will close down very quickly if that sort of snappiness that you sometimes see on a Red Bull can be softened,” Allison said.
A similar thing happened last year. Early in the season Red Bull discovered a sensor problem had caused a fundamental set-up error on their cars. Once that was fixed, the RB15 soon delivered, and the team won three races last year.
By then Mercedes had already scored eight straight wins. They were never seriously threatened for the title.
With a more compact schedule this season, and in turn a reduced amount of time to develop upgrades, Mercedes’ rivals are going to have to make big gains in little time to stop them building up an unassailable points lead.
Furthermore, with car development restricted in 2021 through the ‘tokens’ system, the advantage Mercedes enjoy now could continue to pay off well into next year. Whether Red Bull can bounce back from their Hungary setback and establish themselves as credible rivals to the champions will therefore have implications for the next 18 months of racing.
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2020 F1 season
- Bottas vs Rosberg: Hamilton’s Mercedes team mates compared after 78 races each
- F1 revenues fell by $877 million in Covid-struck 2020 season
- Hamilton and Mercedes finally announce new deal for 2021 season
- F1 audience figures “strong” in 2020 despite dip in television viewers
- 2020 F1 driver rankings #1: Lewis Hamilton