Mercedes is only third force at the moment. Depending on the calculation model, between three and a half and seven tenths are missing on Ferrari and Red Bull. The type of problem depends on how long the race to catch up takes.
When was the last time you heard that? Mercedes went into the first race of the year with damage limitation in mind. In terms of scoring, it worked perfectly. Lewis Hamilton and George Russell scored 27 points. Red Bull has zero. But Ferrari already has 44 points. And the new World Cup leader has not produced a flash in the pan. The F1-75 is seriously fast. On all tire types, in all track conditions, for one lap and the distance. On the straight and in the curves.
Mercedes loses an unusual amount of time to its opponents. Ferrari was 0.680 seconds short of one lap and Red Bull was 0.557 seconds short. If everything had gone perfectly at Hamilton, according to Mercedes, the gap would have been reduced to three and a half tenths. In contrast to the competition, the record winner was faster in Q2 than in Q3. The comparison to the fastest qualifying laps in the previous year underlines the picture that was gained at the start of the season. Ferrari lost 0.880 seconds to the 2021 car. Red Bull and Mercedes' losses are almost twice as high: 1.684 and 1.663 seconds.
More tire wear in the race
In the race, Mercedes' gap to its opponents increased. The tires degraded faster. Only the soft mixture in the first stint concealed the deficit a little. After two pit stops and 42 laps, Charles Leclerc was given a lead of 37.416 seconds over the faster of the two Mercedes. Makes 0.890 seconds per lap. Max Verstappen was 32.467 seconds ahead of his old rival at the time. The world champion was 0.773 seconds faster on average.
There were many indications that not everything went according to plan at Mercedes. Both drivers only had one fresh set of soft tires left in Q3, and consequently only three used sets in the race. Hamilton and Russell needed a second try in Q2 to progress safely. And early in the race, Mercedes decided on a three-stop strategy. Ferrari could easily have gotten away with two tire changes. Red Bull only installed the third stop to lure Ferrari out of their reserve. Team boss Toto Wolff relentlessly admitted: "At the moment we are only the third force."
Ferrari knows their car better
Mercedes is still caught in the bouncing trap. Not as deep as during the test, and not as deep as on the first day of training. "We are approaching a solution step by step," explained chief technology officer Mike Elliott. Nevertheless, the W13 stood higher in its feathers on Saturday and Sunday than the engineers would have liked. That cost pressure. To compensate for this, Mercedes placed the rear wing steeply.As a result, top speed was lost on the straights. In qualifying without a slipstream, 7.8 km/h to Red Bull and 1.2 km/h to Ferrari.
Despite having fewer wings, Ferrari and Red Bull were faster in the middle sector. Ferrari by 0.263 seconds, Red Bull by 0.133 seconds. This shows that Ferrari clearly has the better overall package in Bahrain. Red Bull is also ahead of Mercedes, but is not as stable as the first winner of the year. That shouldn't come as a surprise. Mercedes brought a semi-new car on the fourth day of testing, Red Bull on the last. Ferrari practiced for six days with a package that changed only minimally. Nobody knows their car better than the Maranello squad, and understanding is half the battle in the early stages of this generation of vehicles.
Is Mercedes throwing away more lap time?
It starts with the swing problem. "Ferrari continually modified its underbody during the first three days of testing and found a good compromise on how to get rid of the trapped air under the car," noticed a Mercedes engineer. Mercedes and Red Bull started all over again with the late deployment of their upgrades. Chief engineer Andrew Shovlin admitted: "The main problem is the lack of grip, which comes from having to set the car up to avoid bottoming out on the road."
The 48-year-old Englishman is confident: "At the moment we don't have a car with which we can fight for pole position or race wins. The gaps are quite large, but we can see that we can find a lot of lap times relatively quickly." A colleague adds: "Each team can set their car to bounce if they want to. To prevent it, you have to give up lap time. The question now is: are we throwing away more lap time than our competitors? We have this problem not yet under control to the extent that we would like."
The second race in Jeddah could already give Mercedes a hand. The speeds are higher, which generally requires less downforce. The route is flatter. Bumps are one of the triggers for hopping. The other line characteristics should provide further answers in the bouncing question.
Mercedes trusts its tools
Mercedes naturally has another question: What can this concept do once you've found a good solution for rocking on the straights? Has Ferrari perhaps struck gold with the total alternative? Or do we have to worry because McLaren and Williams have also been shipwrecked with the philosophy of the slim sidepods in Bahrain?
The engineers are optimistic that it's not the concept. Especially not the bouncing. "I trust our tools and systems. They were good enough to build winning cars for eight years. Forget bouncing. Downforce is still downforce. The methods that led to this package are trustworthy.We have downforce. The only thing we lack is an understanding of how to implement it stably on the track."
Toto Wolff calls for improvements in all areas. Also in terms of power. The engine is a bit of a sacred cow at Mercedes. That's why you shy away from one Problem to speak, even if six of the eight cars with Mercedes engines are in the second half of the table at top speed. That much is certain: Mercedes has lost its advantage with the engine. Ferrari has overtaken, Honda and Renault have drawn level.
That's one new quality that the customers in particular feel. You can no longer rely on the Mercedes factor. There can be two reasons for the new balance of power. The opponents have either made a leap in the engine or in the E10 fuel. Or on both fronts.