“I think we are going to go to Silverstone and then, blow everybody away, finish one and two, 30 seconds in advance of everybody else.” Those were Toto Wolff’s words in a post race interview at the Austrian Grand Prix.
And while his facial expression made it seem like more of a joke or hyperbole, it’s a statement worth revisiting ahead of the British Grand Prix this weekend.
Ever since Monaco, Mercedes has adopted a different tone, taking every chance to highlight their disadvantages. From the balance in slow speed corners present in Monaco and Baku, to the straight-line speed deficits at Paul Ricard and the Red Bull Ring, Mercedes seems to have finally gained critical mass for their underdog claims.
We are even starting to see some people lament the FIA’s approach to levelling the playing field, saying that all they’ve done is transfer dominance to another team. But could this be the calm before the storm?
The timing of upgrades
Mercedes is set to bring its first upgrade of the season at the British Grand Prix, and seeing as this Grand Prix event will also have the first iteration of the sprint qualifying format, I’m compelled to believe that its not entirely a coincidence.
Sprint qualifying is one of the new standout changes this season and while it will only take place at three Grands Prix throughout the entire season, it is not as trivial as some may think. For starters, with the season possibly spanning 23 races, sprint qualifying could make some teams more concerned about engine reliability.
At the same time, sprint qualifying offers a chance for a shake up of the field, and subsequently, the championship standings. While many believe that teams will not take the lid of their cars’ performance pot to maximize their potential, the five points attainable by a single team and three attainable by a single driver beg to differ.
So could it be that Mercedes’ planned upgrades are largely oriented towards giving them a comfortable margin to the next best team, enabling them to scoop maximum points from the sprint qualifying weekend with minimal compromise on reliability?
Another question worth asking is; if the Mercedes upgrade is not worth any chatter, why has the team been very coy about it?
We heard Wolff making ambiguous statements about the development of the 2020 car vs. the 2021 car, James Allison coming in to reinforce the availability of upgrades narrative, Hamilton adding that upgrades won’t be enough, plus a lot more.
There seems to be a focus on highlighting the pace improvement minus the upgrade too. And with many teams bringing new parts at various Grands Prix while Mercedes claims they’ve been working on this upgrade for a long while, I personally can’t help but wonder what’s so special about it.
Development and upgrade history
It’s no secret that Mercedes made a tremendous leap in regard to understanding the W12 between pre-season testing and the opening race. This shows their ability to make marginal gains at breakneck speed.
Additionally, if we look back at their history of upgrades, they are known to put a lot into one blow.
For example, in the 2020 season, Mercedes came to the Belgian Grand Prix with an aerodynamic overhaul that had Lewis doing a purple in sector 2 during qualifying. He was also 0.511 seconds ahead of teammate Valtteri Bottas.
They would go on to announce a stop in development after the Eifel Grand Prix, with six races to go and 180 points ahead of the next team. This kind of mathematics shows that Mercedes is not in the habit of winning by small margins.
So if they set out to work on a booster, they’d most probably make one that propels them as far ahead of the competition as possible.
It is what they did when the competition was trailing them, so it’s not a stretch to say it’s what they’ll do now that the competition is ahead of them.
Red Bull counters
“So if we can beat them here, then really we can beat them anywhere.” That is what Red Bull team principal Christian Horner had to say after his team took pole at the French Grand Prix.
While many looked at Barcelona as the eye-opening moment of the season, the subsequent races proved them wrong.
The French Grand Prix was the moment where we saw the W12 and RB16B go in different directions, with the latter pursuing straight line speed surpluses and the former milking the corners.
The result was a very close battle that ended in a penultimate lap overtake for the win. If Horner’s words are anything to go by, then the RB16B should be able to win anywhere, especially with the additional performance gains made in Austria.
So maybe he’s confident that his team will adequately counter any move that Mercedes makes this season. I don’t think that’s the case, but I hope Mercedes proves me right starting this weekend.
Aijuka Duncan Ngabirano is a motorsport junkie with a passion for storytelling through various media, and hodling crypto.