2018 Belgian Grand Prix analysis
“I need more power” – quite an admission from a driver who has been at the wheel of Formula 1’s most complete package for the entirety of this era.
Since the dawn of the V6 hybrids in 2014, Mercedes has blown away the opposition and claimed four consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championships. Last season, Ferrari mounted the biggest challenge to the Silver Arrows’ supremacy, only to run out of steam at the end of the season.
However, this year looks set to be different and after the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, Mercedes has found itself in rather uncharted territory.
Of course, Hamilton was earning his familiar Saturday afternoon plaudits with a 78th career pole, but this was not a normal session.
A damp Q3 became a story of who could time their final run the best. Kimi Raikkonen and the Red Bull duo of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen were the most unfortunate and found themselves in the garage rather than on track as the conditions improved in the dying and drying moments of the session.
Sebastian Vettel was on track at the right time – setting his final time after Hamilton, in fact – but ERS mismanagement meant that he had no battery power for the majority of his final lap.
At a circuit where 70 percent of the lap is taken at full throttle, a flat battery will have a big impact on lap time – even in the wet. As a result, Hamilton’s 0.726 seconds pole margin over Vettel was not a fair representation of relative performance.
That was instead delivered in the race. Vettel blasted passed Hamilton on the Kemmel Straight and from that moment forward, the Ferrari driver delivered a dominant performance.
In traditional Vettel-style, the German broke the DRS gap to Hamilton on lap one and proceeded to construct a comfortable margin. Ferrari even enjoyed the luxury of being able to wait for Mercedes to pit before making their stop, with no fear of losing out in an undercut scenario.
Ferrari dominance over Mercedes executed on a power track that has been a home of Silver Arrow pace superiority since 2014 – grounds to be surprised.
However, times have changed and given that Ferrari-powered cars have topped speed trap tables more often than their Mercedes counterparts in 2018, the performance at Spa simply served to support pre-existing assertions.
“They’ve been quickest since Austria really,” Hamilton admitted when speaking to the official F1 site. “We don’t really have an answer for them at the moment.”
Concerning for Mercedes is that it brought a brand new power unit to the Belgian Grand Prix. Brixworth was confident that the upgrade would deliver a significant performance boost and while the expectations were matched, Ferrari’s equivalent upgrade seems to have been even better.
“We’ve come here with a very, very good upgrade and theirs is even better,” Hamilton added. “How, I don’t know. So, I need more power.”
Who would have imagined in 2014 that Hamilton would ever make such a comment while driving a Mercedes hybrid? Obviously the field spread is reduced as the law of diminishing returns takes effect, but Mercedes commanded such a considerable advantage over both Ferrari and Renault that their power unit dominance seemed unbreakable.
Brixworth hasn’t suddenly taken its foot off the gas, but Ferrari’s remarkable comeback has been a product of exceptional work at Maranello. As Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has admitted in the aftermath of Belgium; “They [Ferrari] have a power advantage.
“We saw that in qualifying that their power advantage is on various parts of the straight, and you can see that even if the [corner] exits are worse than ours, their engine keeps pulling.”
So where does that leave Mercedes for the eight-race championship run-in? Regardless of the solutions and improvements conjured at Brixworth over the coming weeks, Mercedes cannot introduce any hardware updates without incurring penalties on either Hamilton or team-mate Valtteri Bottas’ cars, as both have already churned through their allocation for the season.
The team can make software improvements, which can come in the form of calibration or an enhancement of the fuel provided by Petronas. Other than that, Hamilton will largely have to make do with the power unit he currently has at his disposal.
The championship run-in is also filled with circuits that are power sensitive – none more so than this weekend’s trip to Monza.
The tight streets of Singapore will negate any power deficit, but Mercedes has historically struggled to find performance at the Marina Bay.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility, therefore, that Vettel could perform a similar feat as in 2013 and sweep the final nine rounds of the season. Ferrari has cemented its standing as F1’s fastest team at present. With a clear power advantage and limited options for Mercedes to recover the deficit, Ferrari is in a position of power – pardon the pun.
I’m sure Hamilton’s raw talent and determination, coupled with Ferrari’s shakiness at times – evidenced by its operational “wobble” during qualifying on Saturday in Belgium – will ensure that Vettel does not simply sweep the remaining races.
However, for Hamilton to outscore Vettel over the next eight rounds will be a Herculean effort. When coupled with the best car Vettel is imperious and Hamilton’s 17 point championship advantage looks very small at this point.
If the Brit does claim his fifth drivers’ title in November, he would have done so despite not having the best car. Rarely has such a feat been achieved and never against Vettel.