Just when you thought Mercedes might be getting their act together. An absolute horror show of a weekend for the Brackley team ended with Lewis Hamilton admitting Red Bull were so far ahead they were likely to remain unbeatable for at least the duration of his new two-year contract.
Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, meanwhile, was if anything even more despondent. The Austrian described the weekend bluntly as Mercedes’ “worst for 13 years”, even comparing the maddeningly inconsistent W14 to a three-wheeler at one point.
Wolff did not specify Del Boy’s Reliant Regal but Hamilton and team-mate George Russell must have felt like fools during Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix. Hamilton finished a distant eighth, over a minute down on the day’s winner, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who cruised to his 17th victory in 20 races this season. Russell did not even finish, retiring from 11th place due to overheating oil in his power unit. “Inexcusable,” Wolff said.
It was all a far cry from the optimism that accompanied the team during the first two legs of this marathon triple-header in Austin and Mexico. Hamilton finished second in both of those races, although he was later disqualified in Austin due to excessive plank wear. And it was again the new upgraded floor of the car which was the main talking point after this race.
Hamilton described it as the biggest improvement he had felt in the car in the ground effects era when he drove it in Austin two weekends ago. Here, it was a complete disaster. Mercedes had to run the car with too much wing, meaning it was “draggy” on the straights, to use Hamilton’s description, and unstable through corners. Wolff apologised to his drivers. “Lewis survived out there,” he reflected of a race in which Hamilton briefly held second spot before plummeting down the field. “I can only feel for the two driving. It is a miserable thing. The car is on a knife edge and we have to develop it better for next year because it can’t be in seven days where you have one of the quickest cars and you are nowhere and finish eighth. The car almost drove like it was on three wheels and not on four.”
The race itself started in chaotic fashion, and that was just Martin Brundle’s gridwalk which saw him abort a bizarre interview with rapper Machine Gun Kelly. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc crashed on the warm-up lap, his hydraulics failing. And when the race did get going it only lasted a few seconds before mayhem broke out, with Alex Albon tagged by the Haas of Nico Hulkenberg, which sent him flying into the second Haas of Kevin Magnussen, taking both cars out of the race and sending debris flying. AlphaTauri’s Daniel Ricciardo was nearly decapitated by a loose bouncing tyre. The Australian admitted afterwards that he was thankful to be unhurt.
“It [the tyre] was coming at me like a Frisbee through the air. I remember ducking my head. I didn’t feel anything hit me, but I checked my mirrors and saw my rear wing was pretty much off.”
At the front, Verstappen had successfully held on to the lead from McLaren’s Lando Norris. And after a safety car, followed by a red flag period while they cleared up the debris and mended the barriers, he did the same again at the restart. Norris nearly made it past him on lap 8 but there was always the feeling that Verstappen was toying with him, goading him into shredding his tyres in a futile attempt to pass. Norris eventually backed off and settled into a rhythm, comfortable taking second place at eight seconds. Fernando Alonso in the Aston Martin took a magnificent third in what must have been one of the closest finishes F1 has ever known, by just 0.05sec from Red Bull’s Sergio Perez.
Behind them, Lance Stroll (Aston Martin), Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) and even Pierre Gasly (Alpine) all comfortably passed Hamilton before the finish. “It is a setback,” admitted the 38-year-old. “But as a team we will just come together and try to push forward. There will be a lot of analysis after today to ensure that we learn lessons.”
They will not have long to crunch the data. The next race is coming up fast, in Las Vegas in less than a fortnight’s time. Hamilton said for all he knew the W14 could be back to its best in Sin City, but he was not betting on it. “You never know with this car,” he concluded. “Ultimately all I can do is try to remain optimistic. But the Red Bull is so far away, they’re probably going to be very clear for the next couple of years.”