Call it an allegory for the age of climate change, or just dumb luck, but Mercedes is no longer undefeated as F1 heads to Britain.
Formula One employs a lot of smart people but, in the end, it was not the big brains at Red Bull or Ferrari that brought Mercedes to its knees.
It was the force of Mother Nature.
Call it an allegory for the age of climate change, if you like. Or just dumb luck. Or bad luck, depending on your point of view.
Whatever. The point is, going into this weekend’s British Grand Prix, the mighty Silver Arrows are no longer undefeated.
Their perfect start to the campaign came to an unexpected end at stop No. 9 in Austria on June 30, after 10 straight wins going back to last season.
Max Verstappen took the widely popular win for the home team at the Red Bull Ring with an aggressive move on Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc with three laps to go in front of grandstands packed with orange-clad supporters of the young Dutchman.
It was heart-stopping stuff, the kind of wheel-to-wheel battle everyone in F1 wants to see.
Except for the stewards, of course. Not for the first time this season, they tried to steal the spotlight with an investigation into the clash that, in this case, lasted a mind-numbing three-plus hours before they rendered a verdict.
At least they got the decision right this time and upheld the victory for the guy who actually crossed the finish line first — unlike the travesty in Montreal, where second-place Lewis Hamilton was declared the winner thanks to a five-second penalty given to Sebastian Vettel.
Really, these guys need to get out of the way.
Anyway, in Austria, championship leader Hamilton could do no better than fifth, just behind Ferrari’s Vettel and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas in third.
Leading up to the Grand Prix, I suggested in this space that no team was capable of beating the silver cars on merit, that only extraordinary circumstances would deny Hamilton or Bottas the victory.
That’s certainly how it played out, with Mercedes revealing both drivers were forced to “lift and coast” for significant portions of the race to avoid having their cars overheat as the ambient temperature climbed to an unexpected 35 degrees Celsius in the Styrian mountains.
The cooling issues were not new, apparently; team boss Toto Wolff said “we were carrying the problem since the beginning of the season” and efforts had begun to find a fix before the onset of intense summer temperatures.
Trouble is, these days, you never know what Mother Nature will throw at you and when, and Mercedes was caught out in Austria.
If what Wolff says is true, the good news for rivals is there is no easy remedy for an overheating F1 car. It’s not as simple as bolting on a bigger radiator. For one thing, there’s no room. And not just the engine needs to be cooled, but sensitive high-tech components front to back.
Of course, F1 cars are designed to account for varying weather conditions across a calendar that spans nine months and 21 venues around the world, from the Ardennes forest in Belgium to the desert in Bahrain. Bodywork “exits” can be peeled back to allow more air flow when necessary.
But these did not do the job for Mercedes in Austria, evidently. You can always punch more holes in the bodywork, but then you risk compromising aerodynamic performance. Turn down the engine and, well, you’re going to be slower. Lift and coast? Duh.
So it’s tricky. Lucky for Mercedes, temperatures should not be an issue this weekend at the Silverstone Circuit in central England. The forecast for race day calls for a high of 21 C, light cloud and a gentle breeze.
But next comes Hockenheim, in Germany, followed by Hungary, and who knows what’s in store at those places and beyond. Remember, France hit its highest recorded temperature — 45.9 C — amid the recent heat wave in Europe.
The good news for Mercedes and its fans is no team seems better at troubleshooting in a hurry. If there’s a problem, you sense a fix is never far behind, whereas others with similar resources can spend months or years spinning their wheels (ciao, Ferrari).
As for this weekend, the silver squad seems to be back on the right track, with Bottas topping the time sheets just ahead of Hamilton during Friday afternoon practice.
Several drivers veered off track as they struggled with reduced grip on a newly paved circuit and unpredictable gusts of wind that, as Williams driver George Russell put it, could “make you look like an idiot.”
Yes, Mother Nature can do that.
AT A GLANCE
British Grand Prix live coverage. Qualifying: Saturday at 8 a.m. on TSN3, TSN5; 8:45 a.m. on RDS. Race: Sunday at 7:30 a.m. on TSN3, TSN5; 8:30 a.m. on RDS.