Not since Mercedes acquired Brawn GP Formula 1 team in 2010, in what was their return to Formula One as a factory team, have they had such a bad pre-season test, but in Bahrain ahead of the F1 season start, the Silver Arrows has been poor.
Up until now, their biggest problems have been limited to the V8 era, where the engine cooling was working against them. During the winter, you could see how the colour of the vinyl in the area covering the exhaust passage changed colour with each passing day. In some years, they even had to pierce the bodywork to reduce the temperature.
But that didn’t hinder them from running normally in what was a mid-grid car. Let’s not forget that it only took them three races to get their first podium. But since the hybrid era, they have outperformed everyone else in an unbroken dominance year after year, from 2014 to 2020, with seven record-breaking manufacturers’ and drivers’ titles.
Then came 2021. The season of continuity and development freeze, the result of the cost containment measures caused by the covid-19 pandemic and its disastrous impact.
A lesser evil accepted in order to continue having Formula 1. The consequence? Mercedes’ worst pre-season, where they couldn’t show their speed, where Bottas and Hamilton suffered numerous exits off track. The current champions had the least amount of mileage during the three days.
Toto Wolff’s comments are reminiscent of previous years, when he has always struggled to shake off the status of favourite, unabashedly praising his rivals. But unlike in previous years, this time you could sense the worry in his behaviour. The reason? The gearbox.
Even with a lot of secrecy on the subject, it’s not clear whether it’s the gearbox itself, or something directly related to it. It is known that this is not a coincidence, as both Mercedes and Aston Martin, which has the same transmission, have suffered from it, and not just on one occasion.
It was not a fatal breakdown, as Bottas and Vettel were able to take the car back to the pits, but what the German driver’s on-board camera revealed was the inability to change gear. The former Ferrari driver entered the pit lane at a constant speed in fourth gear, and it was in fourth gear that he stopped.
The time Aston Martin and Mercedes have wasted changing what is, in theory, a fairly straightforward fix, is a sign that they are gathering data on why it is breaking and why it has become such a vulnerable part of the car.
Will Mercedes be able to find the solution before the first race? They have already done so. But the truth is that with so few test miles, there may still be doubts about where the problems lie, and more importantly, there are barely 100 miles of track day left that Mercedes has saved before the start of the World Championship, perhaps not enough to be certain of the solution. And to make matters worse, this year there will be one less hour of free practice on Grand Prix weekends.
Williams has been criticised many times for its stubbornness in working in the same way as 20 years ago. That is, buying engines, but making everything else themselves. This criticism has been levelled mainly because of the good performance of Force India and Racing Point, who have bought as many components as possible from Mercedes: engine blocks, gearboxes and rear suspension.
Ironically, it is this stubbornness that explains why Mercedes’ problems this season have not impacted on Grove’s team, which continues to manufacture its own gearbox. A situation, incidentally, that will change in 2022, when the new Williams management team has decided that the best thing for the team is to do as Aston Martin, Haas or Alfa Romeo do and buy all the parts that are purchasable.
A very similar case to McLaren, who are also known to manufacture a large number of parts, including the gearbox, which has allowed Woking to complete pre-season testing without incident, despite the extra work involved in integrating a Mercedes power unit into a chassis designed for a Renault engine.