Why Mercedes were deluded over their COTA upgrade

Mercedes came into the USA GP weekend believing their car would be much closer to the Red Bull due to improvements they’d engineered. And whilst on Friday in qualifying, it looked as thoughts may be the case, come Saturday the former world champions were in for a rude awakening.

The Friday afternoon drama came during the second run in qualifying when approaching the start of his final push lap, Verstappen allowed the car to go sideways into the final corner. The Dutch driver then locked up into turn one and for the rest of te lap was playing catch up.



Verstappen por qualifying in COTA

As he pushed to recover the lost time, Maxmisjudged the approach to turn 19 leaving the track limits on the exit. The infringement saw his lap time deleted and the Ferrari of Charles Leclerc claim pole position.

Hamilton finished P3 and was just a tenth and a half behind Leclerc though admitted his lap was not perfect. Yet come Saturday Mercedes and Lewis were in for another shock as they discovered all their efforts back at the factory had done little to close the gap to Red Bull.

Hamilton finished Sprint qualifying again behind Leclerc, though this time Verstappen completed the best time of the session and started the race in the afternoon on pole position.

The top four teams were covered by remarkably just one tenth of a second giving hope the gap to Red Bull had been closed somewhat. Yet the Sprint race itself proved to be a completely different story.



Mercedes believed they were closer to RB

Whilst Hamilton managed to pass Leclerc into turn one and stay within a second of Verstappen for several laps, the final result saw the world champion finish a devastating 9.465seconds ahead of the Mercedes after just 19 laps of racing. Had this been a Grand Prix that gap could easily have been close to 30 seconds.

So why did Mercedes and Ferrari believe they were in fact much closer to Reed Bull than in fact they were?

McLaren boss Andreas Stella believes the evidence of the Sprint sessions proves in qualifying Red Bull’s real advantage over the opposition is obscured.

“We have seen that when some of the cars get some grip from the soft tyres, certainly McLaren, we can almost close the gap to Red Bull – like in a Q3 session or the sprint shootout Q3,” explained Stella.

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McLaren boss explains the gap

“But I think it was apparent already, even in the shootout on medium [tyres], that they had this advantage.

“Then, in the races, as soon as the tyres degrade and you have less grip available, you see that they can extract the real advantage from their car.”

A look back at the SQ2 session when all the cars were on the medium compound tyre proves Stella’s theory. Verstapen was in this session 0.205 seconds quicker than the second placed driver, but his advantage in SQ3 on the softs over Leclerc in P2 was a mere 0.055 seconds.

Of course in qualifying the teams run either just one or a handful of laps on the tyres but in the race the dominance of the Red Bull over a much longer sit becomes apparent.

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High degradation tracks favour RB

“This is twofold,” said Stella. “I think the car works well in low grip conditions and it also works well in terms of being gentle on the tyres.

“I think we’re actually understanding quite a bit why nowadays, when you look at Red Bull, why having to run the car in a certain way, makes it more aggressive to the tyres. And this is something we are working on.

“On tracks like this, where [tyre] degradation is so high, then I wasn’t really surprised to see that this happened and they had this kind of advantage.”

“If you only look at new tyres, especially the new soft, you may be under the illusion that ‘oh, we’ve closed the gap.’

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Verstappen reveals purpose of RB19

“But it’s just because of the premium you’ll get from a new soft tyre. And then once you are in the race, you see that in the sprint he was really managing the pace.”

Last time out in Qatar when the teams were forced to run a series of Sprint races due to tyre concerns, Verstappen won the Grand Prix by just around 5 seconds. 

He explained the gap was much smaller following the race because the RB19 has been designed to manage its tyres well over longer stints and so much of that advantage in Qatar had been lost.

Further, Red Bull boss Christian Horner said after the COTA Sprint the team have focused on producing a car for racing conditions, even when that means qualifying may be compromised.

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Horner believes little has changed

“We’ve seen a theme throughout the year that we’ve weighted very much the development of RB19 to race runs,” he said.

“To win that sprint race today by 9.5s in 19 laps is, again, a demonstration that the car’s very good on its tyres.

“There is always going to be an element of trade of not taking too much out of the car on the tyre on a Sunday or in a race, versus taking it out on one lap in quali.

“I think that it’s been a very strong Saturday for us. Not only did we get the pole, albeit by half a tenth, we’ve also had a very strong race performance. That’s sort of backed up the theme of the year,” he concluded.

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Mercedes et al focus for 2024 cars

Mercedes were deceived by the short qualifying stints into believing they had closed the gap to Red Bull, when in fact they haven’t.

The catchup upgrades they and others need to bring to their 2024 cars must be focused on the longer run capabilities and not glory qualifying runs.

READ MORE: Norris calls out Merc drivers known to be cheating

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