New real­ity? ‘We are the un­der­dogs’

MERCEDES F1 TEAM

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - JEROME PUG­MIRE MONACO —

It used to be a case of guess­ing the win­ning mar­gin for Mercedes in the con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onship, and a toss-up be­tween which of its two driv­ers would win the For­mula One ti­tle. Not any more. Sun­day’s Monaco Grand Prix clearly un­der­lined how Mercedes is not the force it was, with Lewis Hamil­ton, who has won two of his three world ti­tles with Mercedes, fin­ish­ing sev­enth and new re­cruit Valt­teri Bot­tas tak­ing fourth place.

Up ahead, Fer­rari clinched a clin­i­cal 1-2 fin­ish with Se­bas­tian Vet­tel beat­ing team­mate Kimi Raikko­nen and open­ing up a 25-point gap over Hamil­ton at the top.

Af­ter six of 20 races, this lead is not big enough to be alarm­ing. But the in­con­sis­tency of the Mercedes car cer­tainly is.

“We will be push­ing to fully un­der­stand it,” Hamil­ton said. “Be­cause we can’t be in this po­si­tion again.”

The next race is the Cana­dian GP in two weeks’ time, and all eyes will be on Mercedes in prac­tice and qual­i­fy­ing. That Hamil­ton even man­aged to take sev­enth place was a credit to his re­mark­able driv­ing abil­ity, see­ing as he started from way back in 13th place on the grid af­ter a calami­tous qual­i­fy­ing ses­sion in Monaco.

“Of course, I can’t af­ford an­other week­end like this, at the go­ing rate with the Fer­raris quick,” Hamil­ton said.

“We’ve got a real fight on our hands. We’ll be sure to push those red cars hard next time out in Canada.”

But the team is strug­gling to find an­swers. Head of mo­tor­sport Toto Wolff even called the Mercedes car “a diva” and a “mys­tery” be­cause of its tem­per­a­men­tal and un­pre­dictable na­ture.

“We have to work col­lec­tively as a team more than ever be­fore to beat the Fer­raris,” Hamil­ton said.

“Who knows what is go­ing to hap­pen?”

There is even talk that Mercedes may have to give pri­or­ity to one of its two driv­ers to ar­rest the cur­rent slide. At the mo­ment, both are of­fi­cially on an equal foot­ing and free to com­pete fully against each other — as Hamil­ton and Nico Ros­berg were over the last three years.

The unofficial talk is that Hamil­ton is the No. 1, ahead of Bot­tas — who had never won a race be­fore join­ing from Wil­liams to hur­riedly re­place Ros­berg.

But in Monaco, Bot­tas’ car looked much faster and more re­li­able, which would make it dif­fi­cult to give Hamil­ton the pri­or­ity at this stage.

“I re­ally have no idea,” Hamil­ton said. “Who knows? It might go the other way: I might need to give Valt­teri the up­per hand.”

The prob­lem of the Mercedes, ac­cord­ing to Bot­tas in his post-race de­brief, ap­pears to be an in­con­sis­tency be­tween the front and rear axle. In turn, this af­fects the per­for­mance of the tires, as was shown in Thurs­day’s sec­ond prac­tice ses­sion when Mercedes botched a switch to the faster ul­tra­soft com­pound and failed to get ei­ther driver into the seven quick­est times in P2. It was an em­bar­rass­ment for a car of such stand­ing.

Last year, Mercedes fin­ished nearly 300 points ahead of Red Bull in the con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onship, win­ning 19 of 21 races as Ros­berg pipped Hamil­ton to the ti­tle be­fore dra­mat­i­cally an­nounc­ing his re­tire­ment from F1. Fer­rari was an af­ter­thought, 367 adrift of Mercedes in third and scrap­ping for podium places rather than wins.

With new reg­u­la­tions de­signed to make cars wider, heav­ier and faster this year, Fer­rari seems to have worked won­ders in the fac­tory while Mercedes ap­pears to be go­ing back­ward.

“We are the un­der­dogs,” Wolff said. “This is the new real­ity.”

FRANK AUGSTEIN, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mercedes driver Valt­teri Bot­tas steers his car past the yachts at the Monaco Grand Prix on Sun­day.

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