With Mercedes seemingly on the back foot after a troubled pre-season test, there are some early indications that Lewis Hamilton’s quest for Formula 1 title glory this year could be his toughest of the V6 era yet.

Before pre-season testing got underway in Bahrain, there was a general consensus, or even an expectation, that Mercedes and Hamilton would simply continue their domination of the V6 hybrid era into 2021. Especially given the significant carryover of mechanical parts between last season and this one. 

But a combination of factors, including a challenging winter for Mercedes, suggests that just maybe, Hamilton’s bid to win an unprecedented eighth drivers’ world title this year might not be so straightforward…

Coming back from COVID-19

Hamilton has spent the winter getting back up to full health and regaining his fitness after contracting coronavirus last December and missing the penultimate race of the season. 

The 36-year-old put in an uncharacteristically low-key performance to finish third in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, before saying he was “happy to be alive” after admitting the virus had left him feeling “destroyed”. 

In an Instagram post later that month, Hamilton revealed he had lost 4kg after testing positive for COVID-19 as he began his bid to get back to full strength and build up muscle mass as part of his winter training regime.

Lance Stroll, who was ruled out of October’s Eifel Grand Prix with an illness that was later diagnosed as COVID-19, recently admitted he had underestimated the toll that the virus had on him, citing it played a part in his downturn in form at the following races due to the impact on both his physical and mental fitness. 

Hamilton has not disclosed whether he is still suffering from any lingering after-effects, but he appeared fully fit and healthy in Bahrain during pre-season testing as he looks to put the virus well and truly behind him.


A future distraction

Hamilton’s future was the subject of months of speculation last year, and following a number of delays, negotiations ultimately spilled over into 2021. 

The long-running saga finally reached a conclusion at the start of February, when just five weeks before winter testing, Mercedes announced that Hamilton had put pen to paper on a fresh one-year contract

Naturally, the length of Hamilton’s extension has only acted to fuel further speculation about what he will decide to do in 2022 and beyond. 

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has stressed he is keen to start talks much earlier this year to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2020, but finding the time to do that during a record-breaking 23-round campaign could prove difficult. 

Hamilton’s future is likely to become a talking point at every race weekend this year, but he insists he does not believe it will put him under any additional pressure amid his bid to win an eighth world title. 

Asked whether he fears that continued talk about his contract could become a distraction for him, Hamilton replied: “Time will tell, I guess, but it's not like it's my first rodeo. 

"I think I've been in this position where at least I've been asked the question for a period of time. I don't really feel pressured in that sense.

“Naturally, I continue to have huge belief in and always bet on myself in terms of, I know what it takes to deliver."

Maintaining constant consistency 

One of the key factors behind Hamilton's remarkable run of recent success that has seen him clinch four consecutive world championships titles has been his incredible consistency and ability to maintain his high level of performance year-in, year-out. 

While Hamilton is seemingly able to reach new heights of performance with every season that passes despite being in his mid-30s and closer to the end of his career than the start, that didn’t stop him from admitting that the bid to hit such standards of excellence each year is of the “biggest challenges an athlete faces.” 

“Consistently coming back each year, that is one of the biggest challenges an athlete in the world faces,” he explained. “The goal is always to try and improve and not drop the ball in the other areas that you’re strong at. 

“Focus on weak areas while still keeping the others strong, and I can tell you that it’s not an easy task. There’s been times where I’ve improved in some areas and other areas have dipped a bit.

“A lot of it is also collaboration. It’s working with your engineers, challenging your engineers, having them challenge you in areas in which they feel they can see better ways of working together.

“It goes back to energy levels, fitness and mental health,” Hamilton added. “I think all these really important key factors and elements that we have to try and keep firing on all cylinders. 

“Naturally we are on the edge as athletes and competitors being in competition and so that’s a very difficult balance to strike.”

Mercedes’ most challenging winter yet 

Mercedes looks to be in trouble after its most challenging pre-season test of the V6 hybrid era. 

Not only was the team beset with reliability issues that limited Mercedes to the fewest mileage of any team this winter, but the three-day test also highlighted there are problems with its updated W12 car linked to new aero rule tweaks at the rear-end of the floor. 

Both Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton reported handling and balance issues as they often battled to keep their car on track and pointing in the right direction. The struggles were capped off by two spins for Hamilton on consecutive days - acting as further disruption to an already difficult situation which led team boss Toto Wolff to liken Mercedes’ issues to finding hair in the soup

Asked what he felt was Mercedes’ biggest struggle going into the season, Hamilton said: “Probably everywhere. 

“I wouldn’t call it a struggle necessarily, just not quick enough. Just seems globally through the lap; there’s not one particular point more than the other.”

Mercedes says its data points towards it being slower than Red Bull and facing problems to solve, with only a little over a week to find solutions ahead of the opening race in Sakhir. 

Despite rumours of a potential upgrade or rake change being trialled during a filming day on Tuesday in Bahrain, Mercedes insisted its outing was exactly as advertised - a 100km restricted promotional event to collect in-house footage for sponsors. 

While it is way too early to suggest Mercedes is in disaster territory, the reigning world champions certainly appear to be heading into 2021 on the back foot. 


Revived Red Bull and a closer field 

Amid Mercedes’ problems, Red Bull appeared to have the edge in pre-season testing. 

Max Verstappen looked confident both in and out of the car as he produced the fastest time of the winter on the final day of running in Red Bull’s new RB16B which features an upgraded Honda power unit as the Japanese manufacturer goes all out in its bid to help deliver a first world championship triumph for the Milton Keynes squad since 2013.

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Perhaps what will give Red Bull the most encouragement was Verstappen’s promising hints that suggested the team has successfully eradicated the skittish tendencies of the team’s 2020 predecessor, with the RB16B not only looking fast but very drivable.

With Hamilton only really having to contend with the challenge coming from his teammate in the last two seasons, it would be fascinating to see a 2018-esque, year-long scrap against a Red Bull team strengthened by the arrival of F1's newest race-winner Sergio Perez

There are also some promising signs that the field has converged even more in what is one of F1’s most stable seasons ever, leading to the prospect of an even tighter midfield battle this year. Should Mercedes’ troubles turn out to be serious, it could even find itself facing more competition from the likes of McLaren, which has been boosted by Mercedes power for 2021.

Will this be the year Red Bull takes it to Mercedes and we finally get that mouth-watering, heavyweight title fight that has been teased between Hamilton and Verstappen? We don’t have much longer to find out.

 

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