Engine dilemma for Mercedes

Engine reliability concerns threaten to derail Lewis Hamilton’s 2021 title bid. 

Mercedes admitted to having “question marks” over its remaining power units at the Russian Grand Prix, where Valtteri Bottas took a new engine and subsequent grid drop for the second race in a row. 

Hamilton changed on to his third and final permitted power unit of the season at the Belgian Grand Prix in August, but is left with just two engines in his pool after losing a higher-mileage unit during practice at Zandvoort. 

That has left Mercedes facing the likely prospect of needing to add a fourth engine to Hamilton’s pool to ensure he can make it to the end of the season without risking a costly reliability failure during a grand prix. 

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With Mercedes desperate to avoid a potentially title-deciding retirement, the likelihood of installing a new power unit and triggering a subsequent penalty is increasing. 

Mercedes is weighing up its options of where would be best to take the hit, with Toto Wolff admitting that a strategic engine change at this weekend’s Turkish Grand Prix is a “possibility” for Hamilton, who leads Max Verstappen by just two points in their intense championship battle. 

Mercedes won at Turkey last year and with Istanbul being a circuit where overtaking is possible, it may provide an easier place to pull off a successful recovery drive through the field, as Verstappen managed in Sochi last time out. 

But will Mercedes want to gift a potential win to Red Bull at a track where it stands a good chance of beating its nearest rivals in a straight fight, or instead wait until it gets to a weaker circuit such as Mexico or Brazil? 

Who will hold the edge at the front? 

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With seven rounds remaining this season, the competitive picture looks intriguing and extremely hard to predict. 

On paper, Mercedes should be strong at Turkey given it won last year’s race, but Verstappen was quickest in the dry on Friday and appeared on course to take pole position before rain opened the door for Lance Stroll to pull off a shock result. 

Hamilton has an excellent record in Austin but the higher-altitude circuits in Mexico and Brazil have tended to play to the strengths of Red Bull’s car in recent years.

New tracks in Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the big unknowns, while Mercedes’ unbeaten streak in Abu Dhabi finally came to an end in last year’s season finale when Verstappen claimed a dominant victory. 

With the margins so fine at the front of the field in this year’s title race, it is anyone’s guess as to who will come out on top at any given weekend. All that is certain is that every point will be crucial. 

“You could say it’s 50-50 in what’s left on the table in what favours slightly one more team than the other,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said following the Russian GP. 

How will Norris respond to Sochi heartbreak? 

After suffering late heartbreak in Russia after missing the chance to convert a maiden pole position into his first victory, it will be fascinating to see how Lando Norris responds to his disappointment in Turkey. 

The 21-year-old often bounces back from setbacks well, and McLaren should be in strong form once again around Istanbul Park, though it is realistically unlikely to be in a position to be able to repeat a challenge for victory. 

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The McLaren-Ferrari battle for third place in the constructors’ is set to continue to rage this weekend, with the two teams separated by 17.5 points going into the final seven races. 

While McLaren has tended to hold the upper hand recently, Charles Leclerc debuted Ferrari’s upgraded power unit at Sochi. We should get a clearer reading into the extent of its performance gains this weekend. 

Teammate Carlos Sainz is expected to have the new engine installed into his Ferrari, a move that will consign him to a back-of-the-grid start. 

If that is the case, Leclerc will find himself in a lone fight against the McLaren duo in the scrap for midfield supremacy, with Daniel Ricciardo continuing his upward trajectory following his breakthrough victory at Monza

Can Perez turn things around? 

Sergio Perez has endured a rough patch of form ever since re-signing for Red Bull over the summer, scoring points in just three of the last six races. His tally of 16 points is the same as that managed by Williams driver George Russell since the British Grand Prix.

The Mexican continues to be let down by his qualifying displays, which have often left him playing catch up in the races. Despite some strong showings on Sundays, Perez has not finished higher than fifth at the Italian Grand Prix across the past six events. 

He was on course for just his third podium for Red Bull in Sochi but tumbled down the order after staying out too long on slicks when late rain fell and turned the race on its head. 

Nevertheless, Perez remains determined he can turn things around in the final races of 2021 and is eyeing a return to the podium in Turkey this weekend. 

“We did a lot of work after Russia to analyse what went wrong and what went right and where we can look to improve,” Perez said in Red Bull’s Turkish GP preview. 

“I have spent some more time on the sim ahead of Turkey too, so we have done some pretty intense homework for this weekend. 

“I am looking forward to the last seven races now and I am sure our luck will turn, we are performing well on track but now we must show that with our results on a Sunday, I want to be back on the podium this weekend.”

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