At the British Grand Prix, Mercedes weren’t expecting to do well, and they didn’t. Schumacher put in a strong qualifying performance for third on the grid in the rain, but in the dry race there was nothing he could do to stay near the front, and the illustrious German finished seventh, which was a reasonable result considering that Mercedes did not expect the car to be suited to the Silverstone circuit.
Ahead of today’s German Grand Prix, Schumacher stated “We have the most difficult race behind us”, referring, of course, to the British Grand Prix. Unfortunately for Schumacher it proved not to be so. He again put in a good performance in qualifying to take fourth place, and inherited third when Mark Webber took a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change. In the race, Schumacher was again unable to stay with the front-runners, and finished seventh, as had happened at Silverstone.
If Silverstone was expected to be the tough race of the season, and the W03 was supposed to be better suited to Hockenheim, then how is today’s result to be interpreted? It can only be that Mercedes have taken a step back.
After a poor start to the season, Ferrari have made massive strides forward, to the point that they now have possibly the quickest car, and definitely the quickest driver in Fernando Alonso. Red Bull have improved in recent races, and are on a similar level to Ferrari. McLaren struggled in Valencia and Great Britain, but bounced back in Germany with a significant upgrade package the obviously made a huge difference as Jenson Button finished second. Where is the development from Mercedes? They must be developing the car, otherwise they would be at the back of the field, but the improvements are not particularly evident on the race track.
With a four-week break coming up after next week’s Hungarian Grand Prix, it is possible that Mercedes are planning a significant upgrade for the first post-break race in Belgium. The W03 should in any case be quick at the high-speed Spa-Francorchamps track, and again at Monza for Italian Grand Prix. But the rest of the season is unlikely to be suited to the W03 as it is now, and so some action is required from the team.
Can Mercedes deliver a car capable of competing at the front? They did it in China. Perhaps they can do it again.
Michael Schumacher returned to Formula One in 2010, to great fanfare and expectation. Thus far, he has disappointed himself and his legions of fans. But his fortunes could be changing.
The primary reason for Schumacher’s lack of success since returning to the sport is the car. The 2010 Mercedes was off the pace. The 2011 car was quick in testing, but turned out to be slow during the season. In a sport as competitive as Formula One, a slow car makes victory all but impossible.
The 2012 Mercedes is something of a revelation. In pre-season testing, the car looked quick. Qualifying for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix showed good one-lap pace, as Schumacher qualified fourth. In Malaysia, he was third on the grid, and China saw Nico Rosberg leading the first all-Mercedes front row since the return of the Silver Arrows to Formula One.
Despite the car’s proven qualifying pace, there was a lingering concern that the W03 might not be able to look after its tyres in race conditions. Rosberg showed in resounding fashion that the car can be quick over a race distance and can manage tyre wear well, by comfortably winning the Chinese Grand Prix.
So the car is quick. In qualifying and race conditions. The team has proven it can put together a victorious race weekend. Schumacher has shown his pace in qualifying, and there is little doubt that he has the race pace to succeed. Unless Mercedes’ performance in China turns out to be a one-off, the product of perfect track conditions and set-up, Schumacher’s return to the top cannot be far away.
Mercedes will launch their new Formula One car, the W03, on Tuesday 21 February at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona. Theirs will be the last of the front-running cars to be revealed, and is therefore highly anticipated.
Mercedes chose not to run the W03 at the first test in Jerez. That decision is a little odd - with only 3 pre-season tests (12 days of testing) this year, the teams would ideally like to do as much running as possible with their new cars. Mercedes have deliberately limited the amount of pre-season testing they can do with their new car.
There are two plausible reasons for Mercedes to delay the launch of the W03. Firstly, the car might not have been ready for the first test. The team may simply have needed more time to prepare the car for the racetrack. In the case of the smaller teams, like Marussia and HRT, that is a likely scenario. For Mercedes, it seems fairly improbable. Mercedes has one of the largest budgets in Formula One and employs hundreds of the best people in the sport. It seems doubtful that they would get their build schedule wrong.
The other, more likely reason for the delay, is that Mercedes are hiding some sort of innovation on the car. If they have found a unique way to interpret the rules that gives them an advantage, they will be reluctant to show it off until absolutely necessary. They won’t want the other teams to copy their design too quickly, or the advantage will be lost.
Red Bull’s Adrian Newey is one of those who expects to see innovation on the W03. He told Sport Bild: “I assume that they want to hide something from the competition… It must be something that can be copied quite quickly; otherwise they wouldn’t try so hard to keep it secret.” Helmet Marko agreed with Newey, saying: “They seem to have something special at the front of the car.”
If Mercedes are hiding an interesting technical innovation on the W03, it won’t be hidden for long. The car will be launched in the pitlane in Barcelona on Tuesday morning, and driven shortly after by Michael Schumacher. There will be photographers and Formula One experts getting as close to the car as they can in order to find out what is going on. All should become clear quite soon.