Does he really mean it? We’ve heard it all before, haven’t we? But this time Lewis Hamilton’s annual claim that Mercedes-AMG is struggling might not actually be sandbagging baloney. No, really.
The already revised 2022 W13 made headlines at the start of the final three-day pre-season test in Bahrain for its freshly revealed shrink-wrapped proportions, but by the final day on Saturday the message was centred only around its performance – or to be more accurate the lack of it.
In contrast, the world of arch rival Red Bull Racing looked forebodingly calm and assured, especially on that final day when Max Verstappen set the fastest time of the week – and comfortably so – after the team’s own major aerodynamic upgrade. Drawing any kind of solid conclusions from testing is covered by all the usual caveats, but… Red Bull appears to be heading into the opening race of 2022 this weekend in excellent shape. As does a consistent and quick Ferrari. As does, possibly, Alpine. But Mercedes? If Hamilton and George Russell really were just trying to throw us all off the scent they’re worthy of a Bafta.
Day 1: shrunken Mercedes causes a storm
Mercedes certainly did steal the show on the first day in Bahrain. Speculation that its new W13 would feature heavy revisions from the version that ran in Barcelona two weeks ago proved on the money, as the team wheeled out a dramatically different car that some wags compared in appearance to the Mauro Forghieri-designed Lamborghini 291 driven by Eric van de Poele and Nicola Larinin back in 1991… It was the heavily shrunken sidepods that triggered the unlikely link. These, plus the integration of the side-impact structures to mount the (literal) wing mirrors, became the talk of the paddock, with F1 sporting boss Ross Brawn admitting, “There’s no doubt that the Mercedes concept we didn’t anticipate. It’s a very extreme interpretation of the regulations.”
Naturally, questions of legality were thrown up, with Red Bull’s Christian Horner appearing careful with his words in the wake of strong initial quotes he backed away from that had been published in the German media. “It looks interesting but it’s not about how it looks it’s about how fast it goes,” pointed out driver George Russell. “It caught quite a few people’s eyes this morning. I am proud to be part of a team that is pushing innovation and seeing something pretty spectacular being pulled off is pretty incredible.”
On track, Pierre Gasly topped the times for AlphaTauri with a lap in 1 minute 33.902 seconds, set on the softest compound of Pirelli tyres. The Ferraris of Carlos Sainz Jr. and Charles Leclerc were next, ahead of Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin. The Mercs were only ninth and 11th, Russell ahead of Hamilton – but times are fairly meaningless in tests, with each team running to its own programme that makes comparisons near-impossible. The session came to a halt eight minutes early following a spin for Sergio Pérez.
Day 2: Haas fastest (yes, really) during extended running
A delay on its freight arriving was just another challenge faced by the Haas team, which has been thrown into such upheaval this pre-season. The team was granted extra running at the end of Friday, after the other teams finished their session – and the returning Kevin Magnussen, surprise replacement for exiled Russian Nikita Mazepin, actually set the fastest time of the day: a 1m 33.207s, 0.3s faster than the normal-time pacesetter Carlos Sainz Jr. Entirely incomparable to anyone else, of course, but at least the team had managed some representative running and on its own terms. Magnussen inevitably felt the strain in his neck after his first F1 laps in more than a year. Racing IMSA DPi sportscars, as he has been doing for the past year, are a fair bit less demanding.
Sainz set his time for Ferrari with 90 minutes of the afternoon session remaining, knocking Alpine’s Esteban Ocon off the top. The Frenchman had been fastest in the morning, but had been forced to stop his car out on the circuit at one point as a precautionary measure over reliability fears, bringing out the red flags. Still, he completed more than 100 laps and in the final order ended up fifth overall, behind Sainz, Verstappen, Stroll and Hamilton.
The biggest reliability problem hit Williams, with Nicolas Latifi stopping when a fire broke out on his FW44 in the morning. He’d only managed 12 laps – but that was a dozen more than Daniel Ricciardo, the McLaren driver missing testing entirely having tested for Covid-19.
Day 3: Verstappen and Red Bull show their hand
The Red Bull upgrade kept Verstappen and Perez waiting a little while as the team rushed to prepare the car, but once they were able to hit the track they didn’t waste time showing just how effective it was. Verstappen’s fastest lap – of the week – was a time of 1m 31.720s and was set on the softest of Pirelli’s compounds after a spin on the previous lap. And it was 0.6s faster than next best Leclerc on the slightly harder C4s. Just as significantly, there was an obvious sense of satisfaction emanating from the Red Bull garage and check out this line from the Friday press release issued by the team. “It’s all very positive,” said chief engineer Guillaume Rocquelin. “We were reasonably competitive at the end without even trying.” That last bit… sounds confident, doesn’t it?
As for Hamilton, many will be taking what he said with a large pinch of salt, but during the mid-session press conference on Saturday he sure sounded genuine. “At the moment I don't think we will be competing for wins,” he said. “There is potential within our car to get us there. We just have to learn to be able to extract it and fix some of the problems, which is what we're working on. Next week we will get a much better showing of our pace, but I think people will be surprised maybe. Or at least people keep talking about us talking ourselves down. But it’s a bit different this year.”
Visually, the ‘porpoising’ bounce that had been characteristic in most cars in Barcelona was still a problem in Bahrain, but most notably for Mercedes. The Red Bull, in contrast, didn’t seem to bounce at all. Adrian Newey, after all, was around the last time F1 had ground-effect grand prix cars…
Ferrari genuinely looks consistently competitive, Alpine looks strong too. McLaren? Beyond Ricciardo’s illness, trouble keeping the front brakes cool in Bahrain undermined the team’s progress. But let’s see this weekend. The true picture will only begin to emerge during qualifying on Saturday afternoon. It’s all beautifully poised – and fabulously unpredictable.