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Mercedes

How Mercedes failed to capitalise on their favourites tag at Monza and Sochi

Mercedes failed to pull any sort of significant gap over Red Bull's Max Verstappen at the last two races, two circuits which were expected to be strongholds for the team.

Column
To news overview © Mercedes

"This feels like a win," is the general consensus from the Red Bull camp following the Russian Grand Prix.

Having expected to take quite a bit of pain over the Italian and Russian Grand Prix weekends, Max Verstappen emerged from the two races having almost managed to maintain status quo with title rival Lewis Hamilton.

Heading to Monza, Verstappen held a three-point lead over Hamilton and, leaving Sochi, is trailing the Mercedes driver by two points. Considering how Monza and Russia were supposed to be Mercedes' best opportunity to pull out a lead on the Red Bull driver, it's no surprise that the Dutchman's team are beaming.

So what happened that prevented Mercedes from capitalising on their pace at Monza and Sochi?

Italian Grand Prix

Heading to Monza, Mercedes were expected to be able to comfortably control proceedings. With the Mercedes power unit still the apparent benchmark, and power circuits usually playing into the team's hands, the weekend got off to a good start with a 1-2 in Friday's qualifying session.

Crucially, though, it was the wrong Mercedes on pole position. Despite providing a tow for Hamilton on the final runs in Q3, Hamilton failed to take pole position while Valtteri Bottas, in the lead car, improved his time to snatch top spot for Saturday's Sprint Qualifying race.

While Bottas had an engine penalty looming due to having a new power unit fitted, he was able to line up at the front of the field for the Sprint race. The Finn controlled it perfectly from start to finish, but the same couldn't be said for Hamilton.

As has been seen with a few errors this season, Hamilton failed to nail his start. Watching Bottas sail off into a serene lead, Hamilton fell down the order to sixth place after making a crucial clutch setting error as he tried to get off the line. Gaining a place back as AlphaTauri's Pierre Gasly crashed out with front wing failure, Hamilton remained cooped up behind McLaren's Lando Norris for the entirety of that race.

Experiencing something called 'engine clipping', Red Bull's Christian Horner couldn't hide his glee at seeing how much the W12 was struggling to overtake.

"When they're running sustainably they're harvesting a lot, what we call clipping, so at the end of the straights you see the rear light flashing and that just kills your straight-line speed," Horner told Sky Sports.

"You could see Lewis getting within half a second, which is usually an overtake, but just running out of momentum at the end of the straight."

With Verstappen content to take second in the Sprint race and score two points to extend his lead out to five, he inherited pole position for the Grand Prix, while Bottas moved to the back due to his grid penalty, and Hamilton was elevated to fourth.

An unusual tactic of starting on the Hard tyre almost worked out perfectly for Hamilton as he challenged a slow-starting Verstappen on Lap 1, but fell back after being blocked at the second chicane. With Verstappen having an uncharacteristically slow start, his race unravelled further with a slow pit-stop that looked certain to put him behind Hamilton once the Mercedes pitted from the lead to ditch his Hard tyres.

But, like Red Bull, Mercedes fluffed the pit-stop. This meant that Hamilton emerged onto the track directly alongside Verstappen, instead of well ahead. This allowed the Red Bull to get a run on him and try the ultimately futile overtaking move that knocked both drivers out of the race.

It was a huge rollercoaster for Hamilton. Given that he had looked doomed to lose ground to Verstappen in the race, the Red Bull driver and team failing to nail their race opened a huge window of opportunity, only for Mercedes to cost themselves that opportunity with a slow stop that put them back within Verstappen's clutches.

At a track where Hamilton was predicted to win or outscore Verstappen, instead it was Verstappen who extended his championship lead to five points.

Russian Grand Prix

Arriving at a track where Mercedes have won, with relative ease, every single race in the hybrid era, the stars looked aligned for Hamilton in Sochi. With Verstappen out of the way with a three-place grid drop, even before the Friday engine change that put him to the very back, as well as Bottas saying he would 'take one for the team' as needed, it didn't look like there would be much challenge for Hamilton.

However, the fortuitous circumstances that usually seem to end up working in Hamilton's favour backfired on him as the weather took a turn for the worse on Saturday. Mercedes handled the wet conditions of Q1 and Q2 admirably but, as the track dried, Hamilton hit the pit wall and damaged his W12. Losing time as it was repaired, the pressure of the sole Soft tyre run seemed to get to him as he made another error that resulted in him starting from fourth place.

"It was just a mistake from myself. Ultimately, I'm incredibly disappointed in myself," Hamilton told Sky Sports after qualifying.

"Up until then, I was in the groove, I was really in the zone. I'm really sorry for all the team that are here, and back at the factory, because obviously that's not what you expect from a champion.

"It is what it is, and I'll do my best tomorrow to try and rectify it."

And rectify it Hamilton did, even though it wasn't without its own challenges. Cooped up behind McLaren's Daniel Ricciardo early on, the same 'clipping' issues seemed to arise, with Mercedes also suffering from understeer on both of their cars. Bottas, starting from 16th after being forced to take another new power unit, was quickly despatched by the recovering Verstappen, a huge moment in the race as the Red Bull powered past the Mercedes down the back straight.

Hamilton was staring at a second-place finish, behind Norris, until the rain arrived. Watching Verstappen dive into the pits, Mercedes leapt to respond to Red Bull's tactics, admitting that they were willing to sacrifice the victory just to ensure they finished ahead of Verstappen to outscore him.

In the end, this proved to be the right tactic anyway, with Hamilton able to catch and pass the struggling Norris to win. But Red Bull's canny switch to the Intermediates had earned them second place and a complete minimisation of the damage.

Even on a normal weekend, weather-wise, Red Bull's goal was to wrap up third place with Verstappen after his engine penalty. To be able to come home in second, get the penalty out of the way, and do it at a track where Mercedes usually dominate – this is the type of performance and good fortune that balances out the misfortune of Baku.

Critically, with Hamilton only managing to outscore Verstappen by seven points to take a two-point lead, it now appears as though the balance of power will swing back towards Red Bull in the coming races. A potential engine grid penalty for Hamilton is on the cards, while the circuits themselves wouldn't suggest any at which Mercedes look more likely to enjoy an outright advantage.

Monza/Sochi represented the biggest challenge of the year for Red Bull and, having come through it still holding all the cards, it could be relatively smooth sailing from here...

"I've stopped trying to anticipate whether, historically, it's a strong race for us or not," Toto Wolff told select members of the media, including RacingNews365.com, after Russia.

"Because everything with the new regulations... everything changes, and has changed so much. But definitely, we knew that Monza and Sochi would be coming more towards us.

"The reality now is we are where we are and this is the points gap. I doubt that any of the two teams will make massive swings up or down, it's just about continuing to do the best possible job."

Lewis Hamilton claimed his 100th Grand Prix win to move into the championship lead, but it's Red Bull and Max Verstappen who will be happiest after the Russian Grand Prix.

RN365 News dossier F1 2021 Russian Grand Prix

The latest news about the Russian Grand Prix straight from Sochi

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