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Formula 1

Mid-Season Report: Mercedes aren't cracking under pressure

With the teams all now on their mid-term breaks, it's time to look at their first-half performances and hand out their grades. Let's take a look at Mercedes...

Article
To news overview © Mercedes

With Mercedes' W12 having a (by Mercedes standards) calamitous pre-season test in Bahrain, it's somewhat surprising that the team manage to lead both championships at the halfway point.

Given that the 2021 championship is the last in the current regulation cycle before the huge changes next season, it would have been very easy (and considerably cheaper) for Mercedes to just let Red Bull breeze their way to this year's title and ensure they're in the best place possible for the medium-term future.

But that's not the Mercedes way, and they've set about causing Red Bull as big a headache as possible.

Realising that the W12 wasn't quite up to standard, the team brought updates that, arguably, have made the car the slightly quicker of the two championship challengers.

It's the first time that Mercedes have been put under proper pressure in a few years and, possibly, much more pressure than the Ferrari rivalry given the new factor of the budget cap. But Mercedes haven't been cowed by Red Bull's pace and have fought back, as well as capitalising on some Red Bull misfortune, to give themselves the high ground at the summer break.

Grade: A-

Mercedes don't look as unstoppable or as unbeatable as they have in recent years, and have also been guilty of a few strategic faux pas. The team were caught off guard by the aggressive strategies of those behind them in Monaco, dooming Hamilton to seventh place, while the decision to start the Hungarian GP on intermediates cost them the victory.

But Mercedes appear to be on the ascendancy, having locked out the front row in Hungary, and now head to traditionally strong venues at Spa-Francorchamps and Monza.

High point: The Spanish Grand Prix saw Hamilton and Mercedes at their very best. Rather than sitting back and settling for second best while hoping for a Red Bull error, Mercedes put their faith in Hamilton and caught Red Bull out with a quick switch to a two-stop strategy.

With Red Bull unable to respond without losing position, Hamilton reeled in Verstappen relentlessly and was able to pass the Dutch driver with ease once he latched onto the back of the Red Bull. A great call from Mercedes, and an excellent execution from Hamilton.

Low point: Monaco. Mercedes weren't completely out of contention, with Valtteri Bottas able to keep Verstappen under some sort of pressure until his disastrous pit-stop.

While the blame appears to have landed on Bottas' shoulders for not lining up exactly correctly in the pit box, rounding off the bolt doesn't seem something that should be the Finn's responsibility. For whatever reason the error was made, Mercedes threw away a second place.

Further back, Hamilton never really got to grips with Monte Carlo this season and a strategic error from Mercedes saw him fall behind unfancied cars like Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly. Clinching just a seventh place while Verstappen won, it was a particularly galling weekend for Mercedes.

Lewis Hamilton: 2021 is proving his fallibility, as well as his quality

Winning a race that the team shouldn't have even been in contention for in Bahrain seemed to set Lewis Hamilton's stall out early, and underlined why the multiple World Champion continues to be F1's benchmark.

But Hamilton immediately followed up that incredible performance with one of the biggest errors he'd made in years. Sliding off the road at Imola while pursuing Verstappen looked set to doom him to a lowly points finish, until a fortunate red flag saved his race.

There's been other 'lucky' results, such as Hamilton escaping damage in the Silverstone clash with Max Verstappen, as well as being the only frontrunner to escape the first-lap chaos in Hungary.

Another glaring error was the one which saw him throw away a potential win in Baku, and the haunted look in his eyes afterward showed that he knew he had failed to capitalise on Red Bull's misfortunes that day.

But there's also been some immense drives to underline that it's not just luck that has kept Hamilton in the title fight. Portugal saw Mercedes enjoy a small pace advantage that Hamilton used to overtake both Verstappen and Bottas on track, while Spain, as explained above, was magic from both driver and team.

Grade: B+

Given the mistakes and fortune he's had this year, it's impossible to give Hamilton an A rating for the first half of the season. While he's been an omnipresent force at the front, the first eleven races have shown that, without a dominant car, Hamilton is as fallible as anyone.

His uncanny ability to continue ekeing out the results despite these errors mean he can never be written off, but there's no question that the reigning champion has made more mistakes than the man attempting to usurp him from the throne.

Valtteri Bottas: The Finn continues to underwhelm

Valtteri Bottas' 2021 is largely a continuation of what we've all grown to know and wanly joke about in recent years.

Despite the equipment at hand, Bottas simply can't exploit the machinery in the same way that Hamilton is able to and shows little sign of trying to fight back against his illustrious teammate.

Sure, there's been misfortune such as the Monaco disaster, but Bottas' limp defence against Hamilton in Portimao and against Verstappen in France continue to reflect the Finn's passive nature.

And, on his really bad days, Bottas completely disappears. Genuinely racing against George Russell's Williams at Imola resulted in a monumental crash on a day where he was going to be lucky to score points, while Baku was a mystifying experience for everyone as he dropped to a bewildering 15th place after being overtaken by almost everyone.

Unwittingly doing a great job for Mercedes by taking out Hamilton's rival in Hungary has resulted in a grid penalty for Spa, and is unlikely to have won him much favour, despite the outcome, as the team decide on his future.

Of course, his willingness to play the team game continues to be a major plus in his favour, given the question marks over whether Russell would be as willing to play a supporting role.

But, with Mercedes no longer dominant, there's no guarantee of Bottas being able to slot in behind Hamilton anymore, and nor is there any guarantee of him being a safe pair of hands.

Grade: D

Valtteri continues to show that he's undeserving of top-level machinery, and has been completely eclipsed by Hamilton this season.

Imagine if Hamilton was suddenly sidelined and the team had to rely on Bottas to lead their championship challenge. It's truly difficult to imagine that he would be up to the task.

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