The Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, has said he welcomes the challenge from Red Bull after his team were soundly beaten in the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen took victory at Silverstone on Sunday with a superb drive beating the world champion, Lewis Hamilton, into second and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas into third. Wolff believes all three drivers are now genuine contenders for the title.
Verstappen pulled off a commanding win in a race where the Mercedes was revealed to have a problem with its tyres wearing and losing performance very quickly. With their rubber blistering at Silverstone they could not match Red Bull’s pace and Verstappen’s victory moved him up to second in the championship.
The Red Bull driver is now 30 points behind Hamilton and four in front of Bottas in the world title race. The gap to Hamilton would be even closer had Verstappen not been forced to retire with an electrical problem in the first round at Austria.
“We embrace the challenge and love to fight,” said Wolff. “They are a strong competitor and Max is a very good driver. If you consider they had a DNF, without that [the lead] would be five points not 30.
“We are up for a fight and it looks like it could be a tough season between the three of them. I wouldn’t write off Valtteri. There are maybe 10 more races to go. DNFs can quickly make a points swing and it could be much more interesting than many people were afraid of two weeks ago.”
Up until this round Mercedes had demonstrated an ominous superiority this season. They were comfortably quickest at the opening four races, all of which they won. There had already been discussion over whether they might win every race this year. Wolff, however, insisted Mercedes had never anticipated an easy ride.
“I enjoy the situation because everyone said it would be a walk in the park for Mercedes,” Wolff said. “It wasn’t a walk in the park. We didn’t have the quickest car and maybe not even the second quickest car.”
Mercedes were dominant at the previous race, the British Grand Prix, held the week before at Silverstone. But a combination of circumstances on Sunday exposed the weakness of their car this time. At the British Grand Prix both Mercedes had tyre failures late in the race. It dropped Bottas from second to 11th and Hamilton only just managed to bring his car home for the win on three wheels.
Pirelli investigated the tyres and found no structural fault, rather that the teams had run them to the limit of their endurance. For the 70th Anniversary GP, as had been long planned, the softer compound of rubber was employed and Pirelli mandated higher tyre pressures to decrease the risk of any failure. Temperatures at Silverstone were also higher on Sunday and for the first time the Mercedes, which generates huge downforce and pace especially through fast corners, was shown to be fearsomely hard on its tyres, wearing them to the point where their performance was impaired.
Wolff acknowledged the circumstances had not suited their car. “We had indications in the past that our relative gap was not as large when it was hot. It is a little bit simplistic to just say it’s hotter. It comes down to the fact we have a car with high downforce. When conditions change, parameters change, temperatures going up, compounds getting softer, pressures going up, we have to acknowledge that the Red Bull is a pretty fast car.”
The next round takes place in Barcelona next weekend, where temperatures are forecast to be high and the circuit shares similarly fast corners with Silverstone. But the tyre compounds will be one step harder, as they were for the British GP which is in Mercedes’ favour. Wolff was nonetheless determined to investigate how the team could mitigate its weaknesses.
“We have a handful of days to find out what exactly caused our issues, come up with solutions, test them in Barcelona and then hopefully have a better race on Sunday. It will be challenging, but we’ve had these days in the past and came out stronger.”
The softer compound of tyres will be used again at both the Belgian and Italian grands prix, the two rounds after Spain, and both are circuits where high loads are generated through fast corners.