Formula 1

Mika Hakkinen: Vettel and Leclerc can challenge Mercedes every weekend but they need support

April 16, 2019January 6th, 2022

LEWIS Hamilton’s 75th Formula One victory on Sunday once again demonstrated the strengths of the Mercedes team, strengths which have seen it dominate the sport since 2014. A great technical package, superb support from the team and the competitive team spirit which exists between Hamilton and team mate Valtteri Bottas.

This also helped to show how much work Ferrari still has to do – developing a car quick enough to dominate qualifying, having a clearly defined race strategy and eliminating any potential for conflict between their drivers.

Valtteri Bottas’ pole position on Saturday underlined the speed and mindset he has developed in challenging Hamilton. It was a perfect job, well delivered, and with Mercedes locking out the front row of the grid it left Ferrari and Red Bull Racing with a lot of work to do on Sunday.

In the end, Mercedes was never going to be beaten. Hamilton made a better start, thanks in part to having a lot of rubber laid down on the second grid slot. Normally the second slot on the grid is not ideal because you are off the racing line and the track is dusty. This time, however, you could see there was a lot of black rubber from previous race starts, including Hamilton’s own practice start, and he made the most of it.

From then on Hamilton and Bottas controlled the race perfectly, scoring Mercedes’ 90th victory – a statistic which really underlines the dominance that they have enjoyed in this hybrid-engine era of Formula 1. In the second pit stop they even ‘double stacked’, which means both cars came into the pits at the same time, and the mechanics delivered a perfect double-pit stop; very impressive to watch. A great example of team work in action.

Charles Leclerc made a better start to the race than Ferrari team mate Sebastian Vettel and should really have been allowed to get on with it and take the fight to Bottas if he could. Instead he was asked to slow down and let Vettel past, which looked like a mistake.  

When you have a team as strong as Mercedes to beat there is no point playing games; Ferrari needs to stop focussing on themselves and start concentrating on beating the competition. In the battle to beat Mercedes no one should care whether it is Leclerc or Vettel who wins the race. I think Leclerc was right to be upset, because the subsequent strategy managed him back into fifth position, behind Max Verstappen’s Red Bull.  

Vettel and Leclerc have the potential to be the strongest competition to Mercedes every weekend, but they need to give the drivers the support, flexibility and focus to do that. Forget about team orders, concentrate on the team winning.

Red Bull Racing also made a mistake this weekend, failing to get their drivers across the line in time to start their final qualifying laps. Again this illustrates how good the systems and processes need to be, because you should never allow this to happen. A driver and his engineer need to know exactly how much time is required to cover each sector during an out-lap from the pits, so when something as basic as this goes wrong it means that someone has not been doing the calculations properly

Three races into 2019 and, in spite of Ferrari having the strongest engine and a good package, Mercedes continues to dominate. The mistakes of the other teams are helping them, and we must hope that Ferrari and Red Bull Racing can deliver a more consistent challenge in the races ahead.

Valtteri Bottas ought to have won last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix until a puncture robbed him of victory with only three laps of the race remaining. I feel sure he will go to Baku next week absolutely determined to win this one, re-establish his World Championship lead and continue the personal battle between himself and Hamilton.

Baku is an interesting track. Low grip, some very narrow sections and a very long straight which means drivers really have a good opportunity to overtake.

Red Bull Racing suffered the embarrassing collision between team mates Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo last year; a disaster which ultimately led to Ricciardo deciding to quit the team for Renault. I expect Verstappen to again be competitive, but it is likely to be Ferrari which challenges Mercedes for the win.

Charles Leclerc is Formula 1’s ‘man of the moment’ and, after suffering the frustration of losing the win in Bahrain due to technical failure followed by the team orders in China, he will be pushing hard for victory. He finished last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix in sixth place for Sauber, and in 2017 he qualified on pole position for the GP2 race and won the Feature Race.

As a result, while Vettel and 2018 winner Hamilton will definitely be going for the win, I think their team mates Leclerc and Bottas will provide us with a lot of excitement. That long straight will create plenty of opportunities to shake things up.