Hockenheim hiccup for Hamilton would puncture Mercedes optimism

Lewis Hamilton’s new contract gave Mercedes a timely boost but Ferrari are functioning with a sharpness that has exposed and exploited their rivals’ weaknesses

There was, understandably, something of a celebratory air about Mercedes here in Hockenheim before they had even turned a wheel in anger at their home grand prix. The team had their man, they were pleased to announce on Thursday – Lewis Hamilton had finally put pen to paper. With the protracted wait for the British driver to renew his contract for a further two years concluded, there was an atmosphere of optimism and anticipation of greater glories emanating from the Mercedes motorhome.

The four-times world champion has taken three of his titles with Mercedes and expectations of further success are entirely realistic. But this season they are in the toughest fight they have encountered and, if the good cheer is to continue, the team need to step up now. Hamilton admitted in Germany they had to do better. “We’ve not won enough races this year,” he said. “We’ve done a really good job but we’ve definitely stumbled plenty of times. A small stumble this year is magnified because it’s so close.”

Hamilton manages himself and negotiated his own contract but now his focus is on the business in hand. There is a tough race ahead in Hockenheim and, while it may not be decisive in the championship battle, there is no little weight to the outcome of the German Grand Prix.

They return to a track where the British driver won at the last race here in 2016. That season his team were dominant and Hamilton was untouchable at Hockenheim, with Ferrari left scrabbling in their wake. Sebastian Vettel was a full second off Hamilton’s pole time and could finish only fifth in the race, more than 30 seconds back.

This year however Vettel and the Scuderia will be expecting much more and, if anything, the pressure is on Mercedes to perform in a race that increasingly looks like a must-win. Vettel leads Hamilton by eight points in the world championship, a slender margin and one easily surmounted but it is how he has taken the lead that is of import.

Vettel won in Montreal, a power circuit that Hamilton’s team have previously controlled in the turbo-hybrid era. This was warning enough that the simple equation of Mercedes having a clear advantage at the high-speed tracks and losing it on the more downforce-dependent meetings simply no longer applied. At Silverstone this was driven home with some force when Vettel took the win in Hamilton’s fiefdom – where he had won the previous four races.

What was already a tight fight has been compounded by errors from Mercedes. A software miscalculation lost Hamilton an almost certain win in Australia and the decision not to pit under the safety car in China was equally costly.

In Austria a similar choice not to pit Hamilton under the virtual safety car lost him the lead, leaving the driver angry and frustrated before both he and teammate Valtteri Bottas, who also extended his contract for a further year on Friday, were forced to retire with mechanical problems.

To be fair the team have called it right as well – keeping Bottas out in Baku was brilliant if ultimately thwarted by a puncture. With the margins exceptionally fine, these are the moments that will make the difference. The Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, was blunt in his assessment that lost points were “down to our own mistakes”.

Wolff also admitted they had to perform “damage limitation more often than we would have wanted”. This is not a task the team has been familiar with.

Hockenheim then is a chance to steady the ship. It is broadly a power circuit, with the first half of the lap dominated by medium-length straights and this year will be quicker than ever. Once again Mercedes will hope to have an advantage and to make use of it but it is far from a given. Hamilton was second fastest in the first practice session, four-hundredths back on the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo, with Vettel in fourth 2.7-tenths behind. Max Verstappen concluded a good day for Red Bull, quickest in the afternoon session, again in front of Hamilton who was two-hundredths down, with Vettel behind Bottas.

Vettel’s win at Silverstone was not solely down to Hamilton being clipped by Kimi Räikkönen on the opening lap and the victory illustrated just how strong Ferrari are. In relative pace terms Silverstone has been their least competitive circuit for the past two seasons. This year Hamilton had to pull out an exceptional lap just to claim pole. The upgrades the Scuderia brought have worked to great effect and they are functioning as a unit with a sharpness that has exposed and exploited any weaknesses Mercedes have shown.

Vettel believes he can take the title if they maintain their momentum. “We must keep pushing the development of the car, put ourselves in a good position to have something to fight with,” he said. “Last year the season got away from us because we weren’t strong enough.”

For Wolff and Hamilton, future success will have framed contract talks but the team principal knows just how important it is to perform in the here and now at Hockenheim. “We perceive this as the biggest challenge we have had so far,” he said of Ferrari’s form this season.

Hamilton is more than aware of this, and making his mark on the dotted line ends only the speculation, not the challenge he faces. “There’s no questions lingering so for the team it’s a positive,” he said in Germany. “And we need any positive we can get to fight for this championship.”


Giles Richards at Hockenheim

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