Problems for Mercedes in victory, problems for Red Bull in self-defeat
Lewis Hamilton may have left Baku with the lead of the title race but the Mercedes driver's reaction to victory was an admission he is no longer the championship favourite...
By Pete Gill
Last Updated: 11/12/18 2:33pm
Rarely in the history of Formula 1 can a race winner have looked so subdued in the aftermath of victory.
Lewis Hamilton could barely crack a smile as he reflected on the Azerbaijan GP, not even when the Mercedes driver was reminded that he had taken the lead of the world championship for the first time in 2018 following his 63rd F1 win.
It was an odd final act to an odd race, in which neither of its leading performers - the flawless Valtteri Bottas and the not-quite-flawless Sebastian Vettel - made it on to the podium while one of the sport's all-time greats delivered what he described as "probably one of the best races I have ever done" just to take seventh behind a Sauber.
Formula 1 2018 is the season which keeps on surprising: unpredictable, chaotic, illogical and a whole lot of fun.
"That was just a brutal race and probably exactly the kind of Grand Prix that fans want to see, with twists and turns at every point," reflected Mercedes boss Toto Wolff.
But despite the Silver Arrows boss' eulogy, and their first win of the new campaign, the world champions will have departed Baku with fresh cause for concern.
For the first time in F1's hybrid era, there is little doubt that Mercedes are no longer F1's number one.
And little doubt Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel are the new 2018 favourites.
Are Mercedes just tyred out?
Although the table never lies in sport, it does occasionally tell a porkie. The Drivers' Championship standings may have Hamilton in front but the reality is that he is playing catch-up to Vettel and a Ferrari car outperforming his own.
The first to admit Bottas deserved to win Sunday's race, Hamilton was just as quick to admit he was slow all weekend.
"I struggled throughout the weekend and I'm definitely struggling to extract the car's potential," he acknowledged. "We've definitely got a lot of work still to do, we still are behind. Their pure pace is a lot ahead of ours at the moment."
Compounding Mercedes' unease will be that admission from Hamilton he is driving below par. "There were a lot of faults in the race, which is rare for me," he added. "I struggled with the car, struggled with the tyres. I've definitely got to go away from here and work even harder to make sure that there's not a repeat performance-wise of today."
The question for Hamilton and Mercedes is whether the world champions are tired or tyred.
Put another way, are they simply suffering from 'winners' fatigue' after four successive years of dominance or are they just lagging behind Ferrari because they can't switch on the Pirellis the way Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen can.
The detail is different, but the conundrum is familiar. Just as in 2017 when Ferrari had a car for all types of circuits, the latest Ferrari appears comfortable on all types of 2018 tyres. And just as in 2017 when Mercedes battled to understand their 'diva' car, 2018 has begun with the team struggling to understand the new Pirelli tyres. In simplistic terms, the Mercedes is suffering the worst of both worlds: unable to sufficiently warm up the harder tyres but prone to overheating the softer compounds.
"The biggest issue is the tyres," said Hamilton. "I don't believe their car is much better than ours, if at all, it's just that they are using their tyres better."
Whatever the precise reason, the upshot is stark: Ferrari currently possess a significantly faster package.
"We didn't have the pace we needed to have," conceded Wolff. "It is Ferrari who are quickest. Barcelona will be interesting because in testing we were the quickest there. So we have to see. There is a lot of work for us to do."
Red Bull losing their title bite
The fall-out from Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen's race-ending collision is likely to be long, forensic and painful at Red Bull.
What it costs the pair in reputational damage - and perhaps even in pride when they are summoned to appear in front of the team's factory staff to apologise in person - will only pale in comparison to the damage it has already done to their title prospects.
In the Constructors' Championship, Red Bull currently possess half as many points as Ferrari and Mercedes. In the Drivers', Verstappen is just eighth with 18 points. Even before F1 reaches the European leg of the season, the Dutchman is already all-but out of world championship contention.
Ricciardo is at least on the fringes. But the equivalent of a full race victory plus a fourth place down on Hamilton, he has already failed to finish in two of this year's four races. For context, Sunday's race was the 29th in succession in which Hamilton had finished in the points.
For Red Bull, the collision was the occupational hazard of operating with two drivers of equal merit with equal opportunity. Possessing the best driver pairing on the grid occasionally has a downside. Ferrari, among others, will surely note as much.
So too might Mercedes when they come to consider their own 2019 driver line-up. As Wolff put it late on Sunday night: "You can't expect to have guard dogs in the car and then expect them to act like puppy dogs."
The risk for Red Bull is that too much barking will ruin their title bite.
No glimmer yet for McLaren
The Constructors' Championship would argue otherwise but these are uncomfortable and unappealing times for McLaren. The detail may have changed following their switch to Renault power from Honda but the experience hasn't. McLaren are acutely underperforming - and the only difference this year is that they have no hiding place.
Although they sit fourth in the teams' standings, just ahead of the Renault works outfit, results have flattered McLaren so far and owed far more to the brilliance of Fernando Alonso and chaos elsewhere than any sort of substantial performance leap forward.
The team are yet to qualify higher than 11th or finish within 20 seconds of a podium position and technical director Tim Goss is understood to have already paid the price for the MCL33's lack of pace.
In a pre-season media briefing team boss Zak Brown steered clear of specific targets, but added: "We want to be competitive, which we haven't been for the last three years. And being competitive means racing at the front, qualifying at the front, getting on the podiums…I think we will all know when we watch the season whether McLaren was competitive."
On Saturday, Stoffel Vandoorne was eliminated in Q1 while Alonso was half a second shy of Q3. Worse, his fastest lap - a 1:44.019 - was over two seconds down on the 1:41.911 set by Daniel Ricciardo for fellow Renault customers Red Bull. Rewind to another of Brown's pre-season benchmarks: "If we're 0.9 seconds off Red Bull, that won't look good."
Four races into 2018, it looks bad. And that may be putting it mildly. "It's a kind of crisis I would say," reflected Sky F1's Paul di Resta.
The team will arrive in Barcelona next week with a comprehensive upgrade package. So too, unfortunately, will everyone else.