MERCEDES team principal Toto Wolff said he would chop off Formula One’s new halo head-protection device with a chainsaw if he had his wish as the double world champions unveiled their new F1 car for the 2018 season.
After years of research and development, the FIA settled on the halo to protect drivers from flying debris and crashes following the fatal accidents of Jules Bianchi at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix and Justin Wilson in a 2015 IndyCar race.
“I’m not impressed with the whole thing and if you give me a chainsaw I would take it off,” said Wolff on Thursday, who complained about the weight of the new device.
“I think we need to look after the driver’s safety, but what we have implemented is aesthetically not appealing and we need to come up with a solution that simply looks better.” Four-time world champion Lewis Hamilton was less stinging in his criticism of the halo’s new look, but warned the extra weight of the device, designed to be able to resist the weight of a double-decker bus, could lead to less exciting racing.
“Honestly I think the team have done a great job to integrate it and make it look as nice as it can look,” said Hamilton.
“I hope they don’t get much heavier, but I think next year the seat and driver can be 80 kilos. I can be a bodybuilder next year and get the beach body I want.
“There are parts of the lighter, more nimble cars I miss. It was easier to overtake. The heavier they are they will always continue to get slower.”
Hamilton cruised to the title with two races to spare last season. However, the final three races of the year were split between Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen in the Red Bull and Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.
And Hamilton is expecting a closer run on his quest to match Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio as the second most successful Formula One driver of all-time.
“I think coming to the end of the year, the end of the season, Ferrari, Red Bull and us are very, very close,” he added.
“I anticipate this year will be probably quite similar in that sense. So I think we’ll see a tougher battle this year.”
Dominance damages the spectacle
Mercedes have won four drivers’ and constructors’ championships in a row, including the title Nico Rosberg won in 2016 before retiring.
Wolff admitted that it might be better for overall interest in the sport for Mercedes not to match Ferrari’s record of five straight driver’s titles.
“If you look from the outside, does a long-term dominance of the team damage the spectacle? Yes it does,” said Wolff.
“A very competitive environment where multiple teams are able to win and where the championship goes down to the wire, these are clearly the ingredients (Formula One) needs.
“But that is not our objective. We try to optimise and we can’t from where we sit have an holistic approach to the global spectacle.”
In ominous news for the competition, Hamilton, 33, also looks set to extend his six-year stay at Mercedes with both driver and team hopeful of extending his current contract, which expires at the end of the year, before the season’s opening race in Australia on March 25.
“Toto knows that I know there is nowhere else, no one better, so he’s not going to be looking anywhere else, and he knows that I know there’s no one else better so I’m not looking anywhere else,” said Hamilton.
“The next couple of weeks would be a realistic target,” added Wolff.
Norris is still quicker, but the gap closed by a considerable margin on Sunday.
It could be non-existent in two weeks’ time.
“After the frustrations of Monaco, I kind of took a step back and was like ‘big picture’,” Ricciardo said after the race. “I know that it’s going to come and I know that if I keep persisting.
“This car will feel like home and I think today it started to feel a little more like home – and the next two (races) coming up are hopefully fun ones as well, with some good moves, battles – and it’s nice seeing the others suffer a little bit more than us as well.”
RED BULL’S BIGGEST STATEMENT YET
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said before the French Grand Prix “if we can beat them (Mercedes) here, we can beat them anywhere”.
Indeed, the French Grand Prix, and races at similar tracks, have been the bread and butter of Mercedes’ longstanding dominance of F1.
The abundance of long straights — there are three at Circuit Paul Ricard — have historically allowed the constructor to flex the dominance of its power unit, leaving Red Bull in its wake.
Red Bull has been slowly improving for years, but wins at the last two races in Monaco and Azerbaijan were limited as far as dynasty-toppling moments go.
The wins rocked the boat, at best.
Those were races the team simply had to win if it was to mount a serious challenge for the title, whereas victory on Sunday in France, where Lewis Hamilton had won twice in a row, was a massive statement.
It’s the first time Red Bull has won three races in a row since 2013.
Now, as Horner said, it feels as if Red Bull can win anywhere — setting up arguably the most intriguing title battle F1 has seen in the hybrid era.
Max Verstappen leads Hamilton by 12 points heading into the seventh and eighth races of the season, both in Austria.
The past five Austrian Grands Prix have been split 3-2 between Mercedes and Red Bull, while last year’s Styrian Grand Prix at the same track was won by Hamilton.
MERCEDES SLOPPY, OR RED BULL TOO SHARP?
“Today was payback for Barcelona!”
Those were Horner’s words after Verstappen won the French Grand Prix having passed Hamilton on the race’s penultimate lap.
Horner hadn’t forgotten how in Spain, Red Bull baulked at a two-stop strategy and Hamilton, on fresher tyres, snatched the win from Verstappen with a late overtake.
At the time, it was a moment symbolic of Mercedes’ longstanding superior edge as an entire unit — not just as the team with the fastest car.
Suddenly, with the pressure mounting, cracks have started to appear.
The shoe was on the other foot in France where it was Verstappen who perfectly executed a two-stopper to pass Hamilton, on a one-stop, with less than two laps left.
“A two-stop would have potentially done the job but it was not on the cards at all for us – we’ll do some analysis and try and figure out why,” Hamilton said after the race.
Earlier, chief strategist James Vowles told Hamilton “this one’s on us.”
Meanwhile, Hamilton’s former teammate, Nico Rosberg, said on Sky Sports: “I think there were some rather big mistakes from Mercedes on strategy.”
However, Rosberg added that Hamilton may have a case to answer, too, suggesting that his on-track defence against Verstappen was “soft”.
“(It was) unusual from Lewis,” he said. “Close the damn door.
“Usually Lewis is the best one-to-one racer and I’m surprised he didn’t try… at least try. Brake late, keep him on the outside… so a bit soft there from Lewis.”
Former F1 driver Karun Chandhok said on Sky Sports that the battle for the title will now come down to “who cracks less”.
“The reality is now when we’ve all taken a breath, these are two teams and drivers under high pressure, and we’re going to see some cracks,” he said.
“And it’s just who cracks less.”
F1 BASKET CASE TAKES STRANGE TURN
Ferrari looked to be in the early stages of a renaissance last month when Charles Leclerc went pole at Monaco.
He arrived at his home race after finishing fourth twice, and sixth twice, while his teammate, Carlos Sainz, had three points-finishes to his name
Pole at Monaco placed him in prime position for the team’s first race win since the Italian Grand Prix in 2019, but he cruelly was unable to start the race as his car failed to make it out of the pits.
Sainz went on to finish second in what was still a promising weekend for the team.
Fast forward two races and Leclerc came 16th in France, while Sainz also failed to claim a point, finishing 11th.
Both cars started well inside the top 10 but struggled drastically with tyre management.
Leclerc was stunned by the drop-off, saying: “We really need to understand (what happened), as with both cars we’ve been struggling massively, dropping massively.
“The pace is there the first two laps on the tyres and then everyone keeps going on this pace and both of our cars are starting to drop. That’s where we need to work out at the moment and we really need to understand this issue.”
The collapse comes at the worst possible time for Ferrari with engineer Laurent Mekies revealing last week that development of its 2021 car is all but over, with 2022 now the focus.
Ferrari’s poor display in France could force the team to backtrack on its plans.
Valtteri Bottas says he could have fought for the French Grand Prix win if the Mercedes pit wall simply listened to him earlier in the race.
“Why the f**k does no one listen to me when I say that it’s going to be a two-stopper?” fumed the Finn over team radio as he was helpless to fend off Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez on older tyres late in the race, which was won by the Dutchman.
Having been in P2 with less than 10 laps left, Bottas was pushed off the podium and finished in fourth.
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Bottas was on a one-stop strategy and asked his team to switch to a two-stop, which paid dividends for Red Bull as Verstappen claimed the lead from Lewis Hamilton on the penultimate lap.
Given Bottas had track position over both Red Bulls, he believes he would have had the chance to claim his first win since last year’s Russian GP if Mercedes listened to him.
“I think the winning strategy today was a two-stop,” Bottas said after the race. “Easy to say afterwards but that’s how it is… I had no front tyres left for the last 10 to 15 laps, so I was just really trying to get the car home.
“So it was not fun the last stint… like a sitting duck, it’s quite simple. But of course, I tried everything I could, tried to finish on the podium but the tyres were completely gone, so no chance.
“If I did a two-stop, for sure I would have been on the podium and fighting for the win of the race.”
His teammate Hamilton also said after the race that a two-stop strategy could have prevented a third-straight win for Red Bull.
Bottas said the French Grand Prix was a “learning point” for his team.
“I think as a team, we were too focused on completing the one-stop thinking it’s the best, but it wasn’t,” he said.
“We thought with the cooler temps the tyres would hold on better, but they didn’t so I don’t know. I think our predictions in terms of tyre life didn’t quite match the reality.”
It’s proving to be another frustrating season for Bottas who already has two retirements to his name, and hasn’t finished a race higher than third.
He now sits 55 points behind Verstappen in the driver’s standings.
Marc Marquez banished 18 months of struggles on Sunday as he dominated in the rain at the Sachsenring to win the German MotoGP.
The six-time world champion, who returned this season after crashing in the opening race last year, escaped early and stayed clear of in-form Portuguese Miguel Oliveira and championship leader Fabio Quartararo.
It was Marquez’s 11th straight win at Sachsenring, including his eighth in the MotoGP class. He became just the second rider ever to claim eight consecutive premier class wins at the same circuit.
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“It’s one of the most important moments of my career,” an emotional Marquez said post-race.
“Today I knew it was a great opportunity. It was not easy the mentality, because I’m coming from a hard situation … but I said ‘today’s the day’.
“Before I came here this weekend I said I would try to fight for the podium and be close to the top guys. The victory was a low possibility, but if it’s the perfect conditions I would try.
“When I saw a few drops on the Lap 4 or 4, I said ‘it’s my race’. From that point, I pushed and kept the same race pace as before.
“It was really hard to keep concentrating because all the memories and situations during the last year was there … But we did it and we will do it again.”