Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Istanbul Park, 2020

Why Mercedes floundered in conditions that needed ‘a car which kills its tyres’

2020 Turkish Grand Prix

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Mercedes’ unbeaten run in qualifying this year came to an end in an extraordinary qualifying session at Istanbul Park.

The clue to why the W11 was beaten lies in the staggering scale of the team’s first defeat of the year – a whopping 4.5 seconds slower than a car powered by the same engine.

Earlier this year in wet conditions at a more typical circuit – the Red Bull RingLewis Hamilton put his Mercedes on pole position by 1.2 seconds. The 10 Q3 contenders were covered by 2.3s.

In today’s bizarre session the top 10 was covered by a whisker under nine-and-a-half seconds – a massive spread for an F1 field. If we discount Antonio Giovinazzi’s travails, the top nine were covered by nearly five-and-a-half seconds.

To put that in perspective, in the same wet qualifying session at the Red Bull Ring the entire field was covered by just 3.6 seconds in Q1. Even allowing for the slightly shorter lap at that circuit, this illustrates how bizarre today’s qualifying session was.

Sergio Perez, Racing Point, Istanbul Park, 2020
Mercedes customers Racing Point were over four seconds faster
We saw extreme over-performance: Racing Point, who posted their worst result performance of the season last time out, claimed first and third. The counter-point to that was the extreme under-performance of Mercedes.

The W11 couldn’t generate enough heat in its tyres, and the problem became worse with each passing lap, as their head of trackside operations Andrew Shovlin explained.

“We’re just too cold and that means we’ve got no grip,” he said. “But the issue is it becomes a bit of a vicious circle whereby if you haven’t got the grip, you can’t generate the temperature and you spiral down.

“When you look at the gap between us and pole and [Racing Point], how quickly they could bring the tyres in, you’re talking seconds and seconds. When you’re diagnosing problems, gaps that big can are always linked to tyre temperature unless you’ve got some pretty major parts that have fallen off, but it’s almost always tyre temperature. So there’s a bit to learn.”

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Shovlin said Mercedes’ priority in recent years has been to cope better with higher temperatures. The extreme conditions at Istanbul Park suggested that has blunted their edge when the conditions are very cool – not to mention wet and slippery.

“I think we’ve developed our car to be good in hot conditions,” said Shovlin. “That used to be a weakness. We need to be able to adapt when the conditions are certainly very, very cold and we haven’t done that very well. And there’s no doubt a fair chunk to learn from today.”

The W11 worked better in the rain in Austria because the temperatures were higher. “What you want on a day like today is a car that overheats it tyres, that sort of kills them at most circuits, and suddenly you’re into a into a good place,” said Shovlin.

“So it’s no big surprise why we were necessarily good there. It’s just the shock was being seconds off a Racing Point, seconds off a Red Bull, that’s the thing that has surprised us. But we do understand enough about the tyres to know how you can get yourself in that position.”

A significant question mark hangs over the likely conditions for tomorrow’s race. But Mercedes are concerned they may not be particularly competitive come rain or shine.

“It is difficult to predict. I think if you’re looking at a wet race, the thing that we need to do a bit of head scratching about is how do we get the tyres to switch on quickly. Because you just look at our lap times over a two or three lap run today and you look at what, for instance, Stroll was doing in the [Racing Point] at the end, he will be 10 seconds up the road in no time.

“So that’s one of the biggest issues for us if we can’t get the tyres to switch on. Now, because of the change of climatic conditions that we get it when it’s wet, we can make changes to the level of heating that you’re putting into the car. So there are some things we can do.

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“But that’s the big thing that’ll probably keep us awake tonight is that idea that you’re just getting swallowed up by the pack and the leaders are sprinting away and you can’t match their pace. I think eventually we’ll get there because we have shown that we can generate temperature, it just takes us a long time.

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Istanbul Park, 2020
Mercedes doubt they’ll be competitive even if it dries up
“Looking at a dry race, though, the wet and the dry is not very different here. It’s the same issues: low grip, balance, generating temperature. The problems are identical, which isn’t the case at most circuits. So we’re really trying to solve similar things.

“But the worry with the dry tyres was while they were difficult to get to switch on they were also wearing and you saw a few people complaining of graining. And as the circuit changes in grip level the severity of that will also evolve.

“So it’s a case of get the car to work, that’s the number one thing, but also we haven’t really got a lot of information on what the tyres are going to do, how far we can go, what our relative pace is. So as well as needing to fix the fundamentals of the package, we’ve also got this lack of info and a lot of problems that we’re going to try and be getting on top of during the race.

“Plus the fact we’re not we’re not used to starting so far down in the pack. So if we are quick enough we’ve got people to get by to think about, and strategy, how to try and get ourselves into a position where we can hopefully cause a bit of trouble for Red Bull.”

For a team which has won so many races and usually plays a cautious game of ‘expectations management’, it’s tempting to roll your eyes at this and predict they’ll be leading by lap two. Perhaps they will.

But on the strength of this, it seems this weekend’s highly unusual conditions have created another ‘Singapore 2015’ scenario for the world champions. If nothing else, it means the record of scoring pole position at every race in a season remains unclaimed.

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2020 Turkish Grand Prix

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...
Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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22 comments on “Why Mercedes floundered in conditions that needed ‘a car which kills its tyres’”

  1. Thanks you to whoever decided to resurface the Istanbul Park track and to Pirelli for bringing tyres that are way too hard. I don’t remember the last time F1 was so exciting to watch as todays qualifying, definetly not in 2020.

  2. So it’s about the car and tyres and not the driver? Can’t be, surely.

    1. Good driver can get good car to pole position/victory, but same good driver can’t get a bad car to anything.
      We have to admit, car comes first.

    2. Car will always come first, without that you can’t even compete. But cars don’t drive themselves…

  3. It’s curious that they don’t seem to be able to switch the tyres on, given their DAS advantage

    1. @paeschli
      DAS may help getting the front tyres up to temperature, but not the rear tyres. This creates an imbalance between the front and the rear of the car, which costs a lot more time in wet conditions, than it would do in dry conditions.
      Furthermore, the Mercs have been struggling for grip all weekend, even in the dry. During their long runs yesterday they had absolutely no consistency in their runs. Hamilton set a fastest lap during his long run on the softs, but on the next one he would loose 0.6-0.8 sec to Verstappen.
      IMO the lack of confidence in the car, due to the slippery track surface combined with the inability to get enough temperature into the tyres, caused this result.

      Just look at Ferrari: Leclerc was second fastest in FP3, where it was already wet (the conditions were comparable to Q3), but come qualifying he couldn’t get any heat into the tyres, which resulted in him just sliding around the track and being miles off the pace.
      Under such conditions it doesn’t matter how much downforce you have or how powerful your engine is. The only thing that matters is, that you get the tyres into their operating window, as they generate the lap time in the wet and not the aerodynamics.

      1. @srga91 Spot on, this weekend was all about grip and the Merc struggled pretty much all weekend.

    2. Or its Strategy.

      This track in race condition is going to be a real test. Better to sit behind the front runners, use them to judge the corners, until there’s more rubber on the track. I can see quite a few of the leading cars driving off the track in
      the opening laps. Mercedes will use those front runners as markers before making their bid.

      It’ll be interesting to see how long Strolls last in front.

  4. Doesn’t DAS mainly benefit the fronts?

  5. Engine nullified. Mercedes beaten. End of story. Only five years to go everyone. Then we can get back to having a competition. I hope I am wrong.

    1. Racing Point and Williams both run the Mercedes engine and have done for years. Ferrari had a more powerful engine in 2017-19. The Mercedes advantage is very much about the while car as a package (in most circumstances).

      Their Achilles heel used to be hot conditions, in which they destroyed the tyres. On this years car, it is cold conditions, where they struggle to get heat into the tyres.

      Don’t forget Alfa also beat Ferrari with the same engine in qualifying! Why?

    2. If Mercedes NEEDED this pole, they would have found a way to make it happen.

      The truth is this race is now just a formality for Mercedes, they have no reason to take any chances.
      They’ll be happy to can play the percentages, sit behind the front runners and maybe push when
      there’s more rubber on the track. One bad track doesnt mean they are suddenly a no talent team.

      1. Of all the comments I have read on this tread, yours is the only one that nailed it on the head. Yes there were heat issues with the tires, but did anyone notice that neither Hamilton or Bottas were pushing for faster times when they realized that it wasn’t necessary given what is at stake for the race. A crash in qualifying would definitely mean a lower grid position than what they now have.

  6. Do you suppose they gave any thought to running full tanks during qualifying.
    The extra weight surely would have helped building temperature in the tires.

  7. What’s changed since now and Styria in the wet? Have the lost one or two of their tricks?

    1. Temperature and asphalt were quite different

      1. So it was just the car in Styria qualifying?

        1. Not quite. As @bosyber already pointed out it had more to do with the surface of the track than anything else.
          The Red Bull Ring offers a lot of grip, even in the wet, while the surface on the Istanbul Park Circuit doesn’t. This makes the process of getting the tyres into their operating window very challenging and those issues multiply in the wet.
          Because the Mercs were already off the pace in practise (compared to Verstappen), they had little confidence coming into qualifying. If you can’t trust the car that it’s gonna do what you want it to do, you just loose a lot of time.

          1. Sounds like Styria qualifying was far less challenging for the drivers. The cream certainly rose to the top yesterday.

          2. Yes and on Sunday the true GOAT showed how it’s done.

  8. The Red Bull Ring is quite a lot shorter than Istanbul Park actually, but nevertheless, the track surface combined with weather conditions made this qualifying trickier than Austria 2.
    I can foresee similar struggles in the race if rain hits, and on the dry, similar to Friday.

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