Japanese Grand Prix: Mercedes are playing catch up in Suzuka

Japanese Grand Prix: Mercedes are Formula One’s schoolboy cramming last-minute for an exam, leaving Lewis Hamilton frustrated… so, is it too little, too late in Suzuka?

  • Mercedes are playing catch up at the Japanese Grand Prix this weekend 
  • Seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton had a day to forget in Suzuka on Friday  
  • Mail Sport’s new WhatsApp Channel: Get the breaking news and exclusives here 

Somewhere in Monaco, Toto Wolff is surely tearing his hair out.

It’s hard to imagine a heavier crash back down to earth than that which the Mercedes chief has suffered this week. To go from elation after his team’s strongest performance of the season in Singapore, in which Lewis Hamilton and George Russell boasted the fastest pace on the track, to the seven-time champion openly admitting that he ‘didn’t have a chance’ of winning here in Suzuka, is some comedown.

You wouldn’t blame Wolff if he spent the weekend recoiling behind his sofa as his British drivers toiled away 8300 miles east in Japan, all while recuperating from a knee surgery – spare a thought for the robust Austrian.

To add to his woes, Christian Horner is strutting the paddock, ready to hammer the final nail into Mercedes’ coffin and scoop the constructors’ championship. Max Verstappen, barring one of the shocks of the season, will lead the pack from start to finish and move one step closer to clinching his third world title, most likely in Qatar in two weeks’ time. He is a staggering 194 points ahead of Hamilton, his arch foe two years ago, in third position.

But, deep down, Wolff will know that his team had no business going toe-to-toe with Red Bull and their Dutch master this year.

Lewis Hamilton has cut a frustrated figure at the Japanese Grand Prix in Suzuka

There was real optimism at Mercedes after their strong performance in Singapore last week

How, then, have Mercedes gone from cloud nine to the depths of despair in just one week? The first warning signs were cast by Hamilton on a humid Thursday afternoon in Suzuka.

‘I would think that if they [Red Bull] are not 30 seconds ahead like they have been in the past, then something’s up,’ the seven-time world champion predicted, seemingly already defeated despite last week’s morale-boosting performance.

‘It’ll be interesting to see how the weekend goes. I hope we’ll be closer, and I hope they’re not as fast as the 30-second gap.’

Admittedly, there are matters that are out of Mercedes’ control. It’s no secret that their success in Singapore came down to a near-perfect race strategy coupled with a car brilliantly suited to Marina Bay’s magical circuit, as the W14 found pace on the slower parts of the track. It was always going to be a tall order to emulate that speed in Suzuka, where long, fast corners benefit Red Bull and McLaren.

But there are steps that can be taken to ensure that you can at least compete with your rivals. On Friday morning, there was the palpable sense that the car was simply thrown out on the track, followed by the realisation that the team had got the setup totally wrong, resulting in a frantic 24 hours playing catch up on the rest of the field. It’s the Formula One equivalent of a schoolboy up all night cramming for his exams, having left it until the last minute.

And the proof was in the pudding as Hamilton crossed the line in 16th and 14th across both practice sessions, while Russell got his car up to fifth.

‘We’ll work on it overnight and turn it around for tomorrow,’ Hamilton seethed. ‘But we definitely won’t be winning this weekend.’

But Hamilton was fully aware of his car’s weaknesses as early as Thursday afternoon

He warned that Max Verstappen (above) should win Sunday’s race by 30 seconds

Pushed on why Mercedes were so far off the pace, Hamilton said: ‘It’s figuring out what is wrong. We were much closer in the last race (in Singapore) but we didn’t have many high-speed corners, only one, but not as high-speed as the corners here.’

It didn’t get much better in qualifying, either. On paper, Mercedes have the perfect duo to challenge Verstappen: Hamilton is, statistically speaking, the greatest qualifier of all time with 104 poles, while Russell was not dubbed ‘Mr Saturday’ during his stint at Williams for nothing.

But the pair couldn’t lay a glove on the imperious Verstappen and were out of punching range of the two McLarens. Russell was over seven-tenths behind Australian rookie Oscar Piastri while Hamilton, resembling the third member of Daft Punk in his new-look chrome helmet, was close to half a second behind the front row.

Hamilton, though, is a man you’d back to claw back a result. On average this season, he’s finished two places above his starting position – a feat that points to the 38-year-old’s exceptional race craft and prowess behind the wheel. And he had reason to be optimistic, despite Mercedes’ shocking start to the weekend.

‘We did some great work overnight and the changes we made felt good in FP3,’ he said. ‘The car has generally felt nice to drive today. That was a relief as yesterday was a bad day.’

Hamilton had a terrible day on Friday and his team were left with a huge overnight job

He was happier with the car on Saturday, but is it too little, too late here in Suzuka?

Ultimately, Mercedes’ desperate attempt to salvage a strong result may be a case of too little, too late. On a weekend where Red Bull are destined to wrap up the constructors’ championship, this, from Hamilton, perfectly encapsulates why the Brackley bunch are behind their rivals.

‘We typically have at least one suboptimal day each weekend, so Friday was like that,’ he said yesterday.

In a sport where the margins could not be finer, Mercedes must transform those self-inflicted blows into knockout punches. Japan has taught them a compelling lesson.

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