Lewis Hamilton disaster at US GP exposes Mercedes’ biggest weakness – and it’s not the car

Lewis Hamilton finished second to Max Verstappen at the 2023 US GP before his Mercedes was disqualified.

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Thursday press conferences in Formula 1 revolve around predictions and projections – unless you’re Fred Vasseur – with variations of ‘how will the upgrades perform’ and ‘can you get into podium fight’ seemingly uttered three times a minute across the paddock.

Usually this then evaporates as soon as cars take to track for the first meaningful session and the status quo invariably resumes, but very rarely someone will drop a nugget of clairvoyance so prophetic they’ll wish they bought a lottery ticket.

That was the case at the Circuit of the Americas, where Lewis Hamilton inadvertently laid out exactly where the 2023 United States Grand Prix would fall apart for him and Mercedes against Red Bull.

“We’ve got to have the package, not only the car but we’ve got to be operating better in our pitstops,” Lewistradamus told the media. “There’s so many areas we’ve got to be levelling up to match the champions.”

Fast-forward 72 hours and he crossed the line just two seconds behind Max Verstappen, having stayed out a fatal three laps too long in the first stint after Red Bull went super-aggressive against Hamilton and Lando Norris.

Hamilton could smell a rat immediately despite Pete Bonnington‘s best attempts to convince him otherwise, and never reclaimed the track position he lost to Verstappen in that phase of pitstops.

And things went from bad to worse for Hamilton post-race when he was disqualified when F1 scrutineers found his floor plank was worn too thin, with Mercedes‘ miscalculating the amount of abrasion it would suffer on a bumpy Circuit of the Americas.

To rub salt into the wound, Verstappen and Norris‘ floors were subject to the same inspection, and passed with flying colours. But Austin is just the latest in a series of blunders by Mercedes that show even as they close the gap to the RB19, there’s more to winning F1 races than building the right machinery.

Even if Mercedes have an equally fast car as Red Bull in 2024, they’ll still lose unless they improve operationally.

A first grand prix win for George Russell goes up in smoke in Sakhir | LAT Images/Mercedes F1 team

Long hailed as equally canny on the pitwall as on-track or back at Brackley, that myth has been well and truly busted over the past few seasons as Red Bull finally emerged as a worthy challenger to the Mercedes.

Yes, the ending to the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP was farcical, but Mercedes had plenty of chances to ensure the season didn’t come down to a winner-takes-all showdown and just didn’t take them.

Even before these errors finally cost the team a title, the signs were there. George Russell was denied a fairytale win at the 2020 Sakhir GP entirely by Mercedes‘ incompetence after replacing a Hamilton sidelined by COVID-19.

Russell was leading by over 25 seconds when his replacement Jack Aitken caused a safety car, but Mercedes inexplicably gave him the wrong set of tyres and had to call him in a lap latter to fix their error, before a late puncture consigned him to ninth.

But these are far from the only operational blunder Mercedes have made in the past few seasons. And ask yourselves, how many races have Red Bull cost themselves over that same timespan?

2021 French Grand Prix

Verstappen made a rare error from pole position allowing Hamilton to build up an early lead over the Dutchman, on a track projected to suit Red Bull.

But Mercedes‘ were too slow to react to Verstappen‘s early pit stop, costing Hamilton track position to his championship rival. Expected to be a one-stop race, the Mercedes pit wall failed to heed Valtteri Bottas‘ warnings that the hard tyres wouldn’t make it the end – but Red Bull were listening.

They gave Verstappen a second stop with a third of the race to go and he duly caught and passed both Mercedes, taking the lead from Hamilton with three laps remaining.

That meant instead of Hamilton taking the championship lead in an eminently winnable race, Verstappen tripled his advantage over the Brit to 12 points.

2021 Hungarian Grand Prix

The image no one will ever forget, after Verstappen was thrown out of position by a Bottas-instated game of pinball at Turn one, Mercedes again failed to take full advantage.

A red flag on a drying track meant the grid started the second formation lap on intermediate tyres, but it became immediately clear to everyone that it was dry enough for slicks. George Russell even said as much over team radio.

Everyone except Mercedes that is, who left Hamilton out leading to the bizarre sight of one car taking the start from the grid.

He would’ve been fifth at worst had he pitted from the formation lap but instead dropped to the back of the grid, and just ran out of time to overtake Esteban Ocon for the race win, falling 1.5 seconds short.

2022 Dutch Grand Prix

Different year, same result. Red Bull pitted Verstappen in a late safety car for the stricken Valtteri Bottas, and Mercedes followed suit – just with Russell rather than Hamilton in the lead car.

That meant Verstappen on soft tyres could easily pass Hamilton nursing old harder rubber for the race win – sounds familiar?

2022 Mexico City Grand Prix

Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing leads George Russell of Mercedes at the start of 2022 Mexican Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

A deeply conservative Mercedes strategy cost George Russell a shot at victory at one of Red Bull‘s ‘home’ grand prix, as the team’s winless streak stretched to 21 races.

Qualifying a superb second alongside polesitter Verstappen, Mercedes hamstrung Russell from the off by starting him on the medium tyres and he failed to challenge the Dutchman into turn one.

While Red Bull probably did have a pace advantage at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, it wasn’t an insurmountable one for Mercedes had they played their cards right.

But as it was, they were the only team in the top seven to run a medium-hard strategy, crippling Russell‘s race with a 37-lap stint on the slowest compound.

Adam Dickinson
Adam Dickinson
An international multi-award-winning journalist, Adam Dickinson has written for Total-Motorsport.com since June 2022 and also contributes to TNT Sports, Eurosport and the Rugby Paper. He's also had articles published in the Daily Telegraph and several local newspapers, and previously worked for Last-Lap.co.uk and FeederSeries.net in motorsport and graduated with a First-Class Journalism Degree from the University of Sheffield having also studied in Oklahoma. Adam started watching F1 by accident in 2007, catching the last race in Indianapolis, and attended his first race as a journalist at the 2023 British Grand Prix.
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