Were Mercedes ‘sandbagging’ in F1 Testing? Almost 3 seconds off Max Verstappen and Red Bull

The Silver Arrows debut a completely new concept in Day 1 at 2024 F1 testing, and were way off the pace of frontrunner Max Verstappen in the Red Bull

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Mercedes didn’t focus on optimal performance set-up according to George Russell following a dismal debut of their 2024 car at the opening day of Formula 1 testing in Bahrain.

After the team severed connections to its 2022 and 2023 cars, Toto Wolff’s team finished the day as 12th fastest out of 18 drivers, with Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez failing to test on Thursday. What’s even more concerning is they were 2.765 seconds slower than Max Verstappen’s Red Bull.

If that time remained consistent through the 2024 Bahrain Grand Prix, they’d finish the 57-lap race on March 2 some 157 seconds behind the defending champions on a similar strategy. But there is one saving grace, the team focused entirely on long runs according to Russell.

“We know that it’s not about the feeling, but the speed,” Russell said after Day 1 of testing in Bahrain. “Nevertheless, today was about learning and not about chasing performance.

“We’re focused on ourselves at this test, and it will only be next week where we see where we stack up against the others. We will be focused on maximising mileage for learning rather than chasing an optimum sweet spot with the car.”

In what is Hamilton’s final chance to win his eighth drivers’ championship with the Silver Arrows, before he skips town to go to Ferrari, it hasn’t began promisingly if one glances at the timing sheets.

But if the team are already focusing on long-run and race potential, then 2.7 seconds slower than a qualifying lap isn’t a bad situation for them to find themselves in, so it remains to be seen what the true gap is once they begin to push for one-lap performance.

For example, Zhou Guanyu’s fastest lap at the 2023 Bahrain GP was 4.288s slower than Verstappen’s pole time, and for Russell that means he’s encouraged by the opening day for his Mercedes team.

George Russell during Day 1 of 2024 F1 Testing in Bahrain | Mercedes / Sam Bloxham

“We completed lots of laps and have plenty of data to go through tonight,” Russell concluded. “We ended the day in a reasonably good spot, and we can build from here over the next two days.”

Although Sauber, known as Alfa Romeo in 2023, were nowhere near Red Bull in terms of speed, it does, however, highlight the disparity between race runs and qualifying pace. Bear in mind that Zhou’s run would have been on low fuel too as it was set one lap before the chequered flag on Lap 56.

Russell reviews Mercedes car

Another big question for Mercedes, and one that has plagued them for the last two years, is the driveability which has restricted the potential time that the drivers could have extracted from them.

Both Hamilton and Russell have moaned about the tough nature of their previous two cars from porpoising (bouncing) to very sensitive set-up windows and an overly sensitive rear-end that has left them struggling for confidence.

They both attributed poor driveability and set-up margins to the large qualifying gaps between them in 2023, despite both of them having reputations as excellent qualifiers and one-lap specialists.

So how did the 2024 car, created by James Allison, feel to the British racer on Thursday, February 20?

“It was fantastic to drive for the first time with the W15 today,” Russell said. “It seemed like we had a good base to build from.

“We’ve completed a lot of laps, and we have a lot of data to analyse tonight. Overall, the W15 is more enjoyable to drive than the W14.”

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