When Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas enter the cockpits of their new Mercedes W08s in Melbourne this week, they will, for perhaps the first time in many years, be piloting the Silver Arrows into the unknown.
After three consecutive years of domination from Mercedes, much was made of the chance the 2017 regulations revamp would bring for the German marque to be, if not entirely overhauled, then at least kept honest by the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull.
And whilst it’s clear the team at Brackley have produced no slouch with their new challenger, the signs from testing do appear to be positive for those wanting something other than a season of Mercedes-led processions.
The prodigious speed shown by Ferrari in Barcelona will be a particularly large elephant in the Mercedes garage this weekend. With the test-topping times set by Räikkönen and Vettel still rattling around the paddock consciousness, one could hardly blame Mercedes for having a few flashbacks to last year’s Australian Grand Prix—when both Ferraris breezed past the Silver Arrows at the start, and might have gone on to win had it not been for a strategy blunder allowing Rosberg and Hamilton back in front.
And as if Ferrari’s pace weren’t enough of a concern, the Scuderia may also have another advantage over Mercedes in the handling of its car. Many observed from testing that not only was the SF70-H a potential pacesetter, it also appeared top of the class in terms of drivability; by comparison, the Mercedes W08 seemingly required much more hustling around the lap than its predecessors, and when speaking to Motorsport.com Hamilton suggested the complexity of its aerodynamic package made it difficult to get the car “into a good window”.
If that is indeed the case, Mercedes could well struggle in these early races to unleash its full potential against Ferrari—a problem further compounded by the time it will take to fully integrate both Valtteri Bottas and James Allison into its development process.
It’s undoubtable that Mercedes will continue to be a race-winning and title-contending team this season. But as for this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, they may just have to settle for second-best.
James Matthews, Editor-at-Large