French Grand Prix: A win at Circuit Paul Ricard is a necessity for Mercedes

Neither Hamilton or Bottas claimed any points last time out in Baku as team struggle to keep pace with Red Bull

epa09249449 British Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes-AMG Petronas reacts at parc ferme after he took second position during the qualifying session for the Formula One Grand Prix of Azerbaijan at the Baku City Circuit in Baku, Azerbaijan, 05 June 2021. The 2021 Formula One Grand Prix of Azerbaijan will take place on 06 June.  EPA/Maxim Shemetov / POOL

Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team go to France this weekend on the back foot, praying for change.

They have suffered the worst two-race spell in eight years as the dominant force in F1. The last round, in Baku, was only the third time since 2016 they have failed to get either car in the points.

And it is the first time in the recent hybrid era both their drivers have finished and failed to make the top 10.

The usual message has been: if a Mercedes is still running it’s winning.

Well, not any more.

Their unbeatable, unrelenting race machine has become something of a prima donna.

While they have, quite brilliantly, engineered their car out of its Friday funk, there is the unresolved conundrum that the qualifying speed comes without lasting race performance.

To add to their confusion Hamilton was the one all at sea for qualifying in Monaco but it was teammate Valtteri Bottas off the pace in Azerbaijan.

On tight circuits with claustrophobically close walls the duo failed to find the trust in their Mercedes to take it to the limit.

One team source admitted the engineers changed so much in their desperate search for a solution that when some kind of performance eventually materialised they had no idea why.

Shortened practice sessions at Grands Prix hasn’t helped, but then everyone is in the same boat.

While Baku and Monaco are street tracks, atypical F1 venues, Paul Ricard is the polar opposite - a plush F1 testing facility tailormade by Bernie Ecclestone’s billions - and one where Mercedes have a recognised pedigree, Hamilton having banked 25 points from pole in each of the last two visits.

Of course Mercedes' vista has changed considerably in the two years since, indeed even in the last few weeks: for one thing Red Bull's new racer Sergio Perez has got the winning habit.

And two Red Bulls running at the front can only be the worst kind of news for Hamilton’s ambitions.

Christian Horner’s operation can run different strategies on the two cars to confound the world champion.

And it’s significant that Red Bull are coming into this crucial phase of the title fight in a markedly different place to Mercedes.

Perez and Verstappen enjoy an open, jokey and friendly relationship full of new beginnings.

While Hamilton and Bottas’ bond is as frayed as you might expect when one is a relentlessly battered bag man, living off scraps and nursing unrequited championship dreams.

And before the end of the summer we will surely know officially – as I believe the Finn already does – he is on his way to other pastures for 2022. Hardly the best foundations for a title challenge.

But things can’t be that bad at Mercedes, can they?

While many are convinced that, as history suggests, Mercedes will emerge victorious, the present is very much weighted against them.

Last season Hamilton ran outside the top six for just 30 laps. He has racked up double that in the first six races of this year.

A glance at the driver’s championship suggest it’s very much neck-and-neck with Verstappen fostering a wafer-thin advantage.

But a dive into the detail points to something quite different. The Dutchman has led every race so far but one, Portugal, and significant portions of them at that.

Though very much in the cut and thrust, Hamilton has been in front for less than nine laps in three of the first six Grands Prix, not one tour in Monaco and just two laps in Imola.

Of course, you only have to lead for one lap to be the winner but Verstappen has led one lap short of three times more than Hamilton (251 to 84).

It’s a tribute to the remarkable teamwork of Hamilton and Mercedes that they have conjured three wins from that. It’s also a sobering perspective if you are sitting behind a desk in Brackley.

Bottas, languishing in sixth in the driver’s championship and without a win this year, is probably a better reflection of where Mercedes would be without Hamilton.

But even he is beginning to feel the strain.

Lauded for his usually metronomic reliability under pressure he made a rookie mistake in Baku as he hit the “magic” brake balance button and went careering off the circuit at the re-start.

In an instant what could have been a hard-earned win ended in 18th behind, ironically, George Russell.

Far from being championship favourites some statistics suggest Mercedes are desperately hanging on by their finger tips.

So a win at Paul Ricard is not just a requirement, it’s a necessity.

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