It’s Sunday 28th May on the Cote d’Azur. Interwoven between the twisting hills in front of a clear, breathtaking backdrop, the 2017 Monaco Grand Prix – the showcase event of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship calendar – dances between the streets of Monte Carlo as Ferrari claims it’s first 1-2 finish since Germany in 2010.
It’s a special event on many grounds, not least Kimi Raikkonen’s first pole position since France in 2008. Just as markedly, however, is Mercedes’ lack of performance on a circuit they have dominated since the start of the turbo-hybrid era in 2014.
Even more rarely, the team have no answers. Lewis Hamilton could only manage 14th during qualifying, and in the race an impressive recovery performance nets him only seventh, whilst team-mate Valtteri Bottas can only muster fourth, 5.5 seconds adrift of the winner.
You might think that after winning all but ten Grands Prix since 2014, one off-day would prove irrelevant to the German manufacturer. Incorrect. The response? To keep the team’s engineering and simulator technology running 24/7 for the following ten days in the run up to the Canadian Grand Prix, with meticulous analysis of what went wrong, and how best to prepare for a comeback at the Circuit de Gilles Villeneueve.
The result? Domination – and a first 1-2 finish of the season for Mercedes. Lewis Hamilton, in similar fashion to his maiden victory at the venue back in 2007 for McLaren, was virtually alone up front as he clocked off each lap en route to a winning margin just shy of 20 seconds. And even then, it was the sister car of Bottas behind.
In context, 2017 is the first time Mercedes have been faced with any real challenge. The change in technical and aerodynamic regulations threw Ferrari a lifeline in an increasingly dire came of engine development, allowing Sebastian Vettel a hat-trick of victories thus far, including Monte Carlo.
Complacency seems almost inevitable after such a sustained period of success, including six world titles, but Mercedes insists the competition acts as a stabiliser, keeping the team honest and hard-working with a calm, controlled approach to problem-solving across a Grand Prix weekend.
“Ever since Monaco, the guys and girls in the factory have been flat out,” explained Toto Wolff, Head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport.
“There was no weekend and people working 24/7 to better understand our problems – credit goes to so many people.,
“So to bounce back in this way shows the calibre of the group that we have in the team,
“But the secret to this weekend was to keep the ball flat, stay calm, analyse our problems and come up with solutions. So this is the time to keep our feet on the ground, keep working hard and take it one race at a time,
“We saw some encouraging signs today but we need to working in just the same way to translate them into more success in Baku.”
Wolff’s thoughts were echoed by his decorated driver pairing, with Hamilton notably closing Vettel’s advantage in the standings to just 12 points.
“We came away from Monaco and we were scratching our heads,” admitted Hamilton.
“But we pulled together and look what we achieved. We came here with a much better understanding of the car and we delivered a real blow to the Ferraris. Valtteri did a fantastic job too and this is our first one-two finish together. We’ve scored a big load of solid points and it’s well deserved.”
Valtteri Bottas also alluded to the idea that Mercedes have improved as a result of the threat to their supremacy – an ominous thought indeed to the rest, who have only just begun to play ‘catch up’ after three years of racing to third position behind the Silver Arrows.
“It’s so impressive to see how the team has reacted in the last two weeks – how it’s worked and improved,” he said.
“I’ve never seen a group of people so determined to win and to get back on top, so to get the one-two finish today, it’s amazing.”
The Brackley-based outfit took victory with Nico Rosberg on Formula 1’s last visit to Baku in Azerbaijan, and a repeat performance would certainly strike a blow to Ferrari’s title aspirations.