Outside Line: What to Make of Mercedes’ Preseason?

Unable to match Ferrari for either short or long-run pace, the 2019 Formula 1 World Championship season seems set to provide Mercedes with its toughest fight yet.

From one annual event to another, 2019 preseason testing is officially in the books, and now we can all take part in the yearly tradition of questioning Mercedes.

Sure, they might have won every title for the last half-decade, but that never seems to stop doubting, and this year was certainly no different.

Losing the vaunted “preseason championship” for the third year in a row to Ferrari, the past two weeks have seen plenty of the usual rumour-mongering and naysaying we’ve come to expect both in and outside the team this time of year, and yet with what seems like added volume this time around, it’s fair to wonder if the concerns aren’t unfounded.

Certainly if you’re comparing Mercedes’ testing performance year-on-year, this is their “worst” preseason of the V6 turbo era. In 2014 and ’15, there was absolutely no doubt they had the best package, and it naturally followed those seasons were a one-horse race.

2016 saw Ferrari make great strides, but at the same time it was clear Mercedes was prioritising reliability over all else, and they duly romped to the title again. 2017 and ’18 both saw the Ferrari hype train going full steam ahead (particularly in ’17) with some rapid lap times, but the Silver Arrows had generally stronger race pace that could assuage some concerns, and eventually they did pull away when it mattered.

This year however, they’ve been neither faster outright, nor on the long-runs, and it’s the consensus opinion across the F1-verse is that the Scuderia is better.

Of course, it’s not like Mercedes have been bad in Barcelona – Lewis Hamilton finishing 0.003s off Sebastian Vettel on the final day certainly isn’t a disaster – but it’s the lack of a “yeah, but still” response to Ferrari’s pace that is concerning.

Hamilton himself thinks his team is “half a second” behind, and while he’s certainly cried wolf enough times to take that statement with a grain of salt, if calculations provided by the BBC are accurate, this might be the occasion where just like the eponymous boy, he is finally telling the truth.

Further to that point, when rumours are flying out like the tidbit dropped by F1TV’s Will Buxton midweek – wherein a Mercedes rival suggested they could be pursuing two entirely different development paths, swapping on a race-by-race basis over the course of the season – it’s hard not to take notice. If this is even remotely true, it’s pretty damn extraordinary.

Developing one car is hard enough (not to mention expensive), let alone two, but if they’ve been unable to nail-down a concept the way Ferrari have (and it definitely seems like the Italians have stolen a march with their front-wing design), it does make sense they’d try something radical in order to keep up.

In any case, Mercedes head to Melbourne with an honest-to-goodness fight on their hands. At the very least, Ferrari have delivered a better car out-of-the-box, and while it’s far, far too early to panic, it’s certainly left Mercedes with more to prove at this point of a season than any other in their half-decade of dominance.

Barcelona F1 Test Day 8: Vettel tops with Hamilton very close