It was not the start to the 2021 Formula 1 season that Mercedes or reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton wanted or expected as they were caught on the back foot as their rivals signalled their intent early on.
It started when Valtteri Bottas struggled to select gears as he started the morning stint and the team opted to change the gearbox which limited the Finn to a handful of laps before he handed the car over to Hamilton for the afternoon stanza.
He too had minor issues with his pedal positioning and mirrors. When the dust settled, the world champs had done less than 50 laps while the big winners on the day were nearly triple that in mileage.
Its hardly a time for alarm bells, but it does raise the question why Mercedes decided to be the only team not to do their 100km Filming Day before they jetted off to Bahrain. A shakedown may have prevented the woes today.
More than most, Mercedes have the ability to dig themselves out of most holes, if this indeed is one of them, and no doubt they will be targeting massive runs on the remaining two days of the three-day test.
Their superstar driver, Hamilton did not appeared too fazed by the early dramas. He reported at the end of the day: “Today definitely wasn’t the cleanest of days that we’ve had but these things are sent to try us.
“Everyone has worked extremely hard to get us here. We had that mishap in the morning which was very unfortunate for Valtteri in terms of losing time on track and the team is working hard to try and understand what that was.
“I think they did a great job to turn the car around. The second session wasn’t without its challenges, but we exist to find solutions to the problems we’re faced with. We just had a good debrief and we’ll keep working away.”
The day was marred by a thick sandstorm that turned the track into a slippery piece of tar, with gusting winds making driving challenging as visibility was clearly not at its best.
Hamilton continued: “I’ve never seen a sandstorm come through here before in all the years that I’ve driven at this circuit. The sand was moving like rain would move.
“Having sand on the tyres isn’t good for their longevity and getting consistency on long runs is difficult. Over a single lap it isn’t the worst, but you need lots of laps at this time of year to get data.”
Day one was not the bullet-proof Mercedes in action we have come to admire but rather like the tired giant waking up a tad late before the start of the battle.
“We have no choice but to take the positives,” explained Hamilton after his 42 lap stint: “I remember in 2007 during testing I had 10 days in the car and now it’s getting less and less.
“We only have a day and a half in the car before the first race, with different tyres and different aero modifications so it’s not easy but it’s the same for everyone. I’d like to think my nine years’ experience with this team will help me get the best out of it.”
Teammate Bottas could only watch and wait as valuable track time went awry, he said afterwards: “The whole team was looking forward to getting on track but on the install lap we noticed an issue with the gearbox so we had to localise the problem and change the gearbox which takes quite a bit of time.
“Only at the end of the morning session could we get back out for a few more laps before the red flag. A total of six laps for me, all with aero rakes on the car so not much running today and not an ideal start.
“In recent years things have been pretty much bulletproof so it’s not a familiar experience. The good thing is that this year if you miss some running you can hopefully catch up because of the mileage limitation linked to the cost cap efficiencies.
“I am confident we can recover and I’m looking forward to two good days over the weekend,” said Bottas who will drive W12 on Saturday afternoon in Bahrain after Hamilton does the morning shift.
Trackside engineering boss Andrew Shovlin added: “It’s been a poor start to the season from us today. We lost more or less the whole morning with Valtteri with a gearbox problem and our workload over lunch meant we were late joining the afternoon session with Lewis.
“Once we got running it was clear we didn’t have the car in the right balance window and while we made some progress during the day, we’re not happy with how the car is performing and it’s pretty clear we have some work to do.
“We’re quite a way behind on our test programme and need to find a bit of balance and speed but we have two days left and every opportunity to recover the situation,” concluded Shovlin.
— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) March 12, 2021