Mercedes’ have long been the gold-standard of Formula 1, in terms of engineering and race-tactics. Whatever be your thoughts about some of their in-race decisions this season, it’s undeniable that the 2021 Mercedes Power Unit has dealt with significantly more gremlins than in previous seasons.
Both Mercedes cars took their 3rd new Power Unit in Spa with a fresh MGU-H, MGU-K, and Turbocharger. However, Valtteri Bottas took another set of MGU-H, MGU-K, and an ICE in Monza, this time coming with a 20-place grid penalty. There was a significant difference in race-pace between Lewis’ one-race old engine and Bottas’ new one at the Italian Grand Prix. Bottas cut through the field with ease before coming unstuck behind Sergio Perez’s Red Bull, who he eventually passed for a scintillating P3 finish. All the while Hamilton found himself stuck behind the McLaren of Lando Norris for majority of the first stint, before being quite rudely boarded by Max Verstappen, ending both their races. However, Bottas’ last-to-third drive didn’t come without consequence as he was operating on a significantly higher engine mode (the notorious ‘party-mode’ if you will) which caused significant degradation to the Power Unit.
In the wake of Bottas’ second grid penalty in a row at the Russian Grand Prix, both driver and team admitted their concerns regarding the reliability of the Power Unit post-race. One could fathom a guess that the most unreliable parts of the engine were the MGU-H, ICE, and the Turbo Charger, as these units were no-more than 2 races old and had to be changed again in Sochi. All 3 also play a significant role in the ERS deployment and in generating Power. Knowing that Lewis is yet to change his, you could assume that Mercedes have been running Lewis’ engine at a lower mode to minimise degradation which also goes a long way in explaining, why he has only led 11 laps in the previous 4 races.
The chance of Hamilton needing a fourth power unit – and therefore receiving a grid penalty – before the end of the season seems quite high. That could be a blow against Verstappen, who was able to rise from 20th to 2nd in the Russian GP after taking his fourth engine of the year.
It is a given that a Mercedes driven by Lewis Hamilton is capable of finishing near the front, despite starting at the very back. However Mercedes’ prospects of recovering in-race to the tail of Max Verstappen are hampered by the strength of their own customer-team in McLaren. McLaren are running a similar spec Mercedes engine, however their car seems more efficient in managing the ERS degradation. Several times this season, we have seen Lewis Hamilton stuck behind Norris or Ricciardo on circuits that have favoured the Silver Arrows.
A grid penalty for Lewis, married with the relatively poor qualifying performances of Perez and Bottas probably means it will be one or both of the McLarens splitting Max and Lewis at the end of the race. Inability to overtake might result in 15 point-swing in favour of Max.
So where should Mercedes take this grid-penalty to minimise the damage? Of the upcoming 7 races, Brazil and Mexico are traditional Red-Bull circuits, and Qatar and Saudi Arabia are complete unknowns as the team have never raced there. This leaves us with COTA, Abu Dhabi, and Turkey. The season finale at Yas Marina is certainly not the time to take an engine penalty, so grid penalties might be in the offing for Hamilton later at the Circuit Of The Americas or as early as this weekend in Turkey. Both are circuits where Hamilton has showed, it is very much possible to overtake.