Sebastian Vettel’s lights-to-flag victory from pole position at the Canadian Grand Prix was a shot in the arm for Ferrari’s title ambitions, but for Mercedes boss Toto Wolff it sounded alarm bells.
Mercedes was the pre-race favourite for the Canadian Grand Prix, and for good reason. Since the introduction of the turbo-hybrid engine regulation in 2014 the German marque has had a distinct advantage at tracks like the power-sensitive Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, and combined with Lewis Hamilton, the second most successful driver at the North American race, the Silver Arrows have been unstoppable every year bar 2014, when brake failure cruelled a certain Hamilton victory.
But in 2018 Mercedes’s engine dominance has unravelled at the hands of a rejuvenated Ferrari team, and there are few places for the reigning constructors champion to hide.
Pole position at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, another power-sensitive track, was initial confirmation, but Hamilton’s fortuitous victory after a safety car and late-race puncture for teammate Valtteri Bottas dulled the significance of what for most of the race looked like a sure-fire Vettel win.
In Canada, however, Mercedes’s lost ground was plain to see, with Bottas finishing an inoffensive second behind an unreachable Vettel and Hamilton fifth after being jumped by Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo.
The result returned Sebastian Vettel to the top of the drivers championship table with a one-point advantage over Hamilton and closed Ferrari’s deficit to Mercedes in the constructors standings to just 16 points.
The relative anonymity of the result, the team outraced and outfoxed by both its championship rivals, left Mercedes feeling “the opposite of confident,” according to Wolff, who told Austrian TV station ORF that his team needed to “wake up”.
“We have fallen behind in every respect,” he said. “This is a track where we should have maximised points.
“It is a strong track for us, but all weekend long we did little mistakes, from the beginning on.”
The trouble started on the Wednesday before the race, when Mercedes discovered a “quality issue” that forced it to delay the introduction of its latest-specification power unit, which was due to debut in Canada.
It left Mercedes as the only engine manufacturer without an upgrade on Montreal, putting it immediately on the back foot.
“I think you need to get the right balance between pushing the development very hard, adding performance to the car, and at the same time keeping reliability,” Wolff said in his post-race debrief, but he refused to put his team’s poor performance down to the engine.
“It is more that we have seen today a Ferrari that has been the stronger car,” he said. “Stronger in qualifying, stronger in the race, and at no time did we have a real chance to fight for the win.”
“I think this is — and we’ve had it in the past — a major wake-up call for every single member of the team.
“Everybody needs to assess how to improve performance in order to optimise on those marginal gains because those marginal gains are going to make all the difference.”
Mercedes has been in this territory before, most recently at last year’s Monaco Grand Prix, where a similar result forced the team into a major review its car. It dominated the next race — the 2017 Canadian Grand Prix.
How Mercedes responds this year, with Ferrari sailing on a wind of confidence and Red Bull Racing threatening to become involved in the fight for victory, could define whether the four-time championship-winning team can compete for five titles in a row.