SAKHIR, Bahrain — Usually so impressive, Mercedes is in the uncommon position of having a point to prove at the Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend.
World champion Lewis Hamilton must overcome the frustration of being denied victory at the season-opening Australian GP by his own team’s careless computer error. Teammate Valtteri Bottas has to compete far better if he’s to live up to his own preseason talk.
Bottas spoke confidently of being good enough to challenge for the title, rather than playing the role of ideal No. 2 to Hamilton.
He did little to back that up in Australia two weeks ago, finishing eighth.
A clumsy error in qualifying led to a crash and a further grid penalty for a gearbox change. But it was his lack of speed which was really alarming. He was unable to overtake Nico Hulkenberg, who finished seventh in a considerably slower Renault.
“It was a bad weekend, that’s it,” Bottas said somewhat dismissively on Thursday. “There’s no point in gathering pressure from one mistake.”
Although the Finn insists he has “processed” out the negativity from his Melbourne mishap, It was hardly the way to impress his bosses.
He can ill afford further slips, considering his contract expires at the end of the season. Mercedes will decide at some point this year whether to keep him. He won three races last year and will probably need to do better to prevent Mercedes choosing someone else.
Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo is available next season and has been publicly weighing up his options. Mercedes is also reportedly considering a move for Force India driver Esteban Ocon, who is tipped for a bright future.
Mercedes, meanwhile, also needs to do some fine-tuning.
The team blamed a computer bug from an offline software tool for the timing error which cost Hamilton victory in Melbourne, where he was in control of the race but suddenly found himself behind Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel coming out of the pit lane.
The incident occurred after a virtual safety car was deployed. Mercedes misjudged the time gap to Vettel when he came into the pits and Hamilton stayed out at a slower speed, enabling Vettel to pull ahead and win.
It led to irritation from Hamilton and caused introspection within the team, especially since Mercedes rarely make errors of any sort. Mercedes has won the past four drivers’ and constructors’ championships in dominant style, building a reputation for supreme efficiency.
“I guess if we’d started third and finished second, it’s a different feeling to starting first and finishing second. You never want to be moving backward, it was definitely difficult for us,” Hamilton said. “Everyone in the team felt the same pain. We all sat together after the race, had a drink together and (were) incredibly unified. Certain individuals have probably had more sleepless nights than others.”
Vettel’s confidence will be high after being gifted a win in Australia, and his 100th podium finish to boot. The German driver is eyeing a second straight victory in Bahrain and fourth of his career — having twice won here with Red Bull.
“Historically, Ferrari has been strong here,” Bottas said. “Last year they had stronger pace here. They’re going to be close to us.”
Sunday’s race will also further show whether McLaren has finally turned the corner, following a switch to Renault engines on the back of three miserable years with Honda.
Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso finished fifth in Australia and is confident he can challenge for a podium again this season.
For the first time, Alonso says, McLaren can control its own fate rather than worrying if the engine will fail.
“There is still a lot to improve if we want to catch the top three teams. But we have some potential,” Alonso said. “The next two months are crucial for our hopes in this championship. Hopefully some podium positions during the year. It’s the first time in the last few years it’s up to us to deliver.”
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Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jeromepugmire