You can sense a clutching of straws this week as F1 websites make headlines from Toto Wolff’s suggestion that Mercedes have concerns over reliability. That’s a bit like saying the Greenwich Time Signal may falter because of recent adverse weather in the London area.
Buying in to such hints of pessimism can be more accurately portrayed as a reflection of F1’s desperate need to have anyone other than Mercedes dominate the championship for a fifth successive season.
With the greatest respect to the guys from Brackley and Brixworth, a win for either Lewis Hamilton or Valtteri Bottas in Melbourne next Sunday will cause further hurt to prospective viewing figures already damaged by global pay walls growing in height.
A Mercedes victory may not be what F1 needs right now but the fine print at the bottom of the reigning champion’s Australian Grand Prix preview suggests it is likely despite Wolff’s judicious words.
The silver cars covered 4,841 kms during testing; a distance greater than any other team for the fifth year running. That’s almost three-quarters of an entire season’s race mileage. Apart from showing obvious reliability, the W09 - according to seasoned observers – appeared to be well balanced and without any serious performance vices. The ‘Diva’ of 2017, for the moment at least, appears to have become more pleasant company for Lewis and Valtteri.
The only thing we have been unable to assess is their one-lap pace. But even in the unlikely event of a performance shortfall on the Ultrasoft in Q3 next Saturday, there’s always the feeling that Hamilton – if he continues the supreme form shown in the second half of 2017 - will carry the car on his back to a 73rd pole position.
Wolff says he hopes battle will be joined between his team and those of Ferrari and Red Bull. It is an honest claim based on a racer’s desire to get stuck into the heat of competition. Whether that wish is fulfilled or not remains an open question unanswered by the vagaries of testing.
Lap times can be adjusted – taking into account different tyre compounds, cool conditions, estimated fuel loads – until you are blue in the face but such semi-educated guesswork will be rendered obsolete by what happens on a totally different track this weekend. Plus the fact that boxes tumbling as we speak onto the baggage carousels at Melbourne airport contain upgrades capable – so computers say – worth fractions of a second that could make the difference in such a deeply competitive environment.
Ferrari’s curmudgeonly policy of ‘no comment’ is unhelpful for anyone hoping to learn if Maranello has learned from the disastrous driver and technical errors that, arguably, cost them the championship last year. But the potential has to be there, just as surely as Red Bull appear to be entering this season better prepared than before even though the Renault engine may – or may not - remain a few horsepower short.
Hope springs eternal from media keyboards. Which is why previews are peppered with phrases such as ‘….could spring a surprise’, ‘….could challenge to be best of the rest’, ‘…could be a dark horse’, ‘…potentially an exciting season’.
Clutching at straws? I hope not. But regardless of which team sets the pace, the more important question surely has to be whether or not cumbersome cars weighing half a tonne can actually provide a decent motor race. There’s more chance of a failure in that department than there is under the skin of a W09.