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Will anyone catch Mercedes?

Will anyone catch Mercedes?

FORMULA ONE: The F1 paddock’s burning question, to be clear, isn’t whether Mercedes can be beaten to the championship; the question is whether Mercedes can be beaten in a race at all.

By Michael Lamonato

Thursday 23 July 2020, 10:30AM

Lewis Hamilton celebrates after dominating the race in Hungary. Photo: AFP

Lewis Hamilton celebrates after dominating the race in Hungary. Photo: AFP

Mercedes has clean swept the three grands prixs, with Lewis Hamilton winning twice from pole and Valtteri Bottas once, and excepting opening-round unreliability, the German marque has been almost entirely unimpeachable.

The Hungarian Grand Prix was only another demonstration of superiority. Hamilton and Bottas battled exclusively for pole, and though the Briton only pipped the Finn by 0.1 seconds, the pair was almost a full second quicker than anyone else.

The race was much the same, at least for Hamilton, who mastered the slippery conditions to build a lead so massive that he had time to make an extra pit stop for fresh tyres without losing the lead just to take the bonus point for fastest lap.

Bottas likely would’ve been nearby had it not been for a dodgy start – the Finn said he was distracted by a light on his dashboard just as the starting lights were illuminating – but his effortless recovery from seventh up to third, just fractionally behind Max Verstappen, was a practical demonstration of the pace inherent in the Mercedes W11.

So what’s happened to the competition?

Red Bull Racing expected to fight for victory at the Hungaroring, a circuit that has typically suited its high-downforce designs, but from Friday the team was adrift from the pace and unsure how to correct its direction.

From preseason testing the car has been precariously balanced, as attested to by both Verstappen and Thai teammate Alex Albon’s several spins and slides. In Budapest it was painfully obvious, and upgrades brought to rectify the problem did nothing but exacerbate the team’s confusion.

In qualifying it was at its worst, with Verstappen seventh and Albon a lowly 13th.

Both recovered strongly in the race, finishing second and fifth respectively, but it would be naïve to put too much stock in Sunday’s recovery. Verstappen was no match for Hamilton, and had Bottas had a better getaway, the Dutchman would’ve finished well behind him rather than 0.75 seconds ahead.

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Perhaps in theory the car has the Mercedes-matching pace the team forecast during testing, but there’s clearly some way to go to realise it in this compressed season.

As for Ferrari, the less said the better. The Italian team had hoped the twisty Hungaroring would negate its substantial power deficit and move it towards the front. It proved correct, but that normalised performance was still more than a second off the pace in qualifying and an entire lap down in the race.

Maranello is now considering organisational changes to bolster its technical department to ensure its slump doesn’t extend into 2022, when new regulations offer the chance for a reset.

And so Mercedes seems on track for an unprecedented season clean sweep. McLaren lost only one race from 16 in 1988 and Mercedes itself took 19 from 21 in 2016, but never has a team gone undefeated in a campaign.

Can anyone beat Mercedes in 2020? Whatever the answer, you can’t help but admire the way the team, almost certainly F1’s best ever, continues to raise the bar.

“We’re working our arse off, and we’re going to continue to do that,” the victorious Hamilton said in Hungary.

“Would I like more battle from other teams? Absolutely … But I think it was a pretty flawless effort from the team this weekend. In all areas [we] really delivered.

“I think it was a little bit difficult for sure to compete when you are bringing that 100 per cent,” he concluded.

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