On the face of it, the Austrian Grand Prix was a hammer blow for Mercedes' championship.
Not only did the team fail to score on a circuit where it had looked dominant all weekend, it showed clear weaknesses in both reliability and race strategy during a championship battle in which the smallest slip-up can result in a major swing in momentum. If Lewis Hamilton fails to win the drivers' championship in November, Mercedes will quite rightly look back at Sunday's result as one of the major turning points of its season.
And yet, Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari may also look back at the Austrian Grand Prix as a missed opportunity. On the rarest of weekends when both Mercedes retired, it was Red Bull's Max Verstappen and not Vettel who took maximum points. The reason was not down to Red Bull having a superior car -- although nothing should be taken away from Verstappen's remarkable drive from fourth on the grid to victory -- Vettel missing out on victory essentially boiled down to a careless error during qualifying.
Had Vettel been studying his halo-mounted mirrors towards the end of Q2, he would have clearly seen the Renault of Carlos Sainz closing behind him and moved aside on the following straight. Instead he assumed the Renault had pitted and ended up clumsily blocking Sainz on the exit of Turn 1. A three-place grid penalty followed and, ultimately, ten points went missing Sunday afternoon.
What's curious about both missed opportunities is that they were not the first of their kind in the opening six races. Mercedes's strategy has been questionable on at least three occasions this year, and while reliability on car 44 has been good up until now, car 77 has a different story to tell.
Equally, Vettel's error was the second careless mistake in as many races after his first corner collision with Bottas in France, and those mistakes add to the points that went missing in Azerbaijan when he misjudged a lunge for the lead after a late Safety Car. Each individual error from both sides are understandable and excusable in the normal course of racing, but added up over the course of a year they can be the difference between winning and losing a title.
What went wrong for Mercedes?
"For me this was the most painful day in my years at Mercedes, worse than Barcelona," team boss Toto Wolff said after Sunday's race. Considering the "Barcelona" he is referring to was an on-track collision between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg on the opening lap of a race the team should have won, that's saying something. But while that was two individuals letting a team down, Sunday's double retirement was the result of a team letting two individuals down.
Up until lap 14 of the race, it appeared as though business had returned to usual for Mercedes. The combination of an engine upgrade in France and a new aerodynamic package for Austria had yielded a 0.334s advantage over Vettel in qualifying on a track where margins are usually measured in thousandths of a second. There was every reason to believe that advantage would extend in to the race and in the paddock there were already murmurings of Mercedes making a break from Ferrari at the front of the field.
"I had plenty of people coming to see me before the race and saying it would be 'a walk in the park', 'an easy one-two', saying 'you have the quickest car', and I said 'let's talk in two hours'," Wolff said on Sunday evening after witnessing Mercedes' first double mechanical retirement since the 1955 Italian Grand Prix. "And this is exactly how motor racing can go. It can be very, very cruel and we had all the cruelty go against us today ... and it just got us brutally."
Aside from anything else, it was reliability that caught Mercedes out. The strategy error (which will be addressed below) was costly at the time, but wouldn't have been an issue had the Virtual Safety Car not been deployed following Bottas' retirement with a hydraulic issue caused by a fault in the power steering system. A completely separate problem accounted for Hamilton's loss of fuel pressure on lap 62, but after initial investigations neither problem could be linked with the recent batch of engine and aero upgrades delivered over the past two weeks. Although rare for Mercedes, such problems happen in Formula One and the timing of both on a dominant weekend for the team was simply unfortunate. And perhaps that's why so much of the attention after the race was focused on the strategy blunder.
When the VSC came out, a clear opportunity arose to pit at a reduced racing speed. In most circumstances it is a no-brainer as it minimises the time lost changing tyres relative to the rest of the field, but Mercedes got caught in two minds. As the lead car on the track, Hamilton ran the risk of Ferrari splitting its strategy behind him and leaving Raikkonen on track if he pitted.
While Hamilton would have held an advantage over Raikkonen having made his pit stop under the VSC, the Finn could have been used to back him into Vettel and bring the second Ferrari back into the game. In an error of judgement, Mercedes decided to leave Hamilton out, wait to see what its rivals did and then make a decision. Perhaps predictably both Ferraris and both Red Bulls pitted, triggering a radio message to Hamilton to do the same on the following lap if the VSC was still active when he arrived at the pit lane entrance. As things transpired, the VSC ended before Hamilton completed the lap, meaning he was forced to stay out.
"At that stage with the VSC, pitting is probably 80 percent the thing you need to do," Wolff said after the race. "With one car out there against two others, the thinking process was what would happen if the others split their cars?
"If we pit Lewis would we come out behind Kimi Raikkonen or behind Max Verstappen and what would that mean for the race?"
Back on track, the penny soon dropped in car 44 that the lead had been lost and Hamilton was not happy.
"What the hell was that?" he asked his race engineer Peter Bonnington. "How did we miss that? I've got no tyre left."
By the time he had pitted and resumed the race in fourth place, head strategist James Vowles came on the radio to issue an apology.
"Lewis, it's James," Vowles said. "We're still with you mate. It's my mistake. But give us what you can. There will be opportunities later."
At that point Hamilton had tyres ten laps younger than his rivals, but he was having to push hard to stay in touch with Kimi Raikkonen and keep Vettel at bay. Combined with hotter track temperatures than the car had been set up for, the surface of his rear tyres started to overheat and bubble up into blisters. Mercedes could see the issue developing on its data and called on Hamilton to ease up -- but understandably it did not go down well. With Vettel now directly behind Hamilton and the situation getting worse, Vowles joined the radio conversation once more.
"Lewis, it's James. I have thrown the win away today but you have the potential opportunity to get back up. Just let the tyres cool. We trust in you and believe in you. I'm sorry."
Ricciardo had suffered the same problem in front of Hamilton and pitted, but his pace on new super-softs meant he was already back inside Hamilton's pit window, so when Hamilton made his eventual pit stop to shed his blistered rear tyres he dropped to fifth overall behind both Ferraris and both Red Bulls. He gained one position back when Ricciardo retired due to a broken exhaust cooking the rear of his car, but at that stage the lone Mercedes was 22 seconds off Vettel and told to turn down his engine to consolidate points. The race up to that point had already been a disaster, but then took its final turn for the worse as Hamilton experienced a loss of fuel pressure and retired.
"For Lewis he was leading the race comfortably, and then coming out in P4, it was a moment where he was really suffering," Wolff said. "We thought it wasn't all over, and we wanted to recover the maximum points that we could.
"At that stage we were all in pain at the mistake we made and James coming on to the radio is the mindset that we had to say that we have done a mistake in order to close the matter. And also to give Lewis the piece of mind that there is complete acknowledgement within the that it has gone wrong and it is our mistake -- in order to make him park the thought."
Does Mercedes have a problem with strategy?
Hamilton also lost the lead of the Australian Grand Prix due to a strategy miscalculation under a Virtual Safety Car, although that had its roots in a software miscalculation rather than pitting at the wrong time. In Bahrain, the Mercedes pit wall failed to recognise a Ferrari one-stop strategy, leaving it too late for Valtteri Bottas to mount an attack on Sebastian Vettel at the end of the race. And in China it made another questionable call when it opted against mimicking Daniel Ricciardo's race-winning strategy with Hamilton -- although the team still insists it would not have gained the same kind of advantage by doing so.
Hamilton has been off form occasionally but is yet to make a glaring error, leading to suggestions that the team is letting him down. But when it was put to Wolff that perhaps it is a time for a change, he insisted that would not be the case.
"No, we don't need to make changes. The most important thing is to understand why an error happens and go back into the situation and analyse. I don't think we'd make an error twice. The situation is very difficult this year, we are fighting, six cars, and that is just a tough situation."
The competitive situation is arguably the biggest difference this year. In previous seasons of dominance, Mercedes would have got away with some of the strategic errors and reliability issues its made this year, but with three teams in the running for victory at each round in 2018, it has become all the more important to avoid errors in every facet of the team.
Mercedes not alone in missing an opportunity
Regardless of any potential finger pointing on the pit wall, reliability was the bigger issue for Mercedes in Austria. It was Mercedes' first double mechanical retirement since the 1955 Italian Grand Prix or, more relevantly, its first since returning to F1 as a constructor in 2010. The fact Ferrari didn't pounce on that rare lapse in reliability is almost as big a failing as the double retirement itself. Vettel had the second fastest car in Austria and had it not been for his penalty in qualifying he would have been in a position to ease to victory when the two Mercedes stopped.
Ferrari's pit wall also has to take a proportion of the blame for the incident after the stewards' report confirmed it failed to inform Vettel of Sainz's position on track. But ultimately the report awarded the penalty because Vettel failed to react and given his years of experience in this qualifying format, it was a suprisingly silly error from the four-time world champion.
"It is the belief of the stewards that notwithstanding the absence of a radio call, the driver of car 5, being aware of the issue of rear vision with his mirrors, should not have been so slow and on the racing line during a slowdown lap in qualification," the stewards said.
As things stand Vettel has a one-point lead in the title race, but at the last two grand prixs Mercedes has had a noticeably quicker car. Ferrari are bound to battle back in the development race over the coming weeks, but ultimately the winner of this year's title will be the team and driver combination that limits its mistakes from this point onwards.
Austria should have been a final warning call for both sides.