Could Mercedes' Poor Starts Cost Them a Shot at 3rd Straight Formula 1 Title?

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2016

Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen passed both Mercedes cars at the start of the Australian Grand Prix.
Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen passed both Mercedes cars at the start of the Australian Grand Prix.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Mercedes have won 33 of 39 races since the start of Formula One's hybrid V6 engine era in 2014, so it is difficult to find many faults with the team. If you wanted to point one out, though, it would almost certainly be their starts—especially since about the midway point of the 2015 season.

Either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg have qualified on pole for 37 of those 39 grands prix, but several times at least one of them has suffered a poor start: both drivers last year at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and the Hungaroring in Hungary, Rosberg at Belgium's Spa-Francorchamps and Suzuka in Japan, Hamilton at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, Italy's Monza and at the first race this year at Albert Park in Melbourne, Australia. 

As Ferrari continues to close the gap to the Silver Arrows, it is something the team will need to correct, lest it cost them a chance for a third straight championship season.

"We've conducted that analysis and there is not one single factor you could name and say is the reason why our starts did not go so well," Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff told Autosport's Ian Parkes last August.

"We've seen many various reasons, plus circumstances, why the starts went wrong, and there is no clear pattern. It's just the starts weren't great."

Having qualified on pole at nearly every race, there is nowhere for the Mercs to go but down, but F1 Fanatic's first lap statistics from last year are not flattering for Hamilton or Rosberg.

Most Positions Lost on the First Lap (2015)
DriverAverage Per RaceTotal
Felipe Massa1.7934
Pastor Maldonado0.9415
Nico Rosberg0.6813
Daniel Ricciardo0.6813
Lewis Hamilton0.5310
Max Verstappen0.5310

In 2015, though, the Mercedes cars were so dominant that even losing those places at the starts did not really affect their sprint to the titles. The team won the constructors' championship by 275 points, clinching the title with four races to spare. Likewise, Hamilton finished 103 points ahead of his nearest non-Mercedes challenger, Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel.

This year could be a different story.

It is too early to say for certain, after just one race, but it appears Ferrari have significantly reduced their performance deficit to the Mercs. If that is the case, Hamilton and Rosberg will no longer be able to count on the superiority of their cars over a race distance to make up for their laggard starts.

After the Australian Grand Prix, where both Ferraris jumped the Mercs at the start and Hamilton dropped as low as sixth place after starting on pole, Wolff was at a loss to explain his team's problems at the start.

"Our practice starts weren't very good," he said, per Crash.net's Ollie Barstow. "To be honest I don't know what happened at the start, we need to analyse what it could have been and we are looking to fix it."

Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff doesn't have an answer for his drivers' struggles at the race starts.
Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff doesn't have an answer for his drivers' struggles at the race starts.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was not surprised by the quickness of the Ferraris off the line, according to the same article. "They were aided by a fantastic start, we saw that in pre-season, their starts have been really strong," he said.

That should worry Mercedes, with overtaking between cars of similar speeds so difficult at many circuits. Rosberg and Hamilton were fortunate in Australia with a red flag and Ferrari's subsequently poor tyre strategy, but they will not be able to count on such luck at every grand prix.

Rather than focusing on why he was so slow when the lights went out, Hamilton seemed to pin some of the blame for his tumble down the order on his team-mate. "The actual start wasn't shocking, wasn't the worst, it was just at Turn 1 when Nico ran me off, I lost most ground then," Hamilton said, per ESPN F1's Nate Saunders. "I'm just grateful I was able to recover."

Rosberg was ahead going into the first corner, though, and his use of the entire race track was reminiscent of Hamilton's manoeuvres in Japan and the United States last season, when he brushed away Rosberg's complaints.

"The inside line is the inside line so it was my corner," Hamilton said after the Japanese Grand Prix last year, according to Autosport's Ian Parkes and Glenn Freeman.

And in the U.S., he said, "If I'm in front, then I have a right to the track there," per Autosport's Lawrence Barretto and Mitchell Adam.

Lewis Hamilton (left) pushed Nico Rosberg wide at the start of the US Grand Prix last year.
Lewis Hamilton (left) pushed Nico Rosberg wide at the start of the US Grand Prix last year.Peter J Fox/Getty Images

But intrateam bickering aside, Mercedes would be wise to uncover the problems with their starts and fix them, or the qualifying advantage that helped propel them to back-to-back titles will be rendered moot.

With the team-radio crackdown limiting the amount of information teams can provide to their drivers before and during the races, though, the solutions might be more complicated than a simple software or mechanical adjustment.

Hamilton actually foresaw these problems last year, when the new regulations were implemented. "I expect more unpredictable starts," he said at the time, per the Telegraph's Daniel Johnson. "I imagine it is going to get worse."

Of course, for those of us just hoping for a competitive championship battle, Mercedes' troubled starts could be an answered prayer. For Hamilton and Rosberg, though, might they mark the beginning of the end of two years of dominance?

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