PARIS, May 5, (Agencies): The Mercedes Formula One team published an open letter to fans on Wednesday to counter speculation on social media following the Russian Grand Prix that it favors Nico Rosberg over teammate Lewis Hamilton.
Hamilton, the defending F1 champion, has endured a miserable start to the season and trails Rosberg by 43 points after four races — all of them won by Rosberg, last year’s runner-up.
While Rosberg has driven smoothly as he chases his first world title, Hamilton has been beset by engine problems and the British driver also had to slow down late in Sunday’s Russian GP with a water pressure issue — just as he was closing to within seven seconds of race-leader Rosberg.
Without responding directly to allegations of favoritism, Mercedes still took the trouble to underline that team staff members are not working more “for one driver or the other — but for each other” and that “there is no ‘A’ or ‘B’ team here.”
Mercedes then concluded its letter with a defiant tone to any who suggest wrongdoing.
“To those who stand with us, we thank you. And to the rest — the haters, the naysayers, the conspirators —if we can convince even half of you of what we really stand for, we’ll consider that a battle well won,” Mercedes said.
At the Sochi circuit last weekend, Rosberg took pole position while Hamilton started from 10th place on the grid after another engine failure — caused by an overheating component in the car’s energy recovery system — curtailed his qualifying session early on Saturday.
Rosberg eased to his seventh straight victory after winning the last three races of the previous season, taking a firm grip on this year’s championship.
Meanwhile, a frustrated Hamilton said he was “very, very curious” about what went wrong and has asked for “as much detail as possible” from the team.
In China, the race before, Rosberg again took pole while Hamilton started from the back of the grid because of a similar engine failure. Hamilton was only able to take part in the Russian GP after his team flew out emergency machine parts and worked on his car through the night.
Mercedes said in Wednesday’s letter that it remains “baffled and gutted” by Hamilton’s ongoing engine problems.
“Our goal is not simply to be fast but bulletproof, too,” Mercedes said. “Not just to manage the problems but to understand them, fix them and ensure they are not repeated.”
But these ongoing engine issues mean that Hamilton, who is seeking a fourth world title, could face further grid penalties during the season if he uses more than the allocated numbers of engines and engine spare parts.
Hamilton, who finished seventh at the Chinese GP despite starting last, placed second in Russia after another strong drive through the field and despite a late problem with his car’s water pressure.
“The job he did to nurse the car home and still retain second place was truly remarkable,” Mercedes said Wednesday.
Last year, Mercedes was untouchable as both drivers had a near glitch-free season, with Hamilton wrapping up the title with three races to spare.
Both pre-season testing runs in Spain suggested that Mercedes would be as reliable as ever this year, making Hamilton’s problems now all the more unusual.
“This is a mechanical sport, balancing on the knife-edge of performance and endurance,” Mercedes said. “You have to push the boundaries and failures can happen.”
Meanwhile, Max Verstappen’s sudden promotion to Red Bull will be considered as a slap in the face for Daniil Kvyat, the man he replaces, but it has more to do with the Dutch driver’s potential than the Russian’s failings.
Verstappen, 18, caused a sensation when he came into Formula One with Toro Rosso last season — after being signed as a 16-year-old — and is now considered a future champion.
At last year’s International Automobile Federation (FIA) gala prizegiving he won awards for rookie, personality and action of the year.
Such talent does not go unnoticed by rivals and Verstappen had been already linked to Toro Rosso’s engine partners Ferrari who have Kimi Raikkonen, 37 in October, out of contract at the end of the year.
The word on the paddock grapevine was that Verstappen would be free to go elsewhere if Red Bull did not give him a race seat at the main team for the third year of his current contract.
“I know what contract I have. I am very positive also for next year,” the teenager told Reuters in March.
“I am very happy with Red Bull, I know what the perspective is for next year and the years after,” he added. “Happy to be at Toro Rosso for the moment and to learn more. Then we’ll see next year where we are.”
Germany’s Sebastian Vettel, who won four successive world championships with Red Bull between 2010 and 2013 and is now at Ferrari, made his debut for BMW-Sauber as a stand-in at the 2007 US Grand Prix.
Red Bull, who had Vettel under contract as a junior driver, promptly drafted him in to the Toro Rosso race lineup to make sure he stayed in the fold.
By moving Verstappen up now, after just four races, Red Bull can measure him against Daniel Ricciardo before making a firm decision on 2017.
They can also get the teen fully acclimatised before getting an upgraded Renault engine in Canada next month that should make them more competitive.
Kvyat made his debut with Toro Rosso in 2014 and graduated to Red Bull after just one season, almost by default, when Vettel announced he was leaving.
The Russian, 22, has plenty of admirers for his racecraft and attitude but has struggled to rise to the challenge. He qualified 18th in Australia this year, and did not start, and was 15th on the grid in Bahrain.
While he was third in China last month, and was named Driver of the Day, he clashed with Vettel with the German accusing him of launching himself like a Torpedo and driving like a madman.
In Sochi, his home race, he collided with Vettel twice on the opening lap in a collision that also involved Red Bull team mate Ricciardo.
“Sochi was obviously the final catalyst to changing Kvyat for Verstappen in a bigger picture,” said former racer and TV commentator Martin Brundle on Twitter. “Future contract for MV, takes tension out of MV vs (Carlos) Sainz.”
The late McLaren principal Teddy Mayer once said “drivers are just interchangeable light bulbs, you plug them in and they do the job” but even in a sport with so little sentiment Kvyat’s demotion came as a shock.
“Really? one bad race and Kyvat’s dropped, what about the podium in the previous race? #Shortmemories,” commented McLaren’s Jenson Button on Twitter.
Red Bull have shown a ruthless streak in the past, with a succession of drivers discarded, but Kvyat has at least been handed a second chance to regain some confidence at Toro Rosso. He will still have to prove himself, however.
“We basically have long-term contracts at the Red Bull junior program and the whole program is based on performance,” Red Bull’s motorsport consultant Helmut Marko warned in March. “Be very clear: the one who is not delivering goes.”