Same again or all change? Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes face Bahrain challenge
MANANMA, Bahrain - Lewis Hamilton's team chief Toto Wolff is confident that champions Mercedes can bounce back from a poor pre-season test and fight for victory in Sunday's season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
The Austrian boss, who conceded that the team had suffered a "tough test" in Bahrain earlier this month, said he believed his outfit would draw on its experience and strengths to recover as Hamilton goes in pursuit of an unprecedented eighth title.
"This team's biggest strengths are our people and our values and after a tough time I know that we can fight back stronger," said Wolff.
"It was a tricky three days – the W12 car wasn't as stable, predictable or planted as some of our rivals – and Red Bull looked strong on both the long and the short runs, but as always with testing, it's difficult to be certain of true performance."
As Wolff and Mercedes pledged to recover, chief rivals and – for some paddock observers – favourites Red Bull played down the potential of their dominant show in testing at the Bahrain International Circuit, where this weekend's race takes place.
"I know people are excited and think we are just saying this, but Mercedes are still the favourites," said Red Bull's Max Verstappen, who hopes to end Hamilton's run of six drivers' titles in seven years with Mercedes.
"How can they not be when they have won seven world championships in a row?
"I'm sure Mercedes also want people to think we are the favourites and put the pressure on us, but we are just focused on ourselves."
Red Bull team chief Christian Horner went further by suggesting that it suited Mercedes to escape the spotlight.
"There is no denying that after the smooth running of the three-day test in Bahrain, there seems to be an excitement that we can end Mercedes' seven-year dominance of F1," he said in Red Bull's Unleash The Bulls column.
"But we had a debrief after the test and it is fair to say we are a little more cautious on the subject and we cannot underestimate the size of the challenge ahead of us on many fronts.
"We know that Mercedes have not won by mistake for the past seven years -- they are a quality high-class team that will be motivated to come back stronger.
"We saw it a couple of years ago when there was a similar story during pre-season testing and then they smashed it out of the park at the first race in Melbourne."
Mercedes won 13 of the 17 races in a Covid-19 affected season last year, Hamilton triumphing 11 times.
However, his dominance tailed off when he contracted the disease and, after delaying signing a one-year contract for 2021, faces intense speculation about his future.
Hamilton has become involved in many other campaigns, issues and interests, not least after being seen as a leading figure in the sport's anti-racism campaign.
On-track, Hamilton is sure to be challenged not only by Verstappen and his new team-mate Sergio Perez, but his own Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas with much-improved McLaren, having switched to Mercedes power this season, expected to be very close behind.
McLaren's recruitment of Daniel Ricciardo to join Lando Norris will give them greater competitive experience while Carlos Sainz's switch to succeed four-time champion Sebastian Vettel should re-invigorate Ferrari after a dismal 2020.
Vettel, in turn, may need patience with Aston Martin – formerly Racing Point – as will returning two-time champion Fernando Alonso at Alpine, formerly Renault.