British F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton is under-appreciated, says Mercedes team chief Totto Wolff / © AFP
Five days after a one-two triumph so comprehensive it sparked heated debate about Formula One's future, Lewis Hamilton's Mercedes team revisit this weekend the scene of last season's darkest hour.
Team chief Toto Wolff, a native Austrian who knows the Spielberg circuit well, described the double DNF (Did Not Finish) in last year's Austrian Grand Prix as the team's lowest point in an otherwise hugely-successful season.
"That race was a cruel reminder of how quickly things can go wrong in our sport and that reliability and performance go hand in hand in F1," he said.
"This year, our race finishing record has been good, but it would be complacent to ignore the fact that for two weekends in a row now, our mechanics had to perform the equivalent of 'open-heart surgery' on our cars.
"We've faced a number of different issues on different components, each of which could have easily caused us to retire, so we need to get on top of those challenges as quickly as possible."
Despite those emergencies in Montreal and Le Castellet, Mercedes proved they have the resources and staff to cope and respond –- demonstrating why they are an exceptional champion team and not solely reliant on Hamilton’s extraordinary talent.
Furthermore, despite their clear supremacy and record run of eight successive season-opening wins, Wolff has been at pains to suggest recent criticism of the sport has been misjudged and, some observers believe, may indicate a widespread lack of understanding or other factors.
- Unexpected twists -
In particular, he pointed out that Hamilton is under-appreciated, notably in his native Britain, and should be recognised as "maybe the best driver that has ever existed."
He also warned that Spielberg’s short lap, the altitude in the Styrian Alps, and forecasts of another weekend of searing heat, could make cooling a problem for everyone and throw up a race packed with unexpected twists.
"What is clear for us is that we need to keep working diligently, stay humble and give it everything to do a better job than we managed 12 months ago," he said.
Rivals Ferrari, meanwhile, still stinging from the setbacks suffered in Canada and France, plan to introduce more upgrades as they seek to resolve their car’s performance problems.
They used a new floor and updated front and rear wings at Le Castellet, without success, reverting back to a previous floor during the weekend.
"We brought some upgrades, some worked well, others not," said team boss Mattia Binotto.
"I think it’s always a shame when something is not working so we’ve got some homework to do, but that’s ensuring that we’ve got some margin to improve the car."
He added that Ferrari were set to consider reducing outright straight-line speed in favour of adding down-force to improve cornering.
After finishing third, with Charles Leclerc, and seventh, with Sebastian Vettel, Binotto said they were pleased to be racing again immediately.
"We are happy to be getting back on track so quickly because it's the best way to put ourselves to the test."
Both of the leading teams can expect a strong challenge also from Red Bull with Renault and McLaren also likely to maintain their improved mid-season form.