Mercedes AMG Petronas has gained a lot of attention of late with their unique rear wing design (challenged by other teams and exonerated by the FIA) and the increased performance the team seems to have made in the off season. As Free Practice two ended, seven-time champion Michael Schumacher was second quickest leaving many fans wondering if the team, indeed, has made the jump to the sharp end of the grid to compete for podium positions.
If the first race of the season in Australia is any indicator, and it may not be as it is a street course, then Mercedes have a few hurdles to jump. The race saw the retirement of Schumacher due to a gearbox issue while his teammate, Nico Rosberg, struggled with tire degradation resulting in a lack of grip in his tires to remain competitive. Rosberg has publicly commented as to the degradation and challenges the team are facing on that front.
Pirelli, the sole supplier of tires to the series, have developed a new compound for 2012 and and while the teams did test in the off season, it seems they are now finding that the tires are indeed different from last year. Schumacher had proclaimed the tires more predicatble during winter testing and yet rumors suggest that Mercedes is struggling with a high rate of degradation on their rear tires in the first race in Australia. Pirelli's motor sport boss, Paul Hembery, told AUTOSPORT:
"I don't think Michael was in a situation that you could judge. He was going extremely well until he stopped [with a gearbox problem].
"And Nico was either in a position where he was attacking cars in front or defending a position. That made him more aggressive than he ordinarily would be, because to try and overtake you have to be very aggressive.
"So you have to look at it under the context of how much pressure he was under. That probably was a major factor in that."
In short, Hembery believes Rosberg's challenges were due to aggression whilst defending or attacking. Unfortunately those two conditions in racing are usually common and frequent during a race. The tires have a natural disparity between the mandated 'prime' tire and 'option' tire which each team must use during a race and Hembery says the delta is approximately 0.500 of a second but this difference is not the same for all teams.
This weekend's race in Malaysia is considered by many as a better measuring stick in which to see the teams true pace against their rivals Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari. A purpose-built circuit has an equalising impact on the cars and presents a more uniform measurement of each team rather than the street courses such as Australia's race in Albert Park. For Rosberg's part, he feels the team may be coming to grips with their tire wear issue:
"We've had a decent start today at one of our home races here in Malaysia so I'm quite happy. We learned a lot about how to use our tyres, and I feel things are going in the right direction but I don't know where we are compared to the others. It will be very interesting how we can manage the situation on Sunday."
Time will tell but if Mercedes have made significant gains in performance in the off season, they may find that they've traveled a bridge too far in gaining that performance at the cost of grip levels which will negate every inch they've gained in speed.