French GP: Mercedes keep F1 guessing over engine upgrade

Mercedes are staying tight-lipped on whether they are using their upgraded engine in Friday practice at the French GP.

However, Sky F1 understands the new units will be used at some point during Friday’s two sessions as the world champions evaluate whether they are ready to race after reliability concerns delayed their planned introduction.

“It’s our understanding that Mercedes are running the new-spec engine that they didn’t want to use in Canada,” reported David Croft.

Although the specification has not been confirmed, Mercedes started Practice One at Paul Ricard with fresh engines installed on the cars driven by Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas plus customers Force India and Williams.

The engines are either the ‘new’ upgrade originally planned for Canada, which is believed to be worth one tenth of a second of extra lap time, or fresh versions of the specification used since the start of the season.

Mercedes say they will detail their engine strategy after Practice Two.

Speaking on Thursday, Hamilton had said about the possibility of a fresh delay: “I am not concerned. We can’t be perfect all the time, but we’re always striving to be better. I truly believe my my guys will do the better job [than Ferrari and Red Bull].”

But team-mate Valtteri Bottas said: “This season is extremely close. Any gain we can get is extremely important if we are to win the title. Every tenth is crucial.”

Hamilton currently trails Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel by a single point in the Drivers’ World Championship while Mercedes hold a 17-points advantage over Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship.

How big a problem for Mercedes?
Running ‘spec one’ units, Mercedes were soundly – and unexpectedly – beaten by Ferrari in Montreal.

With Mercedes’ original unit reaching the end of its shelf-life in Canada, and every driver restricted to a penalty-free allowance of three power units for the entire season, Mercedes’ new engines at Paul Ricard will only be a fresh version of the ‘spec one’ units if the ‘spec two’ engine is deemed unfit for service.

“We need to take some kind of new engine,” confirmed Bottas. “The current engine is seven races old. We very much want to run the new engine. We need to confirm tomorrow whether we can or not.”

Hamilton added: “Let’s just wait and see. I’ve been on the phone to Andy [Cowell, Mercedes’ engine boss] last week and into this week and I have absolute full confidence in him and the guys.

“I don’t really want to say too much at the moment as I don’t know what Andy’s planning, but I trust in whatever decision those guys make. It will be for the right reasons. We’ve done the seven races with great performance up until now so even if we are to take the older-spec, I’m not worried about it.”

The usability of the upgraded units could prove critical in Mercedes’ close fight with Ferrari and Red Bull for supremacy this season – particularly with a suite of power-hungry circuits next on the 2018 agenda.

Bottas missed out on pole position to Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by less than a tenth of a second in Montreal and said after Sunday’s race: “We need the engine upgrade. Today showed we are not quick enough.”

Speaking upon his arrival in France, the Finn added: “Ferrari are the favourites coming into this weekend based on so we definitely need improvement.”

But Vettel shrugged off the news, telling reporters: “I’ll be surprised if it will have a big impact. They will be strong no matter what.”

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