Mercedes have failed to win three races in a row for the first time in the hybrid era. Ralph Ellis thinks it has exposed a weakness in Lewis Hamilton's title hopes...
"Even Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, has admitted it. “If we are in the sweet spot our car is very fast,” he said, “But we have seen more occasions than Ferrari where the tyre drops out because it is too hot, or drops out because it is too cold.”
I know there has been a "Think Tyres" campaign, but let's face it, we tend to take them for granted. OK, we all know we are supposed to check the pressure every week, but do you do that? No, me neither.
I seem to spend half my life on a motorway, too, so I should probably worry about them more than anybody. But it's only the couple of times I've had a puncture that I've ever really been reminded how important they are.
It struck me after the first three races of the season that it's rather similar in the Formula One world. Everybody fusses about the power ratios, the wheelbase, the streamlining, but ultimately the black circles at the bottom have a huge influence.
That's certainly been the case in Melbourne, Bharain and Shanghai where Mercedes have made bad calls over when or if to change Lewis Hamilton's rubbers that have allowed Sebastian Vettel to build an early lead in the Drivers Championship. After backing their man in every race I'm only too aware about the mistakes that have been made.
It rather looks this weekend as if the way the teams handle their tyre choices are going to be even more crucial when the action resumes at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
Different weather, different data
The race at one of F1's newer circuits has so far always been run later in the season. Last year it was in June with trackside temperatures reaching more than 50 degrees at times.
This year it has been shifted to April and according to the BBC's weather app we're talking thick cloud, gale force winds and a temperature that might get up to 17 if you're lucky.
It means all the data collected by the team's boffins about their tyres on the Baku street circuit in 2016 (when it was called the European Grand Prix) and last year counts for nothing. They are effectively starting all over again.
That is a particular worry for Hamilton, who desperately needs a race win to stop Vettel edging further away from him in the chase for the title. After starting the season as [1.4] favourite his odds have drifted to [2.24] while Vettel has come in to [2.22].
Strategy will be the key
Last year his car was considered a diva, superb on fast circuits but struggling on the tighter tracks. This time many of the engineering issues have been ironed out, but the problems have switched to the tyre choices.
Even Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, has admitted it. "If we are in the sweet spot our car is very fast," he said, "But we have seen more occasions than Ferrari where the tyre drops out because it is too hot, or drops out because it is too cold."
Just to complicate matters Pirelli are making all three compounds available this weekend, so tyre choice will be a key element of the race.
I think that makes backing Vettel [3.25] the way to go this time. On a fast street circuit with lots of overtaking opportunities his team's superior grasp of strategy will be a key. Mercedes made bad calls on behalf of the star driver both in Melbourne and Shanghai and there is clearly a weakness there.
It's a crucial weekend for Hamilton. Since the start of the hybrid era Mercedes have never before failed to win for three races in a row and a fourth Grand Prix without one of their men on the top of the podium might even signal that their era of dominance is coming to a close. Memo to their garage - Think Tyres.