Lewis Hamilton facing new Max Verstappen threat at Imola as Red Bull eye crucial upgrade

F1: Hamilton and Bottas take the W12 Mercedes around Bahrain

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Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes appear to be in a less than favourable position at present, despite the former claiming victory at last month’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix with a highly impressive drive. The German outfit have looked comfortably second-best to Red Bull in terms of outright performance since pre-season testing after struggling with new regulations mandating changes to the design of the floor area and the rear end.

Mercedes have lost a significant amount of downforce this year as a result of the alterations, with the all-new W12 challenger seemingly unstable at the back and lacking overall pace when compared to Red Bull’s RB16.

Their decline was clear to see during qualifying and the race at the Bahrain International Circuit, which was ultimately decided by Hamilton’s formidable ability and experience in the cockpit.

The Stevenage-born racer, struggling to manage his rapidly-deteriorating tyres, dug deep to hold Max Verstappen at arm’s length during the closing stages and take the chequered flag, sealing an unlikely win for the Silver Arrows who would have been fully expecting the Dutchman to claim the spoils.

Verstappen took the lead with only a few laps to go but was ordered to give up the position after exceeding the controversially-enforced track limits at turn four in order to sneak ahead.

The result came as a welcome boost for Hamilton and Mercedes, but the seven-time Constructors’ Championship winners might not be so lucky at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola later this month.

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Red Bull appear to be preparing a significant performance upgrade for the second race of the new season, according to Motorsport.com.

The report claims that the Austrian contenders have been working on a new rear suspension system to aid tyre management and performance.

Adjusting the rear wheels is prohibited by the regulations but Red Bull seem to have found a way around this.

It is suggested that making a number of legal modifications to the engine, differential and brakes and adjusting the flexibility of certain parts can change the angle of the rear tyres through corners, which are all changes that Verstappen and Sergio Perez could benefit from at Imola.

Red Bull have gained a reputation for their impressive aerodynamic and chassis development in recent years, a trait that looks set to continue into the rest of the season and beyond.

It remains to be seen whether Mercedes and Hamilton will finally be challenged for silverware in the coming months after scooping every available title since 2013.

Trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin expressed a deep concern over his team’s chances of sealing another championship double earlier this week, suggesting that the gap between themselves and Red Bull could remain intact throughout the season.

“Ordinarily, excluding this year because it is different, you would look to the wind tunnel to try to just put on a bit of downforce over the course of the year, and you would look at the power unit to try to add a bit of power,” Shovlin told Crash.net.

“But both of those are very restricted by regulation this year, so we have very little time in the wind tunnel. The dyno is also very restricted and you can’t improve the engine for performance this year.

“So we are having to look at more subtle areas to do with drivability characteristics, and also arriving at the circuit with the car well sorted and well balanced, doing your homework and knowing how well the tyres will run.

“This season is actually going to come down to the fine margins much more than normal, because I don’t see us really being able to develop to a point where we can get clearly ahead.

“And hopefully Red Bull won’t develop to a point that they are clearly ahead.”

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