HALF TERM REPORT: Mercedes – Misfiring for a second season but are they now on the right track?
Mercedes entered 2023 looking to right the wrongs of their misbehaving W13 package and put a challenging 2022 season firmly behind them, but while the W14 has been a step in the right direction – particularly after a design concept change – the gap to pace-setters Red Bull remains significant. With 12 races down, here’s their half-term report…
Lewis Hamilton – 2nd in Australia and Spain
It’s been another hit and miss season for Mercedes so far. On the one hand, there have been ongoing struggles to understand their package and get the most out of it, and on the other, weekends where they have emerged as Max Verstappen and Red Bull’s nearest challengers.
Two of those more encouraging weekends came in Australia and Spain. At the first of them in Melbourne, where Mercedes made the most of cool, tricky qualifying conditions to qualify a surprise second and third, both Russell and Hamilton jumped pole-sitter Verstappen on the first lap to run one-two and potentially cause a major upset.
However, those early-season victory hopes were soon dashed. Russell got caught out by the timing of an early Safety Car and subsequent red flag (before retiring amid technical trouble), while the seven-time world champion could do nothing to stop Verstappen when the Dutchman found a rhythm and his Red Bull hit top speed.
More of a boost for Mercedes was their showing a few races later in Barcelona, where Hamilton used a freshly-fitted upgrade package – ditching zero sidepods for a more conventional design – to emerge as the biggest threat to Verstappen and Red Bull once more. Russell’s recovery from 12th to third confirmed their best combined result of the campaign to date.
Hamilton 7-5 Russell
After a tight battle over the course of the 2022 season, which ended 13-9 in Hamilton’s favour, it’s been another close fight between the Mercedes drivers in the qualifying stakes so far in 2023, with the elder Briton shading it at the midway point.
Hamilton’s one-lap efforts include a fine run to pole position for the Hungarian Grand Prix, after his team mate suffered a shock Q1 exit, while Russell’s best qualifying spot of the campaign is that front row start at Albert Park.
Hamilton 9-3 Russell
Hamilton’s intra-team advantage is more significant in race-trim, having come out on top in nine of the 12 races held up to now – albeit Russell suffering the aforementioned retirement in Australia due to an engine problem and another in Canada thanks to brake trouble.
Despite Mercedes’ up-and-down performance, Hamilton has finished inside the top six in all bar one race – when he came home eighth in Austria – giving him an average finishing position of 4.3 compared to Russell’s 5.5.
While the team’s double podium finish in Spain was a well-earned breakthrough, the loudest cheers from the Mercedes garage came when Lewis Hamilton claimed his first pole position since 2021 with a stunning lap at the end of a nail-biting qualifying session around the Hungaroring.
As an ultra-close Q3 phase came to a close, Hamilton pipped former title rival Verstappen to top spot by 0.003 seconds, ending the championship leader’s run of five successive pole positions, with McLaren’s Lando Norris a few hundredths further back in third.
There are, like most teams, several disappointments and moments of misfortune that could be listed here, but Mercedes’ nadir was no doubt when they turned up in Bahrain for pre-season testing and the opening round only to find that their car was still well off the pace.
Indeed, it was at this time that Mercedes decided to move in a different direction with their car design – accepting defeat with the philosophy carried over from the W13 – and set the scene for the wholesale changes introduced in Monaco five rounds later.
To be the fourth-fastest car (behind Red Bull, Ferrari and Aston Martin) was way below expectations, but they have, to their credit, worked hard since then to edge back into contention and end the opening half of the season second to the mighty Red Bull.
After the dreaded bouncing returned in Belgium last time out, it is clear that there is still some work for Mercedes to do to get on top of the updated W14, make further gains and lay the foundations for what they hope will be a return to title-challenging ways next year.
The target from here is clear: cement themselves as the second-fastest team and cut the gap to Red Bull, who have wind tunnel and CFD penalties to deal with. Hamilton has publically stated his desire to be in a position to challenge the reigning double world champions “by the end of the year”.
“I’m more focused on making sure next year we have the car to challenge them from day one, and the further we continue to push this car this year, the more that impacts next year also, in some ways,” he added of his and Mercedes’ mindset.
Only time will tell if they can turn that target into reality.