MELBOURNE, Australia – Watching the top three drivers get out of their cars afterwards qualification training At the Australian Grand Prix, you would be forgiven for being sent back to 2021. A Red Bull driver on pole closely followed by two Mercedes cars is nothing new in F1, but in the context of the 2023 season, Saturday’s result came as a big surprise.
In the first qualifying session of this year in Bahrain, George Russell’s Mercedes was 0.6 seconds behind Max Verstappen on pole, underscoring the team’s fears it had lost ground to Red Bull over the winter. The disappointing result prompted team boss Toto Wolff to call for a complete overhaul of his team’s design direction, and he wrote off virtually any chance of a title shot.
Four weeks later in Australia and the title chances still look incredibly slim, Russell is now just 0.236 seconds off pole.
“I could stay cool here and say we expected it, but we didn’t,” Wolff said after Saturday’s session. “I think what you have to love in this sport is that for all the lows you have, you also have some highs.
“Of course we don’t want to be there, we want to challenge at the very front, but finishing P2 and P3 was definitely a lot more than we expected when we arrived this weekend.”
Where did the performance come from?
The 2023 season is only two races old ahead of Sunday’s showdown, but Mercedes’ upward trend is clear to see. While the car is still a long way off Red Bull’s performance – Verstappen admitted his lap wasn’t brilliant and his teammate Sergio Perez retired in Q1 with a technical issue – the team has been getting more out of the W14 with every passing lap.
The general understanding of the car has undoubtedly improved, although it should also be noted that Saturday’s qualifying was unusual, taking place in surprisingly cold conditions, very different from the two races in the Middle East earlier in the month. Getting tires in the right temperature range was key to a good lap on Saturday at Albert Park and while both Mercedes drivers managed at least one lap, many of their rivals struggled to find the sweet spot.
“I think that we’ll obviously understand the car better over the course of further races,” said Wolff. “I think what was particularly good today was the agility of the team in deciding the structure of qualifying when to do the fast laps, I think the mechanical set-up group including the tires did a good job and the Drivers did a good job good job on delivery.
“We could say every track is different and certainly it was cold today and that will have played a role that we got it right and maybe some others wrong but again you have to take the average of all the above average results last three races in qualifying and that clearly pushes us up a bit.”
Hamilton added: “I think maybe it’s circuit specific but ultimately it’s just that nobody in the team gave up, they all worked incredibly hard to try to get the most out of what we have at the moment.
“We’re a little bit downforce and where we want to be but today it all came together and it feels great to be up here on either side of Max and I really hope tomorrow we kind of hold on to him, even if he could pull it afar as he has done in the past. We have to do our best.”
Did Mercedes write off the W14 too soon?
“I think we have to be careful not to oscillate between mania and depression, but to think rationally,” said Wolff. “What we saw today is that there is a lot of potential that can be unlocked in the car, that’s clear, but we have to make the right decisions in the long term and in that regard we will continue to drive the best possible package that we have, and if that’s the one narrow or wide body doesn’t matter, we just need more downforce in the car’s sweet spot.
“Of course we deliver such a good qualifying today and it swings into exuberance. It’s like, everything we thought was wrong, now let’s develop the car and the next time you have a bad result, you think it over.
“We never had a dogma about what the car should look like. We know exactly where we went wrong, but we also know that there is something good about the car if we get every step right over a weekend and we can extract what’s in the car, that shows.”
The car’s ride height and how it affects performance has been key to Mercedes’ performance, or lack thereof, since the introduction of new regulations last year that place more emphasis on underbody aerodynamics. Wolff said his team is beginning to understand how to get the most out of the car’s setup.
“I think where we placed the car last year was probably too low, where we placed the car for this year was probably too high and all of those decisions can now be tracked and understood. And with what the package is now, the team can locate and find the car’s sweet spot much better.
“There has been a great deal of work done in aerodynamics in recent weeks to improve performance where we feel we have been missing before. It all comes together and like I said it’s just about putting in a good performance over the weekend and getting the performance that’s in the car plus the understanding that we have.”
Can Mercedes win on Sunday?
With few races during Friday practice due to stoppages and wet weather, none of the drivers have a clear idea of how Sunday’s race will go. However, it can be assumed that Red Bull’s clear lead over the field has not disappeared in the last two races and that Verstappen will start the race as the clear favourite.
When two Mercedes cars start behind Verstappen it means Red Bull are outnumbered at Turn 1 and if one or both of the black cars can sneak up the front on lap one there may only be a chance of victory.
“We have to do it, we have to fight for the win,” said Russell. “Max will be extremely quick, you can’t hide that and it’s difficult to overtake at this track, so the start of the first lap will be crucial.
“But the Red Bull has an exceptional top speed, so it will be very difficult to fight with Max. But let’s see how we go, we have to do our own racing and if the opportunity arises we will take it.” It.
Recalling his Formula 1 debut in Australia in 2007, where he moved up two places at the first corner, Hamilton said his goal on Sunday was “to get first place”, adding: “I’m hoping for a day like first year, 2007, Turn 1 here would be great. I don’t know if anyone remembers this, but it’s going to be great if we can do it.
When asked to respond to his drivers’ comments, Wolff added a bit of realism to Mercedes’ prospects on Sunday.
“I think at the moment we’re not fighting for a race win or we couldn’t fight for a race win, and even more so for a world championship. So they have to go step by step and it’s great that they’re doing it.” To have that drive and whatever the car can give them, to say pole was gone – that’s the right mindset.”