Mercedes were aiming to bounce back from its worst season in the Formula 1 turbo-hybrid era last term by returning to compete for both championships in 2023.
However, its plot to regain the titles it lost last season hasn’t gone quite to plan. While reigning champions Red Bull swept to a comprehensive 1-2 finish in Bahrain, Mercedes registered a hugely displeasing fifth and seventh-place finish at the season-opening race.
Qualifying 0.7s off the pace-setting time in qualifying with both cars led team boss Toto Wolff to urgently declare the German team’s car concept required an extensive rethink. Ending up 50.9s behind race winner Max Verstappen did little to improve the mood inside the camp come Sunday evening, particularly when Mercedes appear to have been leapfrogged by one of its engine customer teams: Aston Martin.
As an eight-time World Championship-winning team, however, Mercedes can surely be backed to turn it around at some stage. But even if it eventually gets on top of the issues that has plagued its recent competitiveness, the Silver Arrows might have to deal with the re-emergence of a previous problem if it is to be successful in its ambition of returning the three-pointed star to the top of the sport.
After five harmonious and hugely successful title-winning years with Valtteri Bottas alongside Lewis Hamilton, the presence of George Russell became too much for Mercedes chief Toto Wolff to ignore and the Brit was handed a long-term deal to be promoted to the works’ side in 2022.
Within his debut year at the German automotive giant, Russell managed to eclipse what Bottas had never been able to at Mercedes: outscore Hamilton over an entire season.
While in the past that would have yielded a World Championship for Russell, Mercedes’ plight from the top of the order for the first time in eight years meant it only counted as a minor success story. But the close nature of the fight between the new Mercedes pairing last season meant the driver dynamic between the two is set to be one of the most fascinating subplots to track across the entirety of this campaign.
Hamilton and Russell retained an extremely good relationship in 2022, with the seven-time champion happy to take on the mantle of team leader and mentor, while the more inexperienced of the two British drivers continuously spoke up his team-mate’s stature within the sport. Equally, both played the PR game of maintaining it retains huge faith in the team to turn around its misfortunes of last year when the Brackley-based outfit secured only a solitary win.
Aside from his marginal points advantage in the end-of-year standings, Russell laid down a monumental marker by being the driver who took that sole victory for the German team in the Brazil Grand Prix, holding off Hamilton in a tense finale at the Interlagos circuit.
Although Mercedes had a few other opportunities where it could have snatched a win earlier in the year, Brazil represented the only occasion where the W13 was the fastest car on a given weekend.
A late red flag had eradicated the huge lead Russell had built up and enabled Hamilton, running second, to close right onto the back of his Mercedes partner. But Russell held his nerve and resisted the threat of his team-mate to hold on to a well-deserved maiden win in F1.
Mercedes’ Sao Paulo victor has remained adamant that tensions will not boil over internally if the W14 does materialise to be a package capable of delivering race wins on a more consistent basis than its rather troublesome predecessor.
That sort of narrative, however, is easily toed when there is relatively little on the line, particularly when the more important matter to take away from that weekend was the conclusive evidence that Mercedes’ radically different car concept could be a winning one. Placed within a scenario where both drivers could sense a chance of claiming the ultimate prize would test their cordial relationship to the extreme and two fairly equal drivers in the same machinery fighting for the highest honour in the sport would inevitably lead to fractious moments.
Those closing laps in Brazil gave a taster to what could occur, and Russell proved, albeit on a limited scale, that he could live with the pressure of a seven-time F1 champion looming large in his mirrors continuously lap after lap without making a single mistake.
The Mercedes hierarchy already has previous experience in dealing with a hostile intra-team rivalry and is therefore as well set as any team to deal with such an issue arising. Before the intervention of Bottas, tensions simmered over between friends-turned-foes Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as the duo competed – unopposed – for championship glory until the latter retired at the end of 2016 after his own crowning moment.
Despite a string of incidents between the two that threatened to derail the team, Mercedes came through them all to secure three successive title doubles with that partnership. However, that came at the height of the team’s dominance when it won 51 of the 59 races to take place.
Therefore, the now eight-time champions could afford the occasional run-in between its two drivers; that’s a luxury that wouldn’t be afforded to them now when going up against a consistency machine like Verstappen, who has a largely compliant team-mate at Red Bull.
Russell demonstrated throughout his debut campaign with the works Mercedes outfit that he has the pace to at least be within touching distance of Hamilton. But, despite his points defeat, Hamilton still evidently had the edge on pace, particularly in race trim as the package underneath them got progressively quicker towards the backend of the year.
The comparison between the two Mercedes drivers will be largely dependent on the step Russell can take in his sophomore season with the German team. Accomplishing the level of progress Charles Leclerc made between his first and secondary years with Ferrari should be his aim.
However, Hamilton has shown to be a much more competitive figure than Sebastian Vettel was back then and will be determined to avoid being toppled from the position of superiority he has enjoyed at Mercedes for so long. Furthermore, as his impressive form at the conclusion of 2021 showcased, the 103-time race winner manages to go up a gear when a title is on the line.
Russell will need to make a noticeable improvement on his impressive 2022 consistency and speed if he is to live with his team-mate and establish that he’s the present, as well as the future, of Mercedes.
Nevertheless, Russell has managed to prove he will provide more of a headache than Bottas ever did. Although the Finn, now at Alfa Romeo, was repeatedly close over a single qualifying lap, Bottas could largely be anonymous when he came to translating that pace to a full race distance. Comparatively, Russell’s average deficit to Hamilton remained at around a tenth-of-a-second between the breathtaking spectacle of qualifying and the more endurance-orientated Sunday event.
Such a competitive rivalry between team-mates could eventually become a problem for Mercedes to handle. But alternatively, it will also emerge as a positive aspect that will help the team when it comes to its endeavours in the Constructors’ Championship. There is a strong case that the Mercedes duo is the strongest on the grid and Russell is more likely to be supporting Hamilton, or picking up the pieces in his team-mate’s absence than Carlos Sainz or Sergio Perez at Ferrari and Red Bull respectively.
However, neither Mercedes driver will be able to produce much unless the car is up to scratch. Although it had vowed to learn from the harsh lessons it received last season – when it was caught out by the porpoising phenomenon that didn’t enable it to run the W13 low enough to extract the levels of downforce it had seen in the wind tunnel – it appears that Mercedes are at the same crossroads it was facing this time last season.
The Brackley outfit began the year by electing to retain its aggressive zero sidepod concept for 2023, with the hope that an evolution of its ambitious philosophy from last year could yield a breakthrough that would elevate its performance beyond that of all its rivals. Mercedes’ late-season resurgence – capped off by that first career win for Russell – encouraged the team that there is potential to gain from its bold interpretation of the technical regulations.
But, while pre-season suggested it was in a better position than a year ago, the Mercedes drivers still complained of teething problems with the W14 in testing and Bahrain showcased that the current package is debatably only good enough to be fourth best. Consequently, both Hamilton and Russell were nowhere near competing for victory in Bahrain.
Despite the doom and gloom, there is light at the end of the tunnel for the German automotive giant. Mercedes’ top technical brass has already confirmed a substantial upgrade package will be coming at some stage early in the 2023 campaign and it appears the team has finally accepted it needs to head down an alternative direction with its car concept.
In the scenario where Mercedes is back competing at the front, it can well be anticipated that Hamilton will be accompanied in his pursuit for a record-breaking eighth F1 title by Russell aiming to become the 35th different driver in history to be crowned champion. Meanwhile, while it would certainly be a welcome headache for a team desperate to contest frequent victories again, Mercedes would have to tackle the possibility of another strenuous intra-team battle for supremacy.