Mercedes managed to haul two cars onto the podium for the first time in the 2023 Formula 1 season at the Spanish Grand Prix, providing optimism for the German outfit its upgraded car will mark the start of its turnaround into becoming a credible championship threat again.
Following a sobering start to the year that had yielded only a single podium and seen the Silver Arrows drop behind engine customer Aston Martin in the pecking order, Mercedes introduced an extensive upgrade package for the Monaco Grand Prix.
Alongside accepting defeat with the infamous zero sidepod concept it has run since the beginning of this regulation cycle, Mercedes also unveiled a new floor and altered front suspension as part of the bid to get its season back on track.
While the tight and twisty nature of the iconic Monte Carlo street circuit represents an outlier on the F1 calendar, a fourth and fifth-place finish for its two drivers was a mere backdrop to the main headline from the Mercedes camp that weekend: the upgrades didn’t spring any nasty surprises.
Both Mercedes drivers provided a positive assessment of the upgrades in Monaco – but the team was aware that the real test of its revised package would come in Spain: a conventional track. F1’s annual visit to the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya – formerly the central hub for pre-season testing – would provide the answers it couldn’t receive from the cancelled Imola event.
Home of the Spanish Grand Prix since 1991, the 4.657 km venue has synonymously been recognised – albeit with the vast changes made in recent years, including the removal of the tight left-right chicane at the end of the lap – as possessing the ideal track characteristics for providing a true barometer of an F1 car’s capabilities.
Maximising the potential of its car alluded Mercedes and continued to be a hindrance in qualifying trim, with Lewis Hamilton wounding up fifth and George Russell a surprise early casualty in Q2. However, Hamilton, who had conceded after a tough Friday that reaching Q3 would mark a successful qualifying day, did profess that a front-row starting berth alongside Red Bull’s Max Verstappen had been attainable without a slight error into Turn 10 on his final run.
Nevertheless, while its search to optimise one-lap performance continues, the race pace Mercedes demonstrated on Sunday in Barcelona was hugely encouraging. Starting fourth and 12th respectively, Hamilton and Russell were able to effortlessly slice their way through the pack to take the chequered flag in second and third, securing the first non-Red Bull double top-three finish of 2023.
Russell’s pursuit of a podium place from outside the top 10 was undeniably aided by a surging start, but the British driver’s capability to not come under serious threat from Sergio Perez, who had started one place ahead of him on the grid, in the closing stages was a testament to the progress Mercedes has made in a short space of time.
While both Aston Martin and Ferrari ran into trouble with degradation troubles, an understated strength of the limited success Mercedes has endured in the second ground effect era supplied a key weapon in the side prevailing over its nearest rivals in Barcelona.
On a race track that always places a high emphasis on managing the tyres, Mercedes’ strength in possessing a car that is light on its rubber came to the fore, allowing both cars to run 10 laps longer than Sainz, thus creating the ideal tyre offset to pass the flailing Ferrari with ease.
However, Mercedes’ success wasn’t purely down to preserving the tyres better than the opposition. Even before that point, both Hamilton and Russell had utilised a big performance advantage to breeze past the Aston Martins, demonstrating that the updated W14 has retained a positive asset of its troubled predecessor but with the addition of a car that possesses more downforce and behaves more predictably.
Aside from the comparison against its closest challengers, the remodelled W14 was the only car in the same stratosphere as Red Bull, with Hamilton’s fastest lap ending up only 0.3s adrift of Verstappen’s best effort. Of course, the Dutchman was likely not pushing and had pace in reserve – but it was closer than anybody else got to the all-conquering RB19 by a sizeable margin.
The successive positive outings and substantial points hauls gained in both Monaco and Spain – two ostensibly different track configurations – were vital to delivering much-needed confirmation to the Mercedes engineers that the extensive work undertaken behind the scenes at its Brackley base has delivered the anticipated results.
However, due to the constraints of the cost cap and the unstable platform it had to start the year, Mercedes’ upgraded car remains a basic iteration of what is capable within the realms of these regulations – one that will certainly not be enough to threaten Red Bull. Crucially, though, after a year and five races of persisting with a failed development direction, the latest upgrades have finally handed Mercedes a good baseline from which to build during this set of rules.
Whereas previously its efforts to make headway were being hampered by a capricious set of cars that proved troublesome to understand, the Monaco updates have helped to deliver a more consistent and settled package that, in the words of team boss Toto Wolff, will enable the German side to finally attribute full focus to adding performance.
Tempering the difficulties it formerly encountered with the W14 may only mark a small step in the right direction in its ongoing recovery bid, but it has provided the type of incremental change that allowed Mercedes to successfully transform its weekend prospects overnight after a difficult Friday in Spain that had left Hamilton fearing an absence from Q3.
But despite upholding a commanding advantage over its nearest rivals, Mercedes has been reserved on declaring it now possesses the outright second fastest car in the field on any given day. Understandably so, given the false dawn that emerged from last year’s Spanish GP when the team’s W13 also ran admirably in Barcelona, prompting widespread belief internally that the team was already back on the right track to being a competitive force at the sharp end.
Heading away from Europe to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Canada, Mercedes’ Trackside Engineering Director Andrew Shovlin has warned that the dependency on good top-end speed alongside solid cornering performance and traction through the series of slower-speed turns will represent an entirely different proposition to a Barcelona circuit that is dominated by medium-to-high-speed corners.
After Ferrari and Mercedes’ brought significant upgrade packages, Aston Martin has underlined it has a big update to come in Montreal. After a quiet outing for the British marque in Spain, it will be intriguing to compare the upgraded AMR23 against the amended W14 to see which team has assembled the all-around package most likely to stop Red Bull’s flawless run this year.
Ultimately, Red Bull’s dominance means the ceiling on Mercedes’ potential in 2023 will be limited to comfortably cementing itself as the consistent second force on the grid whilst simultaneously making strides to reduce the massive margin that exists to the current championship leaders.
Both are realistic and achievable targets; Mercedes’ rate of development has always been mightily impressive in the turbo-hybrid era. Even last year amid its most challenging campaign since the switch to six-cylinder turbo-hybrid engines it clawed back a considerable performance deficit to take Ferrari to the wire for second place.
Nonetheless, what previously appeared as a forlorn hope of recovering to its previous pedestal at the start of the year and potentially the end of its time as a title-contending force in its current guise, Mercedes finally have light at the end of the tunnel in its bid to recapture former glories.
While it still has a long way to go to be on par with the benchmark set by Red Bull, the upgrade was never intended to find the time it was missing to compete for regular race wins. Instead, Hamilton described the updates as a first step towards recovering the lost ground the side has imposed on itself since the beginning of last year and that’s precisely what has been achieved.
However, the hurdles will continue to arrive Mercedes’ way and it will need to combat them effectively in order to realise Hamilton’s wish for the team to put the foundations in place to challenge for the title from the moment the 2024 F1 season gets underway.