Why Mercedes feels its rapid F1 progress is still not good enough
Mercedes may have been buoyed by its first podium finish of the year in Formula 1’s Australian Grand Prix, but it knows it still needs a lot more.
After rival Aston Martin emerged as Red Bull’s main threat in the Bahrain and Saudi Arabian Grands Prix, it was Mercedes that took the challenge to F1’s current pacesetter in Melbourne.
George Russell secured a spot on the front row and led the early stages ahead of the first safety car period, while Lewis Hamilton then briefly took over at the front before Max Verstappen blasted past on his way to victory.
But while Red Bull remains a clear step in front right now, Hamilton’s ability to hold off Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin for the duration was clear evidence of promise and progress for the Brackley-based squad.
The form of the weekend showed the gains that Mercedes has made with its W14, with Russell in particular feeling that he is now at one with how the car is performing.
“I felt like Saudi was probably on par with my best race weekend in F1, along with probably Brazil last year,” he said. “And again this weekend [in Australia], I feel really comfortable in the car.
“The team are giving me the right tools and we get the set up in the right window week in, week out. We're ticking all the boxes. I feel like there's nothing really more that we can be doing.”
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14
Photo by: Jake Grant / Motorsport Images
But while this progression bodes well for Mercedes battling for podium finishes from here on in, equally it is mindful of two aspects about its Australian GP form.
The first is that the Melbourne layout, and especially it being a front-limited circuit where tyre degradation is not a big issue, perhaps favoured it over its closest opposition.
It was clear in Bahrain how much stronger the Aston Martin AMR23 is at high-deg rear limited venues compared to the W14 that is lacking rear downforce.
Asked about whether the Melbourne surface and layout flattered Mercedes, team boss Toto Wolff admitted: “I think definitely it was an advantage for us. Our car lacks a little bit of performance in the rear end.
“I think that's making us look a little bit better than we should be. But we know where the weaknesses are, and we just need to sort them out.”
The other critical factor about its Australian result is that while second is encouraging following its difficult start to the year, rival Red Bull remains a huge chunk ahead.
Verstappen was clearly biding him time early in the race after being dropped to third, and it was the world champion's eye-opening DRS overtake of Hamilton, and the way he opened up a two-second gap in half a lap, that offered a glimpse of the scale of the deficit Mercedes has to close down.
As Wolff said: “They [Red Bull] have a straight line speed advantage with the DRS open that is just mind boggling.
“But this is meritocracy this sport. And if you have a car that is that quick on the straight because you're doing the right things, then it's up to us to sort this out and find tools in order to have that same straight line performance.”
Mercedes is also well aware that there are elements away from the track that need improving too, especially with answers now being chased about some elements at its factory.
Russell has revealed that the steps that Mercedes has made in recent races have come after it deliberately moved away from the best set up window suggested by its simulator.
“I've been working really hard with my engineers to get the most out of a set up,” he said. “I feel like the last two weekends, we've put the car in a really great window, migrating a little bit away from where our sort of simulations had been telling us.
“That was perhaps a reason why the pace was so poor in Bahrain. With the knowledge I have now, we probably could have had the car in a very different window in Bahrain to have more performance.
"We kind of need to look and understand why the sims are telling us one thing and we're kind of going in a slightly different direction.”
Chasing the new concept
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes-AMG
Photo by: Mark Horsburgh / Motorsport Images
Everything points towards Australia being a temporary moment of joy that is a brief respite from the reality that Mercedes is not where it wants to be right now.
Wolff added: “I think we made a good step forward this weekend on single lap and on race pace, but is this where our baseline needs to be? I'm not sure.
“I think we maximised what we have. I think it was good to see that we're racing Ferrari and Aston Martin, and we just need to consolidate.
“Then, the more we learn about the car and bring the upgrade packages, hopefully we can challenge the leaders more.”
Russell in particular is clear that Mercedes has little reason to be satisfied with second, which is why it remains in need of that bigger step that it hopes comes from a new concept.
“[It is] definitely still necessary,” he said about the new concept. “The gains that we're seeing in the tunnel at the moment are going to bring some decent performance.
“And the fact is, we're here to win. We're not here just to be the best of the rest, or half a second behind Red Bull.
“Our fight is with Red Bull and okay, we may have been quicker than Ferrari and Aston this weekend, but we're still clearly a long way off what we want to be.”
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