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Why Mercedes' Japan F1 podium claims seem far-fetched

Mercedes chief Toto Wolff felt his Formula 1 team could have fought for a Japanese Grand Prix podium, but do the numbers really back up his bold claim?

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W15, Yuki Tsunoda, RB F1 Team VCARB 01, George Russell, Mercedes F1 W15

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

At Suzuka, Mercedes endured another disappointing weekend, in which George Russell finished seventh and Lewis Hamilton ninth – reversing their respective qualifying positions in a train behind Fernando Alonso.

According to team boss Wolff, Mercedes' rough qualifying was compounded by an "atrocious" first stint as the Silver Arrows initially attempted a bold one-stopper, which unlike Ferrari's Charles Leclerc they had to abandon in favour of a more conventional two-stop race.

“We ended up where we started and it was just very difficult,” Wolff told Sky Sports F1. “We had a second and third stint that were super quick and we would’ve been racing for a podium but [for] an atrocious first stint.

Expanding on his comments later on, he said: "We were very quick through the Esses, whereas last year we were nowhere.

"We were trying to make a one-stop stick, probably over-managed the tyres and had an atrocious first stint but a very competitive second and third stint the moment we basically did what the others did, and that would have looked completely different."

Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team

Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG F1 Team

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Suggesting Mercedes could have mounted a credible podium challenge raises some eyebrows, given the 25-second gap between third-placed Carlos Sainz and Russell, with Mercedes instead seeming to confirm its fourth place in the pecking order behind Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren.

So do the numbers behind Wolff's bold claims really stack up?

Due to the varying different race strategies, made possible by all three of Pirelli's tyre compounds being viable options, it's not as straightforward as comparing lap times and calling it a day. But there are several data points that provide a good indication.

First up is the Mercedes duo's second stint on hard tyres, which roughly coincided with Leclerc's stint on the same compound, as well as McLaren's Lando Norris who shadowed Leclerc by pitting on the same lap.

And while the Mercedes cars were indeed rapid on their first laps out of the pits, their average lap time as the stint progressed quickly shifted towards a 1m36.6s for Hamilton and 1m36.4s for Russell, compared to 1.36.1s for Leclerc and 1m36.2s for Norris.

It has to be pointed out that Russell and Hamilton pitted three to four laps earlier, so Leclerc and Norris enjoyed a slight tyre life advantage during the 11 laps we could compare. But the latter pair also had to nurse their tyres to the end of the race, while Russell and Hamilton knew they still had to stop for mediums.

The third stint on Mercedes' preferred medium tyres is the other available data point. Here it is just Sainz's final stint that can offer some comparison as the Spaniard pitted right before the W15s, but his Ferrari was put on the slower hard compound so it is not a perfect match.

Russell was held up by battling Oscar Piastri for seventh and was an average of four tenths off Sainz, but across the final 15 laps Hamilton was just 0.050s off the Ferrari while in clear air.

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W15, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W15, Carlos Sainz, Ferrari SF-24

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Here, Hamilton was finally able to cash in his earlier stints on the "terrible" hard tyres, but it seems rather ambitious to suggest that the Briton could have chased Sainz if he had started higher up or chosen a different strategy.

Hamilton admitted as much, saying his car couldn't get on with the hard tyres at any point. “I don’t know what the different strategy would’ve been, whether we stayed on the medium to start, but we still had two really terrible hard tyres to run through,” Hamilton acknowledged. 

While podium claims are fairly easily debunked, the question remains why the team struggled so much in the first half of the race, only to find more competitiveness towards the end when it was already too late.

In the run-up to the Suzuka weekend, technical director James Allison said the one constant the team had found over its early-season struggles was a relative weakness in warmer conditions when the track temperature ramps up.

If Mercedes' theory is further confirmed, that would go some way towards explaining its form fluctuations as race day was a lot hotter than the rest of the weekend, with track temperatures up to 14 degrees higher at the start of the race.

Intriguingly, the cloud cover returned for the second half of the race, which dropped the asphalt temperature from 40C to the low 30s by the time Mercedes bolted on the medium tyres. But it doesn't necessarily explain the performance difference between the first two hard-tyre stints, when the track wasn't that cool yet.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W15

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W15

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Mercedes has had to do a lot of soul searching to find out why the performance and downforce it sees back at the factory isn't translated into outright corner speed or lap time.

"We have 70 points more downforce in a particular corner in Melbourne than we had last year, but on the lap time it's not a kilometre per hour faster, so it doesn't make any sense," Wolff revealed.

"So, where's the limitation? I think we wanted to tick some few boxes to understand if there's any limitation that we have spotted, and I think there is.

"When you look at the results, that's clearly not good and everybody knows that. But we've definitely made a big step forward in how we want to run the car, and in our understanding."

A silver lining is that Mercedes may have found some answers on how to put its W15 in a more comfortable spot, with Hamilton saying the car was the nicest to drive it had been in three years.

Fighting for podiums, though? On the evidence of the first four rounds of 2024, that still remains a pipe dream.

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