'Hamilton hasn't got F1 car he needs': Mercedes races to save its season


After a season of struggling to catch Red Bull, Mercedes is even further back in 2023, with a car that Lewis Hamilton can't connect with. But team boss Toto Wolff says it's making big steps after realising its concept was wrong

George Russell races past the outline of a camel on Jeddah street circuit at the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

George Russell finished fourth in Jeddah — after a temporary promotion to third

Clive Mason/Getty Images

For a team that appeared to be in crisis mode over the last fortnight the Saudi Arabian GP didn’t work out too badly for Mercedes.

Helped by the absence of Max Verstappen, George Russell qualified fourth and, with Charles Leclerc heading backwards due to a grid penalty, the Englishman inherited third, behind only Sergio Perez and Fernando Alonso.

In the race Verstappen inevitably found his way through, and Russell finished a solid fourth, not far behind Alonso – indeed close enough to have briefly been deemed to be third before the Spaniard’s penalty was overturned. Lewis Hamilton meanwhile was close to his team-mate in fifth.

It was a boost of course, but no one at Mercedes is getting too excited. In qualifying Russell was outpaced by cars from three other teams, and the gap to polesitter Sergio Perez was a significant 0.6sec. One can assume that had Verstappen enjoyed a clean session, the RB19 would have been even further ahead.

George Russell with third-place trophy from the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Russell’s time with third-place trophy was short-lived


There was also clear frustration on the other side of the garage as Hamilton, who is less enamoured with the W14 than his team-mate, could manage only eighth on the grid.

It definitely could be a lot worse for Mercedes, as indeed it was at this time last year. However this is a team that, especially after its 2022 frustration, wants to be leading the pack.

“We are just storming full steam ahead now in changing things.”

“That doesn’t make it a millimetre better,” said team boss Toto Wolff when asked about Russell’s qualifying performance. “I think that we’re always looking at the benchmark performance, and that is Verstappen, and Perez today, and that’s just too far away.

“So that hasn’t changed. I think if Max would have finished qualifying it would have been even bigger. We have seen it in the long runs too.

“So my state of mind hasn’t changed a millimetre just because we are P3 in qualifying today. But the difference is that the trajectory is set now, so it is not any more this single session in qualifying or even a single race. We are just storming full steam ahead now in changing things.”

Lewis Hamilton exits the pitlane in the 2023 F1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Hamilton could only manage eighth on the grid

Clive Mason/Getty Images

Wolff was pleased to take a decent haul of points in the race – and comfortably outrun Ferrari.

“The direct competitor is very far away in terms of performance,” he said on Sunday. “And that’s not something that’s going to be easy to catch. But today, we’ve seen that directionally with our development, it’s heading into the way that we wanted to have.”

The contrast in the moods of the two drivers after qualifying was marked. Russell had good reason to be pleased with his own lap. He also finds the W14 good to drive, in stark contrast to last year’s porpoising beast.

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“The car has been feeling good,” said Russell. “That’s not the weakness at the moment; the weakness is just a lack of overall downforce.

“I was back in the factory working hard on the sim and that’s what I’m sort of most satisfied about, that hard work has sort of translated into relative performance. But of course, we’ve got more work to do.”

He had some frustration in the race when there was confusion over Alonso’s penalty and thus how hard he should be pushing, but overall he was satisfied.

“We definitely made a step in the right direction,” he said on Sunday night. “I think, above all, we just truly maximised the potential of the car. We had a really strong qualifying yesterday, which was really enjoyable.

“I’m really pleased to come home in P4 on the road, because I felt like that was the maximum that was possible. And I was having fun up there. We know we’ve got some more performance in the locker, in some races to come.”

George Russell ahead of Lewis Hamilton in the 2023 Saudi Arabian GP

Russell got the “maximum possible” from his car as he led Hamilton home

Lars Baron/Getty Images

Hamilton in contrast was clearly not as comfortable in Jeddah as his team mate, the pair having taken slightly different set-up routes. After qualifying four spots behind his team-mate he clearly wasn’t too happy on Saturday.

“Of course, George did a great job,” said the former world champion. “So great, great result for him and he just was able to get the car in a different place than me.

“I just struggled to extract the performance from the car. It’s mostly me. And yeah, a little bit in the high-speed the car is a little bit unstable, the set-up.”

“I think the car is where it is. I mean, George did a great job, I’m pleased that he’s right up there on the second row so the car’s obviously got performance. I just don’t feel connected to this car. And no matter what I do, no matter what I change, I can’t get confidence in it. And yeah, I’m just at a bit of a loss with it.”

Lewis Hamilton ahead of Cahrles Leclerc in the 2023 Saudi Arabian GP

Charging Leclerc passed Hamilton in the early stages of the race, but finished behind both Mercedes

Grand Prix Photo

He was happier on Sunday, his racing instincts having kicked in and allowed him to chase Russell home, both men having run opposite tyre strategies. However, he was under no illusions about the overall gap to Red Bull.

“It’s the same,” he said. “We’re still a long, long way away. It’s strange to see that Ferrari are behind us, and it’s positive for us. It’s a different surface here, and we don’t really understand why this surface works one way and it’s different in another.

“The car has never given Lewis any feedback that allows him to push the limits”

“So there’s lots of positives to take from this weekend. It will be up and down throughout the first few races. Hopefully we can get some upgrades ASAP, and try and close that gap to the Astons.”

Wolff is well aware that the team has to develop a car that both men are happy with.

“They are both different drivers,” said the Austrian. “They need a car with a certain behaviour in order to drive fast. And at no time this season has this car given Lewis any feedback that allows him to push the limits.

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“If you haven’t got that car underneath you in sector one, you’re never able to push through the corners. So this is what we’ve seen, it’s all in sector one.

“George just drives around that, and is able to have more confidence in the car in sector one. And it’s up to us to give them both in the car in order to storm ahead.”

That is what his team intends to do. Bahrain proved to be a wake-up call for Mercedes, with the test session and then the race weekend confirming that the speed simply wasn’t in the car and there was limited potential to find it without a major revamp.

Lewis Hamilton walks into the paddock ahead of the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Hamilton arrives in the paddock on raceday

Michael Potts/BSR Agency/Getty Images

There followed a lot of soul-searching in the camp and a clear decision to do whatever it takes in terms of redesigning the car and getting a much more competitive version, with greater potential to improve, on the track.

Having decided to explore new directions or re-examine abandoned ones even in the short time available since Bahrain, the team appears to have made progress.

“If we continue to make big steps, we come to a stage where we are racing for wins”

“We’re making really big steps at the moment with our R&D, with our understanding in the tunnel,” said Wolff. “And I mean that is really big steps. Because we just needed to have the confirmation in Bahrain that we got it wrong. And now we have that. And that’s why I will never write off anything.

“Is it realistic with today’s performance that we can talk about the World Championship? No, it’s not. You’re a fool if you think that way. But equally, it’s motor racing. And you must never give up.

“And I think you can continue to do the big steps that we’ve already done in the last 10 days then I think we come to a stage where we’re really able to race for wins.”

Lewis Hamilton stands next to George Russell in F1 driver group photo

If Mercedes keeps making big development steps, Hamilton and Russell will be able to fight for wins, says Wolff

Gongora/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Wolff is adamant that everything is being explored in terms of that fuzzy definition of “concept”. It’s not just about visible items such as sidepods.

“I think what we are doing at the moment, there are no holy cows. Definitely what Aston Martin has done proves that within six or seven months you can gain so much lap time that it makes you play very much at the front. So that is good to see, good to see for all of us that you should never write off a season if these kinds of steps can be done.”

Wolff denies any suggestion that the team will have to take a step back as it changes its development direction.

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“[We’re making] steps in relative performance to where we are now, the kind of gains that are coming in, in our R&D and in aero, are much bigger than we’ve had over a long time.

“So we’ve unlocked some potential because we simply look at things from different angle now, we have a different perspective, because of our learnings of Bahrain test and Bahrain race. So there was no step back, on the contrary there was immediately two steps forward.”

“I think the biggest changes that we made is actually looking at whether we want to have the car set up in its sweet spot. And we’ve been too low last year, we’ve been too high this year. And now we believe we know where to land.

“On the other side obviously, everything else follows in terms of floor and bodywork that you want to achieve. So I don’t want to sound too foolishly optimistic, but at least we see low hanging fruit with things that that are encouraging.”

Overhead view of Lewis Hamilton Mercedes and its narrow sidepods

Radical Mercedes bodywork could be scrapped as team looks to make big advances

Florent Gooden / DPPI

It will take weeks and months for major changes to make it to the track, and of course it all has to be done within the constraints of the cost cap and the aero testing restrictions. Until then the team has to do what it can by honing the current package each race weekend.

“What we discussed is that every session can be very painful,” said Wolff. “And we walk away from that thinking that is so tough and so difficult to take. But it’s all part of the next step necessary. And there’s some things that you can’t accelerate. You need to do just one step at a time. And that’s what we’re doing at the moment.”

There is at least some light at the end of the tunnel, in other words.

“We’re already making good steps, good progress,” says Russell. “And I think it’s sort of validated the incorrect direction we took over winter, the fact that we probably managed to find more performance in a week than we found in almost a month, let’s say, over the winter. So that’s promising to a degree.

“But we’ve been in this position before, it’s never as straightforward as that. And we just need to make sure that every single box is ticked.”