MPH: Mercedes mystery – F1 drivers can't explain pace swings


Lewis Hamilton has a clear margin over George Russell in F1 points this year – but their pace is closely matched, despite the advantage changing race to race, and neither can explain it

Hamilton Russell Mercedes 2023 F1

Hamilton is well ahead of Russell on points, but their overall pace is closely matched


As we head into the last three races of the season with little up for grabs, there’s an unusual dynamic between the drivers at Mercedes. Strange as it may seem after almost two seasons together, but there really isn’t a definitive reading of how Lewis Hamilton and George Russell stack up as team mates. Although Hamilton is well ahead on points, any difference in their underlying speed is not clear.

They are separated by 0.03sec as a qualifying average over the season to date. Last year that difference was 0.01sec. We are talking mere hundredths of a second over a whole season, as an average. But this season in particular, the pattern is very much that one of them will be a lot faster than the other over any given weekend. But there’s no trend in which one is the pace setter.

It’s a strange pattern and one which both drivers are very aware of. But at a bit of a loss to understand.

Hamilton Russell Mercedes 2023 Belgian GP F1

Neither driver can explain the swings in performance


“It’s definitely something we’ve noticed,” said Russell yesterday. “Lewis and I have been on the same pace in the last two years. Overall we’re very close but we can be apart by four or sixth tenths. It’s something we’re trying to understand. Sometimes as a driver you’re on the back foot and struggling to close the gap. We’re trying to figure it out and I’m sure Lewis is too.”

In Jeddah Russell was ahead by 0.4sec. In Monaco Hamilton was 0.3sec quicker, at Barcelona 0.6sec, Austria 0.3sec. The momentum then switched back to Russell who was 0.4sec faster in Singapore, 0.4sec ahead in the Qatar sprint qualifying. A new floor which improved high-speed rear grip was introduced at Austin where Hamilton was comfortably quicker, a feat he repeated in Mexico. Russell doesn’t feel there’s a causative link between the upgrade and the latest swing in form between them. “No, I think the last two races have been poor for me for different reasons. I’m feeling really good about the update. I’m not here scratching my head why the pace hasn’t been there. There’ve just been a couple of limitations at each of the last two races. It’s very fine margins, little things that put you on the back foot.”

Related article

It’s not that what they are looking for from the car is all that different. But what it lacks effects them differently according to the demands of the circuit.

“There are definitely small differences in driving style,” allows Russell, “but the underlying limitations that we have with the car are exactly the same. What we’re chasing is the same but F1 is so complex with these tyres that it doesn’t take a lot to change in your driving style how you approach a corner to have a substantial impact good or bad on the tyres. Those small driving style differences favour me at some places and favour Lewis at others. I’m trying to learn from him. I’m sure he’s trying to learn from me.”

If Mercedes can next year provide them with a car without any obvious shortfall, which combines high-speed and slow corner performance, which allows them each to express themselves fully rather than adapting to the car’s vices, it will be fascinating to see how this pattern between them evolves.

“What has caught us out with this car stems from the winter development,” explains Russell. “We took a wrong direction, made some mistakes and that was evident as soon as we hit the track in Bahrain. I’m confident we’re not going to make those mistakes over this winter, but of course F1 is a relative game and we don’t know what our rivals are doing.”

Similarly, twice bitten Hamilton is a little shy of optimism. “After the last couple of races, I got messages from people like ‘oh, it’s looking good’. I’m like, ‘It was looking good at the end of last year, too’. But we started 1.5 seconds behind at the start of the year. So I’m not dazzled by where we are currently. The only reason I’ve been on the podium recently is the great work that’s gone on in the background, but I’m more thinking long-term at the moment.”