Mercedes’ most competitive performance of the season so far in Melbourne last week left its drivers wondering whether this is the shape of things to come.
George Russell and Lewis Hamilton claimed second and third on the grid in Australia. Sergio Perez’s elimination in the first round of qualifying handed them the opportunity to line up immediately behind Max Verstappen.
Although the two Mercedes drivers passed Verstappen at the start, they were unable to contain the Red Bull over the race distance, and Russell didn’t see the chequered flag due to a power unit failure. But Hamilton held Fernando Alonso off to take second place, the team’s highest finish of the season so far.
After qualifying on Saturday, Hamilton suggested Mercedes’ performance was “perhaps track-specific,” having finished off the podium in Bahrain and Jeddah. However Russell believed it was a product of improvements the team has made with its car.
“For sure, we maximised the job [on Saturday], no doubt about it,” said Russell, “but we had a good qualifying last week in Jeddah. I didn’t put my lap together in the last run in Jeddah, and was only a tenth off P3.
“So no, I don’t think it’s necessarily track-specific. I do think we’re making some improvements with the understanding of the car.”
He also believes the difficulty of extracting the best from Pirelli’s tyres in the cool conditions of qualifying provides part of the explanation.
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“The tyres play a big factor,” he noted. “When you get those tyres in the sweet spot, you make a big jump, and I think even I improved four-tenths maybe on my last run in Q3. So unfortunately, it’s all tyres, tyres, tyres.”
After the race weekend Mercedes’ chief technical officer James Allison said the team made a slight gain which was flattered somewhat by the performances of others.
“We didn’t have huge breakthroughs but we moved forward a little bit,” he said in a video produced by the team. “We put a small amount on the leaders, Red Bull, and we’re starting to get on terms with and maybe just nose a whisker in front of the Ferraris and the Aston Martin.”
“Was it expected? Broadly, yes, because actually the performance level in Australia was not markedly different to that in the other two tracks so far this year. Different, yes, to Red Bull, but not a completely different animal compared to the rest of the field.
“I think probably the biggest shift in Australia was actually that Red Bull were a little bit more off-form in qualifying compared to the rest of the grid and that sort of closed up the grid. But if you look at the relative pace of our car to the Ferrari, our car to the Aston Martin, it’s been close-ish all year. Yes, we’re a little bit on the better side, but it wasn’t seismic.”
The team’s performance wasn’t far beyond what it thought was possible going into the weekend, said Allison.
“We expected to be in the fight with Ferrari and Aston Martin and it’s pleasing just have our noses in front. But we did expect to be there. How much of of the overall good result of the weekend was track-specific and how much came from things we did, I guess time will tell.
We’ll go to some more very different tracks in the next in the next few weeks and we’ll see whether this was the sort of initial bellwether of a general uptick in our in our performance, which we hope, or whether it was related to the quite unusual track conditions that we saw this weekend in Melbourne.”