Melbourne and the upgrades for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix provided false optimism for Mercedes, as Baku delivered a harsh reality check as one-time title rivals sailed into the distance on Sunday.
Lewis Hamilton finished second in Australia earlier this month, and thus clear Mercedes made no progress in their race pace and remain fourth in the pecking order, still slower than customers Aston Martin.
Imola, when a radical change in concept is expected, can not come soon enough as Lewis Hamilton and George Russell toiled to sixth and eighth at the end of the race on Sunday, well beaten with the #44 crossing the line 46 seconds behind the Red Bull of race winner Sergio Perez.
Mercedes team boss, Toto Wolff summed up his team’s Baku GP weekend: “Today was not a thriller. There was very little overtaking even with a big pace difference. We headed into a sub-optimum set-up direction during FP1 and by the time we realised it was too late, and the car was in parc fermé conditions. It’s the same for everyone though under this format.
“The pace in free air today looked similar between ourselves, the Ferraris and the Aston Martins. It was hard to tell who was ultimately quicker though, because with the difficulty of overtaking you are stuck where you are stuck.
“The Red Bulls meanwhile sailed away into the sunset on merit. If we can get the platform right though, I think we can close that gap this year. It’s not about adding points of downforce, more giving the drivers a car that they have confidence in,” added Wolff.
Hamilton: I’m continuously proud of Mercedes
From fifth on the grid, Hamilton’s sixth place might’ve been fifth as he reeled in Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari, but even within DRS the Mercedes simply did not have the firepower to reclaim fifth, he crossed the line half a second shy of the Ferrari, but that’s as good as it got.
Better of the Mercedes drivers on the day, Hamilton reflected: “The timing of the Safety Car wasn’t ideal! I couldn’t get bogged down in that frustration though. I had to keep my head down and get focused on attacking. That’s what I did, and I got right back in the race. I really enjoyed those battles with the cars around me. The Ferrari of Sainz was just a little bit quicker on the straight than us, even with the DRS open. I gave it everything I had to get past though.
“I’m continuously proud of my team. We didn’t have the pace that we did in Melbourne, which is not the greatest, but there is no lack of motivation in this team. We’re all super hungry, and hopefully this is the beginning of something better in the coming races. Once I get that confidence in the car, the pace will come,” ventured the seven-time F1 World Champion, after his 314th Grand Prix.
Russell: I’m a little bit disappointed with myself
In the sister Mercedes, Russell – who finished fourth in the Sprint Race a day earlier – did not show up on Sunday, and admitted as much in the team report: “I’m a little bit disappointed with myself today. I made a really good start and got in a decent position.
“I made a good move on Stroll to get past him into the pit lane but I then made a mess of the restart. I was defending from Lance and almost ran into the back of Fernando (Alonso). I then ran wide and got my tyres dirty. Ultimately that’s why both Lance and Lewis got past. From there, it was line astern.”
Nevertheless, Russell did have a go at the fastest lap and nabbed it too at the very end: “I’ll take the extra point for fastest lap but the only reason we had that opportunity was because we were in a bad position. It was close pace-wise between ourselves, Ferrari and Aston Martin and small differences can make a big change in terms of results. Whether we finish P4 or P8 though, it’s far from first so we’ve got a lot of work to do.
Shovlin: We’re never going to get excited about sixth and eighth place
Final words on Baku to Mercedes trackside boss Andrew Shovlin: We’re never going to get excited about sixth and eighth place, but it was a day where the car wasn’t particularly quick and neither driver had much luck during the race.
“Lewis had a decent opening lap; he’d started to get a bit of pressure from Alonso towards the end of the stint, so we came in to protect the position. Unfortunately, that was the lap before the Safety Car, so he lost out. A good restart helped the recovery, but he just couldn’t get past Sainz.
George had a really good opening lap, getting through some key cars early on. He was able to take the stop under the Safety Car but then struggled on the restart and lost a couple of places. Similarly to Lewis, he just couldn’t make a pass despite having a bit more pace so our only consolation was a point for fastest lap at the end.
“We haven’t got long to wait before we are bringing some more performance to the car and in the meantime, we just need to focus on collecting as many points as possible. We’re hoping the car will be a bit better suited to the track in Miami and looking forward to being able to get back on track in just a few days,” concluded Shovlin.
With Red Bull making it four one-two finishes in four races, they easily top the 2023 F1 constructors’ championship, with Mercedes already 102 points down on the trailblazers, while Max Verstappen and Baku race winner Perez comfortably sailing into the sunset in the F1 Drivers’ standings; Hamilton is fourth and Russell seventh.