Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff warned his drivers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell that the team’s next upgrade is unlikely to haul him into the 2023 Formula 1 World Championship fight.
The Silver Arrows are set to introduce a vastly revised machine in Imola – some predicting a W14B of sorts, for the Emilia Romana Grand Prix weekend on 19-21 May which follows the forthcoming Miami Grand Prix.
Hamilton finished sixth in Baku on Sunday, albeit 46 seconds behind Sergio Perez, while team-mate George Russell was further down the road in eighth.
After the race, Hamilton, who is already 45 points off the championship pace with just four rounds on the board, admitted he is counting down the days to Mercedes’ upgrade.
But team principal Wolff said: “The target (for the upgrade) is Imola but I need to manage everybody’s expectations. We are talking so much about the upgrade but we are not going to put it down on the track and drive circles around Red Bull.”
Perez raised hope that team-mate Max Verstappen will not canter to a hat-trick of world championships following his impressive drive on the streets of Baku. The Red Bull men are level on two wins each this year, and Mexican is only six points behind the Dutchman in the 2023 F1 drivers’ standings.
Red Bull have dominated the F1 since major regulation changes last year
Russell claimed after the opening round in Bahrain that the team from Milton Keynes could win every race this year, even though Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc secured two poles in Azerbaijan, but still finished a distant 21 seconds behind Perez in third on Sunday.
Hamilton, the best of the Mercedes drivers on the day, was 46 seconds adrift, a second or so per lap deficit to the RBRs on race pace.
Wolff pointed out: “Over 40 racing laps that’s half a second a lap. At least we saw that they (Red Bull) were pushing today, but half a second is quite a long way to go. We basically have two cars that are sailing off into the sunset on merit.’
Half a second, of course, is the gap between Red Bull and their closest rivals, Ferrari (and Leclerc in particular) while the gap to Mercedes is probably double that. During the race on Sunday, the one and only full Safety Car period triggered by an errant Nyck de Vries in the AlphaTauri, peeled into the pits at the end of lap 13. Thus the second stanza of the 51-lap race was 39 laps.
Wolff: We have to win on merit and that means being more clever
Fate had it that the RBRs dominating out front were fighting it out full beans, trading fastest laps for the next 38-laps, when Perez crossed the finish line the gap to the best Mercedes, Hamilton was 46 seconds, that’s 1.2 seconds per lap!
The Mercedes boss declared: “We either have to do a better job, all of us together, to catch them up, or change the regulations. And I don’t think we should be doing the second. We have to win on merit and that means being more clever.”
The once serial F1 World Champs, winners of 15 titles in eight years not too long ago, have struggled since the new F1 aero rules kicked in last year as they flogged a dead-in-the-water, unrevivable, never understood concept for a season and a half.
Hence so much depends on the Imola updates, to get the team closer to the sharp end, perhaps eating humble pie as a collective. For inspiration, Wolff needs only to look at their customer – Aston Martin – who found the “magic button” that the Mercedes team seek.
Meanwhile, Imola cannot come fast enough for Mercedes duo Hamilton and Russell because what they had at their disposal in Baku was simply not enough, by an alarming margin. The 2023 F1 Championship standings tell the sad tale of their season so far, and it’s hardly started! (Additional Reporting by PA Media)