Some believe that last Sunday in Singapore, Mercedes had the best race car and might have won, however, during Japanese Grand Prix practice at Suzuka, they were on the back foot because that performance was AWOL on Friday.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff enjoys the quote: “The stopwatch never lies.” Indeed when he takes a look at it he may be perplexed to see George Russell down in P5, six-tenths of a second down on Max Verstappen’s top time in the resurgent Red Bull.
And even worse for Lewis Hamilton in the sister car, down in 14th and a whopping 1.1s shy of the top time, aka half a second off of his teammate.
Mercedes F1 trackside boss Andrew Shovlin summed up his team’s Free Practice Friday: “We’ve certainly been on the back foot. Both FP1 and FP2 proved tricky sessions for us. Both drivers reported struggling with an overall lack of grip and the balance of the car.
“We made some changes ahead of the second session and gained some useful learnings from that. However, we know we must make improvements overnight.
“We are clearly not strong enough in the faster corners, with the first sector proving a particular weakness for us. That’s where the majority of our work will be focused this evening. George did find some improvement on the single lap in FP2, but we are facing the same challenges on both our qualifying pace and the long run.
Shovlin: We are not underestimating the work we’ve got to do to be stronger
“In a sense that is encouraging. If we can fix one, the other should improve too. However, we are not underestimating the work we’ve got to do to be stronger over the rest of the weekend,” insisted Shovlin.
Russell, who crashed out of a sure podium during the final stages in Singapore on Sunday, reflected on his day: “It feels great to back driving around Suzuka. It’s such an incredible circuit. It’s been a slightly strange Friday for us.
“The track seemed to have very low grip, particularly in FP1, so the car is sliding around quite a lot. That doesn’t give you the best feeling in the world as a driver. Particularly when you’ve got plenty of high-speed corners to tackle. The race on Sunday will also be interesting as tyre degradation looks very high,” predicted the Briton.
As for the pecking order, Russell ventured: “The Red Bull looks to have returned to its normal pace at the front. They have been exceptionally quick today. I think we are likely half-a-step behind the Ferraris and the McLaren of Lando Norris at present.
“We’ve got a bit of work to do tonight to close that gap. We are typically strong at finding those performance gains so we can be optimistic of improving,” added Russell.
Hamilton: We know we’ve got a lot of work to do
In the #44 Mercedes, Hamilton has work to do to narrow the gap to his teammate, and knows it: “It was a very challenging day for us out there. I had a lack of confidence in the car and that contributed to our struggles. It was difficult to find the right balance and we didn’t manage to get on top of it by the end of FP2. The tyres were overheating and that left us quite far off the top of the timing sheets.
“We know we’ve got a lot of work to do tonight to pick up the performance. I do believe we can make improvements though. We have had similar Fridays this season and come back stronger on Saturday. We will see tomorrow if we have done so again.
“We will be putting in the effort this evening to give us every chance of getting ourselves higher up the order,” declared Hamilton, seven-time F1 World Champion and five-time winner of the Japanese GP.
Although Red Bull are likely to wrap up the 2023 F1 Constructors’ world title on Sunday, Mercedes can delay the inevitable crowning ceremony if they outscore the World Champions. But more importantly, from a pride and financial perspective is the battle for second place they are embroiled in with Ferrari.
Merc lead the Reds by 24 points with seven rounds to go, including Sunday’s Japanese GP, Round 16 of the 2023 F1 world championship.