Mercedes featured some table dancing at Suzuka, while Red Bull and Max Verstappen were busy confirming their status as the 2023 Formula 1 Constructors Champions.
When the cat’s away, the mice are dancing on the table, or so the old Dutch saying goes. The “cat” in this instance was Toto Wolff. Up on bricks as a consequence of knee surgery, his absence was palpable in the race as the bad blood of Singapore appeared to spill over into Japan.
Having been schooled by Lewis Hamilton in both qualifying and the races for most of this F1 season, George Russell was resurgent at Monza. Easily outqualifying and beating his teammate in Italy, he looked set to repeat this in Singapore.
Unfortunately, fate intervened. Touching the wall on the last lap, he gifted his position and a podium finish to his teammate. Ouch!
You made me do it!
It was never publicly voiced, but I kind of feel George blamed that error on Hamilton pushing behind in close proximity.
George was never going to pass Lando Norris or catch Carlos Sainz for that matter. His real race was with Lewis, and that’s what he should have focused on. The lesson here is to decide what’s possible and race the guy in front or behind. Unfortunately, Russell tried to do both and lost out.
Regardless, it was a painful lesson for the driver of number 63. But with the grand prix at Suzuka the following weekend, there was little time to re-focus.
This time Hamilton qualified just in front of Russell and led off at lights out. However, an early re-start saw Russell dive down the inside of his teammate at the casino chicane, but, Hamilton got the better drive out and like a dog snapping at an annoying pup, made his feelings physically known as he took back the position on the main straight.
Ten laps later they were at it again, this time. This time Hamilton was hanging George out to dry on the exit of “Spoon”.
Who are we fighting?
No doubt the plan should have been to pull away as a team and max out the stint tyre-wise to try and beat McLaren. However, that now seemed highly unlikely as the two appeared to be involved in their own personal tussle. By plan or necessity, they were then split up. George, I presume opted for the one-stop tyre strategy and Lewis for the two.
Two’s better than one
The high “deg” Suzuka circuit took its toll on Russell’s tyres. Despite the twenty-two-second pit delta, Hamilton and Sainz were on Russell’s tail four laps from the finish. He was then told to let his faster teammate through.
George acquiesced but only after being reminded that Mercedes is not a democracy. To be fair, it was a tough call, but probably the safest to ensure one of them finished ahead of the Spaniard. Hamilton was told to keep his teammate in DRS, something he did, but under protest.
However, a deflated Russell spun his tyres up on the exit of the chicane and DRS or no DRS, the Ferrari fired past him approaching Turn 1. It was lap fifty of fifty-three, there was no coming back for George.
It’s cold in here!
I can only imagine how icy the team debrief was at Suzuka. Deputizing for the hospitalized Wolff, Ex F1 Driver, Jerome d’Ambrosio, managed the situation well, but, I would suggest we would not have seen the same contretemps if Toto had been present.
If Mercedes wants to preserve their second place in the 2023 F1 Constructors’ Championship from a resurgent Ferrari, their drivers will need to play nice together. However, this is not the team’s biggest problem.
Lando Norris’s best lap was more than a second faster than Lewis’s, and Max Verstappen’s almost one and a half. This would suggest that Mercedes are farther away than ever. As Hamilton said after the race, they are going to need the mother of all F1 car development over the next six months to close the gap to Red Bull.