A renewed Hamilton v Verstappen rivalry may not be a million miles away

Thomas Maher
Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull's Max Verstappen on the podium at the Spanish Grand Prix. Barcelona, June 2023.

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull's Max Verstappen on the podium at the Spanish Grand Prix. Barcelona, June 2023.

Lewis Hamilton was only beaten by Max Verstappen as Mercedes’ recent upgrades appear to have elevated the team back near to the front.

“Mega job guys, mega job!” Lewis Hamilton enthusiastically shouted down the team radio as race engineer Pete Bonnington told him he’d finished in second place in Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix, and that he’d earned the accolade of Driver of the Day.

“Thank you so much to everyone back at the factory continuing to push. This is the real showing of all your hard work, so thank you. Let’s keep pushing!”

It’s the first proper light at the end of the tunnel for Mercedes since the start of the ground-effect era which began in 2022 with the W14, for the first time, showing a clear advantage over every car apart from the dominant Red Bull RB19.

While Max Verstappen romped to victory 24 seconds clear of Hamilton, the seven-time World Champion was very comfortable in second place as he caught and overtook the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz – the Spaniard having shown strong single-lap pace on Saturday, but the SF-23 proved less useful over a race distance.

George Russell’s performance was perhaps even more encouraging, given he started from 12th place and from the same row as Red Bull’s Sergio Perez after Saturday proved challenging for both drivers. Aside from a moment in the gravel on his lap out to the grid, Russell sliced his way through the pack with particularly decisive moves on the Aston Martin drivers and on Sainz.

With Ferrari and Aston Martin having been unable to properly challenge Red Bull at all since the season began, despite the wind tunnel testing time deficit the reigning World Champions have been punished with this season, Mercedes’ performance at a track that demands aerodynamic efficiency and prodigious tyre life will raise eyebrows at Milton Keynes.

After all, of all the teams that are attempting to bridge the gap to Red Bull’s performance, it’s undoubtedly Mercedes that Red Bull fears the most, given their dominance of F1 between 2014 and 2020 and their neck-and-neck title fight in ’21.

Mercedes’ aggressive approach to upgrades make the difference

But what’s changed to allow Mercedes to make the significant step forward the Spanish Grand Prix suggests they have? After running the ‘zeropod’ concept for a year and a bit, Mercedes cried enough by introducing sidepods, along with a new floor and suspension design in Monaco.

Having admitted that the direction taken with the W14, persevering with the concept rolled out with the W13, had been the wrong one as far back as pre-season testing in Bahrain, Mercedes had planned for a concept change via their upgrades to allow for a much higher ceiling of performance. The updates were scheduled for last month’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, the first race in Europe, but were pushed out to Monaco as a result of Imola’s cancellation.

Unlike Ferrari, who opted against introducing upgrades in Monaco, Mercedes pushed to get the updates on the car even for the idiosyncratic Monte Carlo – a move which even Max Verstappen praised as it made more sense for Mercedes to begin understanding the changes. Ferrari, by comparison, waited until this weekend’s race in Spain, and never really looked on top of things – particularly on Charles Leclerc’s side of the garage.

Barcelona is one of F1’s most popular test tracks and, despite a poor start to the weekend on Friday, Mercedes’ unrelenting race pace against almost every other team seems to have vindicated that decision to go aggressive with their upgrades – despite the fact that the changes are undoubtedly not fully fettled in just yet.

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“We took some decisions to go in another direction,” Toto Wolff told Sky F1 after his team’s double podium.

“We changed so many parts that we thought may be variables that we don’t completely understand. It was a risky move and everybody just pushed forward and we got a good race car.

“I think we just needed the shock at the beginning of the season to understand that it was not going forward. There was much more performance gains in it and then that shook it up and then we pushed forward. But there are lead times – you need to design parts. You need to produce them, and the team back at base did a mega job that we have all of that on the car.

“It was just concentrating on what we think we know well. It’s all down to the engineering work and operations and all the other engineers to bring the car together and the wake-up call at the beginning of the season was good.”

Asked what encouragement Mercedes are taking from the step forward, and where they are in relation to Red Bull, Wolff said the 20+ seconds advantage to Verstappen was possibly a little flattering and that had Hamilton started from a better grid position, the deficit might have been smaller.

“I think the learning is that we had a good race car,” he said.

“Lewis came out a good five, six seconds behind Max when he cleared Carlos and I think we are just much closer But you see where the benchmark is – at the end, more than 20 seconds. Maybe it was 15 in reality, but that’s just not where we aim to be.

“We just need to chip away. We are really good at grinding. Once there is a setup direction and a development direction, we just go for it, and we have that advantage in terms of aero time, but we also need to be realistic today. The temperatures really suited us, it was nice and fresh, not too cold, not too hot. The car was in an absolute mega window.”

Are Red Bull quaking in their boots yet?

With Wolff beaming about Mercedes stepping up their performance, seemingly confirming the change of direction with the car has been the correct one, Christian Horner was asked about whether Red Bull are looking over their shoulder just yet.

“They were still 23 seconds behind at the end of the race,” he said, wryly smiling, before admitting the aero testing restrictions applying to his team and giving Mercedes extra development time will likely allow Brackley to close the gap.

“Yeah, they made a good step but we’ve got some stuff in the pipeline,” Horner continued.

“They’ve had a big upgrade. We’ve got some bits coming later into the season but look, for sure, it was a big step. They’re a quality team and they’re going to be putting us under pressure in the second half of the year.”

So, despite a runaway victory for Verstappen in Spain, there’s light at the end of the tunnel for the Mercedes fans, and the neutral. While Ferrari’s usual turmoil and lack of cohesion keeps them out of contention, and Aston Martin continue their quest to understand what it means to be a front-running team, Mercedes have the know-how and experience to bring the fight to Red Bull and it’s a fight with plenty of bitter history.

Faced with the mouth-watering prospect, and buoyed by the clear improvement of his car, Lewis Hamilton paid tribute to the work carried out by his team and vowed to keep the pressure up on Red Bull.

“We definitely didn’t expect to have the result we had today,” he said.

“I just really want to take my hat off to my team, a big big thank you to everyone back in the factory for continuing to push and bring us a little bit closer to the Red Bulls. They’re still a bit ahead, but we will keep chasing them down.

“I think they’re still a bit too quick at the moment. But we’re working at it. So just one step at a time and if we can get close by the end of the year, that’d be awesome. But, if not, next year.”