Mercedes vs Ferrari: Where the battle for P2 was won and lost

Luke Murphy
Carlos Sainz holds off Lewis Hamilton at the 2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Ferrari and Mercedes couldn't be separated on track during most of 2023, with Mercedes pipping the runner-up spot at the final race.

The 2023 season might not have turned into the epic championship battle that many hoped for, but the battle between Mercedes and Ferrari continued until the final laps of the season.

With millions in prize money up for grabs, Lewis Hamilton, George Russell, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz all had their highs and lows in the 22-race season.

We take you through all the twists and turns of what turned out to be an engaging battle for pride between two behemoths of Formula 1.

Ferrari’s problematic start

With Red Bull quickly establishing themselves as the team to beat at the season-opening Bahrain GP, all Mercedes and Ferrari could do was tell the world how hard they will be pushing to catch up and fight for the final podium position. 

Ferrari would lose even more ground in the Constructors’ Championship by encountering a reliability issue and seeing Charles Leclerc retire from the race. Unfortunately for Ferrari, Aston Martin made a headline-grabbing start to the season, and Fernando Alonso prevented the second Ferrari of Carlos Sainz from standing on the Bahrain rostrum. 

At round two, Leclerc was handed an unusually early grid penalty for exceeding power unit component limits, which took him away from the front row and contributed to Ferrari falling further behind Mercedes in the standings. 

The following race in Australia was Ferrari’s only non-scoring race of the year, with Leclerc lasting three corners before ending up in the gravel trap, and Sainz falling out of the points due to a penalty for tangling with Alonso at the dramatic race restart in the closing laps.

The Melbourne race was one of Mercedes’ better events from the opening rounds, and they might have had a double-podium finish if it weren’t for an engine failure on George Russell’s car. An early opportunity missed for the Silver Arrows.

After three rounds: Mercedes 56 – Ferrari 26

Ferrari show promise on the street tracks

The Azerbaijan GP gave a demonstration of Ferrari’s capabilities on the rear-limited circuits, especially in qualifying. A double Pole Position for Leclerc in the first Sprint weekend of the season teased a Ferrari fightback, before Red Bull reiterated their superior performance in race trim. Nevertheless, a points haul for Ferrari closed the gap to Mercedes and Aston Martin.

Mercedes recovered from a Q2 elimination for Hamilton in Miami to marginally outscore Ferrari, who were set back by Leclerc’s crash in Q3. Round six showed promise for Ferrari, but Leclerc’s grid penalty, Sainz’s erroneous race performance and the team’s delayed wet weather tyre strategy generated a disappointing result for the red team at the Principality.

After six rounds: Mercedes 119 – Ferrari 90

Mercedes’ false dawn performance breakthrough

With Mercedes and Ferrari bringing heavily updated cars to the Monaco and Spanish Grands Prix respectively, both teams would have been hoping to take chunks out of Red Bull’s massive championship lead, or at least consistently become their closest challengers.

Despite neither team setting the world alight in Barcelona qualifying, Mercedes’ race performance brought them a double podium finish, providing hopes that a corner had been turned and challenges for race wins would be on the horizon. 

Mercedes were sitting pretty at the Canadian GP until Russell’s mid-race error put him out of points contention and allowed Ferrari to outscore Mercedes, despite both cars finishing behind Hamilton.

Ferrari demonstrated that they were still in the fight for P2 with a much-improved showing at the second Sprint weekend in Austria, which resulted in a Sprint podium for Sainz and race podium for Leclerc, whilst Mercedes claimed only eleven points from the double event weekend.

After nine rounds: Mercedes 178 – Ferrari 154

McLaren enter the fray

After a disappointing start to the season, the much-upgraded McLaren cars started to trouble the frontrunners, notably with an impressive first podium of the season at the British GP with Lando Norris. With Aston Martin beginning their descent down the pecking order, McLaren became the new thorn in the side of Mercedes and Ferrari.

Without the Woking team in the picture, the Ferraris would have qualified in the top three, and Mercedes would have secured a double-podium result.

Mercedes secured their only Pole Position of the season in Hungary with Hamilton, but the Briton fell behind the Red Bulls and Norris to take P4. Russell’s recovery from a P18 start to sixth helped the team extend their advantage over Ferrari and the struggling Aston Martin team.

Sprint race weekend number three of the season took place at the Belgian GP, and Ferrari once again displayed a pace advantage over Mercedes at the double event and took the final podium place behind the Red Bulls.

However, a costly tangle with Oscar Piastri eventually eliminated Sainz from the race, meaning Ferrari could not take full advantage of a weekend of solid pace. As a result, both teams took the same amount of points at Spa-Francorchamps and the gap between the two teams remained at 56 points after the Belgian round.

After 12 rounds: Mercedes 247 – Ferrari 191

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Ferrari reignite battle in Monza and Singapore

The chaotic Dutch GP threatened to be a very profitable one for Ferrari in the initial stops for Intermediate tyres. Mercedes’ gamble on staying out on slick tyres appeared costly until Safety Cars, improved strategy, strong race pace and a retirement for Leclerc brought them back into play. As a result, they only lost two points to Ferrari on a difficult race day.

Ferrari went all out to stop the Red Bulls from winning on their home turf at Monza, but were gradually picked off by the Constructors’ champions despite the best defensive efforts from Sainz, who picked up a podium as a reward, his first for the season. Mercedes salvaged solid points at a difficult venue for them.

Sainz followed up his podium with one of the finest drives of the season in Singapore. With Red Bull having a rare disaster weekend, Sainz took Pole and led from start to finish, and fended off a late Mercedes attack masterfully. Russell’s crash from third place ensured Ferrari inflicted huge damage on Mercedes’ points advantage.

After 15 rounds: Mercedes 289 – Ferrari 265

Mercedes and Ferrari trade blows in flyaway races

With Verstappen and the two McLarens enjoying a strong pace advantage in Suzuka, Ferrari vanquished in a straight fight with the Mercedes drivers over higher points positions. A similar theme developed at the next race in Qatar, but Mercedes will view that race as a missed opportunity after a turn 1 tangle between Russell and Hamilton hampered their podium chances.

Despite this, Russell finished ahead of Leclerc to extend Mercedes’ points lead for the first time in several races. With Sainz also failing to start the race, Mercedes missed out on inflicting more pain on the Scuderia.

Bringing highly anticipated updates to the US GP Sprint weekend, Hamilton drove a fine race to challenge Verstappen for the victory in the closing stages, but his runner-up spot was wiped from the records due to a post-race disqualification for excessive plank wear.

Leclerc, who had started from Pole, was also disqualified for the same offence, which ensured Ferrari only took six points from Mercedes’ lead.

After 18 rounds: Mercedes 344 – Ferrari 322

Ferrari set up final race showdown in Abu Dhabi

Leclerc and Sainz provided an all-red front row for the Mexican GP, but were undone by the race pace of Verstappen and Hamilton, and slipped to third and fourth. Mercedes and Ferrari both took 27 points from the event. 

Both teams struggled at the final Sprint weekend in Interlagos, with Mercedes suffering from poor race pace and falling to the lower points positions. Ferrari could have capitalised further, but Leclerc was eliminated before the start of the race with a hydraulics problem on the formation lap. 

The inaugural Las Vegas GP had several unknown factors to it, but Ferrari took the challenge to Red Bull with Leclerc claiming his fourth Pole Position of the season. Behind race winner Verstappen, he claimed second with a last lap pass on Perez. Sainz also recovered from his unfortunate power unit penalty to take P6 and help Ferrari to take 16 points out of Mercedes’ lead and provide a chance of edging Mercedes to P2 in the Constructors’ Championship.

After 21 rounds: Mercedes 392 – Ferrari 388

Ferrari fluff their lines on final act

With form on Ferrari’s side, at a circuit which played to some of their strengths, and with the points gap to Mercedes as small as it was after the Bahrain GP, the red team had a golden chance to pocket the runner-up spot in the Championship. 

Leclerc was well-placed in second behind Verstappen, but Sainz was hampered by his Q1 qualifying exit, and he was unable to recover sufficient ground to challenge for meaningful points, even before his retirement on the penultimate lap.

Whilst both teams had bigger ambitions at the start of the season, it was a disappointing end for Ferrari, who lost in an intense battle of fine margins by just three points across the 22-race season. 

Final scores: Mercedes 409 – Ferrari 406

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