It took a penalty for Aston Martin and Fernando Alonso, but Mercedes notched their first podium of the 2023 Formula 1 season in the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, and the team now sits tied with Aston Martin for second place in the Constructors’ Championship.
That success has certainly changed the mood around the Silver Arrows, who now look ahead to the Australian Grand Prix wondering if they can not just separate from Ferrari and Aston Martin, but push even closer to Red Bull. The day ended with Lewis Hamilton in fifth place, and George Russell in third.
“Today was positive and we’d rather take a small trophy home than none. I think we saw some performance gains to Bahrain which is encouraging,” said Team Principal Toto Wolff in a statement to the media, including SBNation. “It shows us that the development trajectory is going in the right direction.”
The team opted for a split-tyre strategy, with Hamilton beginning the day on the hard compound while Russell rolled off at the start on the mediums. However, unlike other drivers who found success on the hards, particularly later in the race, Hamilton struggled on the compound. On Lap 9 Hamilton radioed into the pit that the grip “sucks” on the hard compound, and by Lap 12 he had slid back into P9, having been passed by Max Verstappen, who started in 15th position.
“If I had qualified better then maybe I could have got a better result, but we still got some points,” said Hamilton after the Grand Prix. “My setup this weekend has been the biggest issue I’ve faced. I got it wrong for qualifying and it wasn’t good in the race either, so I struggled today.”
When Lance Stroll’s AMR23 failed on Lap 17, that gave both drivers the chance to pit, and change strategy a bit. Hamilton switched to the medium compound, while Russell opted for the hards. When the green flag waved, Hamilton was the only driver in the top ten on the mediums, with everyone else on the hards. Russell was in P3, with Hamilton in P6.
Shortly after the green flag waved, Mercedes got perhaps their best news of the season. On the mediums Hamilton worked quickly past Carlos Sainz Jr., pushing into P5. “We were a lot closer to some of those ahead and it’s great to be in the top five, ahead of the Ferraris,” noted Hamilton after the race.
That pace from the Mercedes duo was noted by the commentators on F1TV, who declared “[t]onight, Mercedes seems to have a much better race pace than the Ferraris.”
While Russell would eventually see Max Verstappen push by him, he remained in striking distance of Fernando Alonso, sitting in fourth place late into the race. That is when some controversy unfolded. On Lap 48 Russell heard from his team that Alonso was being investigated for potentially failing to properly serve a penalty during the safety car. With Alonso facing a potential five-second penalty, Russell tried desperately to close the gap to Alonso.
Russell failed to get within five seconds, and came across the line in P4. However, word came shortly after the podium ceremony that Alonso was indeed being given a penalty, and a ten-second penalty at that, pushing Russell into third place.
The driver conceded that Alonso deserved the position, but declined to look the gift horse in the mouth. “Fernando deserved to be on the podium today and I was pleased with P4,” said Russell. “I’m not complaining too much about taking home a trophy though, and we will take the extra points!”
Russell also outlined that the results reflect the hard work from the entire team.
“When you put the hard work in and it pays dividends, you come away feeling satisfied. We finished ahead of both Ferraris on merit today and we know we’ve got a lot of performance to come soon,” said Russell. “The gap to the Red Bulls is still considerable, but we’ll take the positives from the weekend, keep fighting as hard as we can and focusing on ourselves.”
As for what lies ahead, Trackside Engineering Director Andrew Shovlin notes that the improvements to the W14 are working, and more podiums could be in their future. “We’ve been busy at the factory searching for performance and the initial findings are encouraging which gives us the motivation to keep working hard to improve. Today, we did exactly what we needed to do, which is to maximise the potential in what we have,” said Shovlin. “We’re looking forward to the next race in Melbourne; it’s closer in characteristics to Saudi than Bahrain, so hopefully we’ll have a car that we can fight for a podium. If there is any more performance that we can bring we’ll make sure we get it to the track.”