🇧🇷 F1'23: R20 - Formula Indecision

Mercedes are left wondering what could have been at a race that means more than most weekends

It’s not just the decision you make, but when you make it that makes or break your weekend.

Mercedes found this out the hard way in Sao Paulo. George Russell was unhappy on the team radio, although he didn’t start out that way. Initially, the British driver wanted to work with Lewis Hamilton, telling the team that he would stay behind his countryman and be pulled along in the fast first sector.

However, that quickly turned, and Russell then wanted to pass Hamilton. There is no F1 driver that doesn’t sound like an entitled millionaire wondering why the coffee place has used oat and not almond milk when they’re on the radio in this situation, but Russell was really going for it.

As the Mercedes pair continued to trip over each other and not really race each other, awkwardly toe-tapping their way through the Brazilian rollercoaster, the team bosses felt unmoved. Russell was catching his teammate but never able to get the overspeed needed to pass him, and without assistance from his team, it allowed Carlos Sainz to approach and attack.

In a disaster for Mercedes, Sainz got past Russell without much effort, and then  picked Hamilton off a few laps later. 

It’s easy to forget that Mercedes won here last year, their most recent victory in F1 and the rare bright spot for them amongst Red Bull streaking ahead of them and the rest of the field compressing the gap to the once-dominant outfit.

To highlight how bad the Mercedes has been in a straight line (or at least as straight as you can get in Interlagos), Pierre Gasly and his Alpine acted as as a good indicator.

Both Mercedes pitted for soft tyres, but it made no difference whatsoever. The Alpine’s Renault engine is the weakest in terms of pure grunt, and way back in late-July, they made a request to equalise engine performance after a development freeze was implemented.

But even though it’s the weakest of the four, it’s still got something to it, and Pierre Gasly blasted past Russell on lap 43 and Hamilton around half a dozen laps later. To underline the point, Yuki Tsunoda - who had a fantastic weekend in Brazil - also overtook George Russell before the latter was told to retire the car through his engine overheating - not helped by having to follow Hamilton through the twisty track.

Would this have been different if Russell and Hamilton had swapped positions much earlier in the race, or if Mercedes had been decisive rather than having radio silence for a number of laps where there was no communication between them and the team’s younger driver? It’s difficult to say, but this felt like Miami 2022 and the indecision that was holding the team back and not able to hit the heights they were so accustomed to.

With George Russell taking his first win at this circuit and Hamilton being a literal honorary Brazilian citizen, this is an important country for Mercedes and it’s a race weekend that emotionally means more to the drivers, amplifying the disappointment that they’ve felt.

This was probably the best chance Mercedes had to win a race this season. They’ve never had a winless season at the team since Lewis Hamilton has been there, with former champions Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher not taking the chequered flag first at all in 2011.

There has been a superb fightback from the team, and the energy expended in fighting off one customer in Aston Martin replaced by another customer in McLaren must be exhausting. It’s not just professional, but it becomes a personal point of pride from those in the works team, and that’s before working out how to cope with Ferrari and Red Bull being either around them or deep into the distance. 

It has been a long season for everyone, with hundreds of hours spent in the wind tunnel and travelling to the next point on the global circus, and when you’re used to winning, taking the applause and heading back to the hotel soaked in not-champagne, to suddenly be in among the also-rans with occasional brushes with glory must be somewhat sobering in more ways than one.

The clearout has begun though. Much like Alpine clearing the decks of senior people and hoping the new people can capture lightning in a bottle, Merc’s chief technical officer is out as they look towards the future. While Mercedes are likely to secure the runners up prize in the Teams’ Championship, they’re likely to do this without winning a race. This has not happened since 2004 and the dominant Michael Schumacher-Barrichello pairing at Ferrari. Williams in fourth and McLaren in sixth picked up one win each. Yes Mercedes were excluded from the Championship in 2007, but on track, you get what I mean.

Looking in third and Charles Leclerc losing his hydraulics on the formation lap might be enough to keep Ferrari third. Unless Vegas literally puts it all on red and Abu Dhabi comes through for them, it’s looking like they’re not going to be runners up to Red Bull for a second consecutive year, so this is not necessarily a total washout for Mercedes, and despite the disappointment, there might be more questions being asked of Ferrari than there at Mercedes, with the Italian team shooting themselves so often in the foot that they may well have become numb.

Or at least, that’s the impression I would have got had I not heard Leclerc’s team radio. He sounded utterly broken and despite great single lap pace, he might have his third season at Ferrari without a win. I’ve said it before, but I would not be surprised if he lets his contract expire with a jump to Aston Martin in 2025 to continue their project.

Sidenote: Thank God this didn’t happen at full speed into turn 1.

We get our first race around the Las Vegas street track next time out. It has been possible to drive this track on a videogame before taking it on in real life. Despite Red Bull’s dominance literally everywhere around the world, all the simulations in the world can’t tell the true story once the rubber meets the Nevada road. It’ll also be a Saturday night race for F1, and the final Sunday 6am of the season in the UK.

Whether the results have gone your team’s way or not, F1 has been compelling in 2023 and the jeopardy of a new track might negate everything else we’ve seen. When the lights go out, it’ll be more than a calendar year since Lewis Hamilton or George Russell won a Grand Prix. Every driver will be going all out to be the first winner in Vegas. I can’t wait to watch them roll the dice.

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