🇪🇸 F1'23: R7 - We see just one side of a fight

What we see on Sundays is only a small part of the battle, with Mercedes translating the advantage from the rest of the week into points. Your move, Aston Martin

Red Bull Racing won the Spanish Grand Prix with some ease, in a line that most F1 writers could have penned before the lights went out in Fasterlona (sorry), but while Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez weigh in with another 35+ point haul, it’s the race no-one sees that’s worth keeping an eye on.

A double podium for Mercedes here was their best result of the season so far and their best since a near-perfect weekend in Interlagos when Carlos Sainz was sandwiched in the middle of the sprint. Their rivals, Aston Martin, were behind them this time around in sixth and seventh, which elevates Mercedes to second and acts as a massive signpost to keep going.But there are parallels between the silver arrows and the green machine and if Aston Martin are looking to emulate the success they’ve had, well, it’s not the worst blueprint (silverprint?) to follow. I’ve divided them into a few distinct categories where there are similarities and who might have the edge.

Drivers - Mercedes

In some ways it shows experience. Mercedes have been there or thereabouts since Lewis Hamilton joined the team in 2013, finishing in the top three and winning eight Constructors’ Championships in a row, an astounding era of dominance where Hamilton vs Nico Rosberg was for a while, the stars of the sport, with everyone else in a supporting role. This race in 2016 saw Verstappen take his first victory when Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton collided with each other in Barcelona that year on the first lap.

Back to the present day and Hamilton is arguably even better than he was then, wrestling not the best car on the grid into competitiveness and now has George Russell snapping at his heels, a truly ambitious teammate. It seems like they’re both bringing the best out of each other, even when they had a minor collision in Q2:

"It's always unfortunate circumstances that can potentially penalise both cars. Here it didn't penalise George because he didn't know and he went onto his lap. Lewis had to change his front wing.” - Toto Wolff, speaking to Sky Sports

For Hamilton to be 22 points ahead of his fellow Brit is a big achievement in itself and while I’ve speculated before on who might replace him, but one name I had previously dismissed was Frederik Vesti.

The 21-year-old Danish driver is currently leading Formula 2 and his return to serial junior series winners Prema has seen him develop rapidly. Perhaps it would be Vesti Bestie rather than Este Bestie that would replace the most difficult seat to fill in the sport? (Sidenote: as a man in my mid-30s, even I cringed at writing those nicknames)

Big teams don’t put rookies in at the deep end anymore, with a year or two of finishing school at another team first. Red Bull do it through Alpha Tauri (Perez an exception as he came from outside the system), Mercedes with Williams, Ferrari with Alfa Romeo or Haas. Vesti could be the next one off that Formula 2 conveyor belt, although Hamilton - more than ever - looks like he’s staying.

On the Aston Martin side, the parallels are there. A former multi-time world champion in Fernando Alonso, a former Williams podium finisher in Lance Stroll. There’s even a talented reserve in Felipe Drugovich who could step in if needed but clearly not as race-ready as Mick Schumacher. Alonso had taken 15 points from every event until Monaco when he finished second, and a damaged floor in Spain meant he could only get to seventh.

As for Stroll, it’s easy (and I’ve done this a lot) to mock him for his dad owning the team and therefore, the official seat for nepotism isn’t going to get sacked. I’m not going to start sympathising with a billionaire’s son, but that brings its own pressure.

He changed a lot of opinions after his ironman performance in Bahrain, but he’s been just… ok since then, with three non-points results. That’s as many as Charles Leclerc, who is seven points ahead of the Canadian. Incidentally, sixth in Barcelona meant that Stroll’s 35 points is the best single-season tally in his third year under Aston Martin branding (his all-time is 75 points in the COVID season in 2020). 

But ultimately, if you were picking a team, and grouped them into Hamilton-Alonso, Russell-Stroll and Schumacher-Drugovich, most people would go with Merc’s lineup.

Experience - Mercedes

Mercedes have been there, done that, sold the t-shirt, done it again, sold you another t-shirt and done it again in the past few years. Aston Martin have had something of a chequered past, going in and out of administration in Racing Point pink and being resurrected in racing green, bringing Sebastian Vettel in for veteran experience. 

As the German legend announced his retirement, no-one (especially the sport’s media) saw Alonso going there, and even when he did, there was little expectation he would do anything there.

"From the first day at Aston Martin, I felt exactly the same values from the people around me. It's very motivating.

"In Formula 1, you need investment and you need talent. We have the investment, we have the facilities and we have the talent. Unfortunately I am not 20 years old any more, but I will do my best to help the team." Fernando Alonso, speaking at Aston Martin’s car launch

They’ve also brought in key personnel from other teams, and that institutional knowledge is what you really can’t buy. Suddenly, a team that hadn’t won before have people in the building who know how to take the top step and keep it.

In a way, it becomes a bit of a case study of whether you can bring in your talent externally or grow it. The obvious answer is that you need a mix of both, but it looks as though Mercedes, even with the recent realisation that they’re not automatically at the front, have grown. With Aston Martin, they’ve grown quicker too, but perhaps we’re now starting to see that initial development impact level off.

Powertrain - The same, but Mercedes

Or at least it is for now. One reason it’s so important for Mercedes to beat Aston Martin is that they use the same engine, with the same three-pointed star on it somewhere. With the internal works team, you can custom fit everything - how does it suit my car? With a customer, you give them the finished thing and it’s on them to wedge it into their chassis. 

There is the story of a 2015 engine physically not fitting into that year’s McLaren car, which compounded other problems and made for a miserable few years, with Alonso sniping the whole way through his three seasons and even preferring to take on the INDY500 than drive around Monaco in it.

The manufacturer of that engine was Honda, who Aston Martin have chosen to partner with from 2026. Presumably Alonso - who will be in his mid-40s by then - will be gone (right?) by then, but he has said he’s looking forward to seeing what the partnership brings, but that single focus from an engine manufacturer is important to the top teams as a complete racing package.

Long term future plans - Aston Martin

There aren’t many miles between Mercedes and Aston Martin’s factories. 

A 15-20-minute drive separates them and both parties have got ambitious plans to accelerate their development forward. Last week, the first Aston Martin employees moved into the new part of their factory, as the fancy sizzle video here shows. 

Built by a company named McLaren, the purpose-built facility is one upgrade, with a wind tunnel to be operational too - a true gamechanger for the team.

Mercedes aren’t being left behind either, with the announcement of £70m investment to expand and optimise their current campus, with Toto Wolff talking about a “Silicon Valley-style environment.”

Both teams should be given credit for taking a risk and investing in their local areas, which obviously has a knock-on effect on their communities. Sport has a huge platform to do social good, and this is one way where high-profile teams probably don’t get enough credit for doing so. However, on this at least, Aston Martin’s long-term play feels more revolutionary, as opposed to Mercedes who were already operating at a high level.

It’s my personal favourite race next up, with the early-evening speedfest that is Canada. A home race for Lance Stroll, and unllike Alonso in Spain, there will probably be very little speculation that the stars will align for a home win, even though they’re in equal machinery. 

Stranger things have happened in Montreal of course, but at the moment, it’s advantage Mercedes in the battle for second, but in F1, if you’re standing still, you’re going backwards. The increased competition and commercial interest, the pressure, the prize money, the stalking horse of new teams is all coming together and its pushing everyone to truly be the best they can be.

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