Max Verstappen’s Japanese Grand Prix win secured a second successive constructors’ championship for Red Bull. Mercedes, who won a remarkable eight of those crowns between 2014 and 2021 had to be content with fifth and seventh. Their progress in closing down Red Bull since the start of 2022 remains minimal.
Even after so many trials with the W13 and W14’s concept and performance, Lewis Hamilton complained that the car’s performance at Suzuka – he finished fifth and 49 seconds off Verstappen – was the same as last year’s car.
George Russell, whom he had a fairly fractious battle with for much of the race, finished seventh and wrote off his season as a “disaster”. It was a race that underlined many problems – present and future – for the team.
Russell vs Hamilton tensions reach a peak
Hamilton and Russell enjoy a good working relationship and have largely avoided too much friction in their 38 races together. At Suzuka, the tension between the two was as high as it has ever been as they fought hard in close quarters on several occasions and also with their team over the radio.
In their first scuffle early on, Russell dived up the inside of the final chicane before Hamilton took the tow down the pit straight and went around the outside at turn one, retaking the place. It looked firm and fair but was not without risk. The two came very close – twice – to making contact.
The pair resumed their duel on lap 16 after Hamilton ran wide at the second Degner. Russell was straight onto the back of him, trying to go around the outside at Spoon Curve. Hamilton was having none of it and appeared to run his team-mate onto the run off to keep the position.
George Russell and Lewis Hamilton racing away in Suzuka! 🆚 pic.twitter.com/GBXyUjZlqy
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) September 24, 2023
Russell, who seemed to be the faster man at that point, radioed his team straight after: “Who do we want to fight here? Each other or the others?” After the race Hamilton acknowledged that he fought hard: “I was definitely aggressive, but I think it was good racing.”
The final act of Russell vs Hamilton came in the closing stages. Russell, in fifth and on older hard tyres, was vulnerable to Hamilton and then Sainz immediately behind him. His suggestion was for Hamilton to stay behind but in DRS range. This would make it harder for Sainz to overtake Hamilton, with Russell letting his (then faster) team-mate through on the final lap.
Mercedes overruled this, telling Russell to move aside immediately. They made it clear that it was not a request but an “instruction”. Russell eventually obliged but was straight away eaten up by Sainz – despite an attempt for Hamilton to give DRS to Russell – on his way to a disappointing seventh. There was back and forth between the team and drivers when this was happening and also after the race. Was this all a little messy? Yes. Did it really cost Mercedes? Probably not.
'They raced in each hard'
Bradley Lord says it's easy to read 'too much' into radio messages as George Russell and Lewis Hamilton battled away in Suzuka 👇 pic.twitter.com/5rCd1SqHEJ
— Sky Sports F1 (@SkySportsF1) September 24, 2023
It would be too much to represent this as a tense situation between the drivers threatening to get ugly. But neither is it nothing.
The testy radio messages in the midst of the battle are one thing, but there were also pointed comments after the race. Hamilton was not particularly pleased with the situation or, it seems, Russell. “He was trying to fight me [and] he was damaging his tyres and I think it just made it all complicated,” the seven-time champion said about the end of race incident, though he later described it as “nothing”. Hamilton also pointed out that he had “scored more points for the team this year.” Russell described his own season as a “disaster”.
Both drivers reiterated their goal was to get Mercedes to second in the standings. But for all the talk of the team, personal glory is the number one priority for any driver. That was apparent during and after the race.
It is far from the fractious end of the Rosberg vs Hamilton days. Yet with the pair now confirmed at Mercedes until the end of 2025 you would expect this not to be the last incident of this kind as both drivers attempt to assert their superiority with the added dynamic of the team trying – and currently failing – to get back to the top.
Hamilton leaps clear after Russell’s ‘disaster’ season
Russell has had a difficult second year at the team. After the Miami Grand Prix in May I wrote that with Mercedes not challenging for wins, beating Russell should be Hamilton’s main priority in 2023, given that he was second best in 2022. “Seeing off his younger compatriot and doing so comprehensively is the biggest (and perhaps only) win Hamilton can achieve this year.”
Five months on and the 38-year-old has achieved this, comprehensively. He currently leads his team-mate 190 points to 115, one pole position to none and five podiums to one. Since Russell’s last top-three finish in Spain (nine rounds ago) he has finished in the top five just twice.
Russell had shown some good form at times since the summer break but his last-lap crash in Singapore when third was an unforgivable error. After a serene and unfussy debut year alongside Hamilton this season has been messy and patchy. It is a stark contrast to last season, when it was Hamilton who was confused by the W13 as Russell made the best of the car he had.
Bad luck has cost him on occasion, but to be level with Lando Norris at this point is poor. Since the Spanish Grand Prix in May Norris has outscored Russell 103 points to 50. Whilst this gap is not quite the chasm from Perez to Verstappen, “disaster” is not too far off the mark. With better results from Russell, their fight with Ferrari would look rosier.
Mercedes shown up by another customer team
Reeling in Red Bull is not happening this season. But their target of being the next best is starting to look a little shaky, having been fairly comfortable at the season’s mid-point. The progress of other teams that are showing Mercedes up a little, too, as Hamilton pointed out after the race.
At the start of the year one customer team, Aston Martin, had the upper hand over the works outfit, leading them on points after Monaco. Now another team who buy their power units from Mercedes are showing the way to go. Since their mid-season upgrade package, McLaren have often been the next-best team to Red Bull on both Saturdays and Sundays.
Since Canada, Mercedes have scored 138 points, with McLaren on 155 and Ferrari on 163. The more recent picture is hardly any better. Since the summer break it has been Mercedes 50, McLaren 61 and Ferrari 84. The team are starting to look stuck.
The 128-point gap between the teams is not a worry for Mercedes, but the overall performance trend of the MCL60 should certainly be. It adds another complication to the fight for second this year. With stable regulations, it also raises questions over next year’s car.