Could the Mercedes comeback be upon us?
There is at least some renewed optimism around the Silver Arrows ahead of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, after George Russell and Lewis Hamilton both qualified in the top ten for Sunday’s Grand Prix. With Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc facing a ten-place grid penalty, Russell will roll off the line in third, with Hamilton in seventh.
While not the drastic improvement many Mercedes fans were hoping for, after a tough season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, there seems to be more optimism around the team following Saturday’s qualifying session at Jeddah Corniche Circuit.
“We have exceeded the potential and our own expectations to be ahead of an Aston Martin and a Ferrari. It is a solid job; we put in a lot of work overnight,” exclaimed Russell in a statement to the media, including SBNation, after qualifying. “The team back at Brackley were working hard in the simulator and we did a lot of work trackside this morning to try and get more out of the package. We know we are not in the fight for pole just yet, but you have to maximise what you’ve got, and we certainly did that today.”
Certainly, Leclerc’s penalty — coupled with a retirement from Max Verstappen, who was primed for a start at the top of the grid — aided Mercedes this day. Trackside Engineering Director Andrew Shovlin was quick to point that out following the qualifying runs. However the drivers, in particular Russell, made the most of the session. “It’s been a difficult weekend to get the car in the right place and I don’t think George could have got any more out of it with his laps in the final session,” noted Shovlin. “We’ve benefited from Max’s issues and Charles’ penalty to end up third on the grid, but George still had to get ahead of a number of key cars that were all pretty quick.”
For his part, Hamilton was more muted, as he admitted that he struggled with the W14 during qualifying. Still, there are signs that the improvements are coming together for the team. “I struggled a little bit today, but we just need to keep trying. No matter what changes we’ve been making, we’ve been struggling to extract the speed, and I just don’t feel properly connected to the car at the moment,” said Hamilton on Saturday night. “That is something we will work on to improve the confidence in the next races. George did a great job today though and he wasn’t that far off some of the cars at the front, so we just need to keep pushing. It wasn’t the greatest of days but there are improvements for the team.”
Looking ahead to Sunday, the team concedes that a lot can change once all 20 cars are on the track. With the high speeds drivers reach at Jeddah Corniche Circuit, coupled with how drivers are still adjusting to the changes on the track — in particular the tightening at Turns 22 and 23 — anything can happen.
“The race here normally has a few incidents so how well you do is often a function of whether they fall at the right times. Only a few places separate our cars so it gives us an opportunity to split them on strategies so we can cover the bases,” said Shovlin, looking ahead to the Grand Prix. “Hopefully we’ll be a bit kinder on the tyres than we were in Bahrain; we’ve tried to work on the setup to achieve that and we’ll find out tomorrow if we’ve made progress.”
“I think pace-wise tomorrow we are with the Aston Martins and the Ferraris; at least that is per the long runs yesterday, so we should be able to play around in the race,” added Team Principal Toto Wolff.
Of the group, Russell seemed the most optimistic.
“We have a fight on our hands tomorrow, most likely with the Aston Martins and the Ferraris. We will be pushing hard to get on the podium and seeing what we can do,” said the Mercedes driver. “This team has higher standards and expectations for themselves than just finishing in the top three, but we will be giving everything we’ve got to be standing there on Sunday.”
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