When Lewis Hamilton slid wildly around on Friday morning because he found no grip, especially at the rear, it probably dawned on the Formula 1 seven-time world champion that the matter of an eighth F1 title could also become conceivably difficult in 2023. Based purely on the data, Mercedes could even have slipped from third to fourth place in the Formula 1 pecking order.
The race simulation that Fernando Alonso put on display in the Aston Martin on Saturday evening, with times of 1:39 minutes when the tanks were full and 1:36 minutes when they were empty, made a lasting impression on the competition.
Albeit, as everyone knows, when Alonso was on track he found the best track conditions of the whole week. That said, the performance was impressive for the team that finished a lowly 7th in 2021 and as this website exclusively reported at the time, a team in utter disarray.
Mercedes ‘only just’ ahead of midfield
Hamilton set a best time of 1:30.664 minutes in the floodlit showdown at the Bahrain International Circuit, fast enough for second place in the day’s standings. However, he used the C5 rubber compound, which according to Pirelli is half a second slower than C4.
Assuming that the fuel levels of all teams were comparably low during the time chase at the end of the test, and taking the tyre factor out of the equation, Hamilton would be clearly behind the two Ferraris and only just ahead of the best times of teams like Alfa Romeo, AlphaTauri and Haas.
Hamilton’s hints all not well in presser
Hamilton faced the international press at lunchtime, before his final half-day in the W14 before the start of the season. In doing so, he appeared subdued. Not only, but also because of an unusual sentence. He said he was “really proud” of his team for keeping their heads up despite the difficult year of 2022.
In other words, not proud that the team has turned the corner in terms of performance, not proud that the W14 has achieved all its development goals (it obviously hasn’t). But proud that the team is not giving up despite all adversities. That doesn’t sound like they’ve turned the corner.
“Porpoising” no longer a problem for Mercedes
At least: “The ‘bouncing’ we had is pretty much gone, and that’s a huge step for us,” says Hamilton.
“It’s nice to drive through the corners without ‘bouncing’. But there are still some deeper things we need to work through.”
Thursday’s test opener, all about functional testing, went “not too badly at all”, he said. Friday, however, was a wake-up call. In the night to Saturday, Mercedes carried out a thorough examination. This revealed that there was nothing wrong with the car, but that the handling problems could only be cured by the set-up. This however, could be a ruse as this website exclusively reported on a serious suspension problem that appeared during the first running of the W14 at Silverstone a week before testing.
Hamilton would like more time for that. Understanding the car and the interaction with the tyres in just three days is “hard for everyone”. Especially if you don’t immediately hit the bull’s eye when it comes to the set-up.
Hamilton sounds disillusioned when he says: “Some of the limitations in terms of balance that we had last year are still there.”
Saturday much better than Friday
At least Saturday went much better than Friday from Mercedes’ point of view. The team reported “positive progress”. After extensive work on the track and in the factory, the team concentrated on evaluating the changes made overnight during the first drives on Saturday morning.
Andrew Shovlin, track operations manager, reported, “We did some work during the night to refine the specification of the car and find our direction again with the set-up. We seem to have made progress on that.”
“Both drivers felt that the car was much better today in all conditions and the balance is closer to what they need on a lap and on long runs. It’s clear we still need to work on the pace of the car, but today gave us a much more coherent picture of where we need to focus our efforts.”
By Saturday evening, Hamilton was sounding more conciliatory. He was quoted in the team’s press release as saying, “We’re not quite where we want to be yet, but it’s a good starting point. We don’t know where we’ll be next week, but we’ll stay positive and continue to get the most out of ourselves.”
“Progress made on the problems”
And George Russell? He finished eighth at the end of the day, a good second behind Sergio Perez’s fastest time. He too, just like Hamilton, did his fastest lap on C5 tyres, albeit in the morning when the track was still in full desert sun and much slower than in the late evening hours.
Russell confirms that “a step forward” has been made in terms of the set-up of the W14 from Friday to Saturday. He also said Mercedes had “made progress on the issues we were struggling with yesterday. We had a much more positive day today.”
“I think we improved the car over the course of the testing and got the W14 in a much better window today. There is still a lot to do, but we are in better shape for next week and can push harder,” he said.
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