Mercedes needed to outscore Red Bull at the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix to prevent them from winning a historic Formula One constructors’ title with one more race to spare the any other team has achieved.
Yet despite Sergio Perez hitting Hamilton on lap one and requiring a new front wing and then again hitting Kevin Magnussen and being forced to retire scoring no points, Mercedes failed to maximise their opportunity to stymie their arch rivals.
Mercedes early race fighting
During the opening stint Russell was quicker than Hamilton and despite almost overtaking him was forced to retreat to try again the following lap.
Hamilton then ran his team mate off the track at the “Spoon” corner as he was alongside causing Russell to question over the radio whether the team were maximising their opportunity to beat the Ferrari pair ahead.
The team then decided to split their race strategy and leave George to make just one pit stop, while Hamilton pitted earlier making two stops.
This inevitably meant Hamilton was catching Russell late in the race on fresher tyres, but the charging Ferrari of Carlos Sainz was close behind the Mercedes pair.
Mercedes team order questioned
Russell initially held up Hamilton as Sainz closed and asked the team to keep Lewis behind to defend from the Ferrari on his fresh rubber. The idea was to employ the tactic the Ferrari driver had used in Singapore to given Lewis the DRS but prevent the Ferrari from making the move.
The team order came for Russell to move over and inevitably Sainz then quickly passed the Mercedes on its ageing tyres.
Of course had the team left Russell ahead and been successful in keeping Sainz behind, they would have lost 2 points less to Ferrari who have now closed the gap to Mercedes in the constructors’ championship to just 20 points.
Toto Wolff was absent front the weekend as he underwent surgery on his knee back in Europe and so it was left to the Mercedes director of communications, Bradley Lord, to answer the media questions post the chequered flag.
“Fractious” Mercedes’ drivers
Sky F1’s Ted Kravitz suggested “it looked quite a tense fractious race” between the Mercedes drivers.
“I think it was just a bit of a battle out there,” Lord replied. “From the point when Lewis had that contact with Perez – moving over on him on the straight – this put us on the back foot.
“We lost positions on the opening lap and then it was just a question of what we could salvage and how far we could fight back from there.”
Lord praised Hamilton for driving “to the absolute limit of the car” and explained the reasoning for the Mercedes strategy.
Russell one stop explained
“With George we rolled the dice on a 1 stop and try to see if we could make that work,” though of course this merely resolved the on track battle between the two Mercedes drivers but as Ted Kravitz stated, “was detrimental to their race.”
Lord claimed, “Ultimately 5th and 7th is better than 6th and 7th and helps us minimise points lost to Ferrari,” but this assumed Sainz would have passed Hamilton and Russell.
Kravitz pressed the matter observing, “It sounds like you’ve got some drivers quite highly charged there?”
Yet Bradley Lord remained steadfast: “They raced each other hard at a hard racers track . I think its always easy to read a lot into those radio messages in the heat of the moment but as always we do the talking about it out of the pressure and high temperatures of the cockpit.”
George claims 3 stop quicker
The Mercedes communications director was gracious in offering his congratulations to Red Bull for their winning season.
“We’ve been very fortunate for the run of success that we had and we can only doff our caps to the staff at Red Bull and the standards they’ve set this year – its been very very high,” said Lord.
George Russell was coded when interviewed in the media pen following his radio outbursts during the race. When questioned whether his one stop strategy was the right way for the team to go George questioned whether ~Mercedes’ got it right.
“It was definitely worth a punt, I think the three stop would have probably been closer – or faster – than the one stop was – but the one stop gives us that chance to be in P3 if there was a safety car, or a red flag or even if the overtaking was slightly harder,” mused the British driver.
“Sub-optimal” strategy says George
Russell described his strategy as “sub-optimal” and explained the reason for his rant over the radio.
“When you’re in the car 48 laps in, you’ve been given a sub optimal strategy your’e trying to make work – that radio is a bit of a venting tool to release some frustration.
“Overtaking was difficult. You saw Piastril with much fresher tyres – he didn’t fly by [me] it took him 2 laps and then he only just achieved it.”
Clearly George felt had the team kept Lewis behind him late in the race, Sainz would have found the overtakes difficult to make.
Hamilton defends his record
Lewis Hamilton was coy when asked about the fight with his team mate refusing to answer the question.
“I’m exhausted for one. Fighting with absolutely everything I can to get up as high as possible and get ahead of Ferrari, who had an upgrade this week so were particularly quick and have been quick the last three races… it was a hell of a fight.”
Lewis appeared to defend the decision by Mercedes to force Russell to move over reminding those watching, “I’ve scored the most points for the team trying to hold on for the constructors title because I know how important it is for everyone in the background.”
The ex-champion then rounded on the state of the Mercedes car he has been given to drive.
Lewis calls for Red Bull copy
“But its tough on weekends like this where the car is such a handful.
“Its tough given how much work we’ve done to progress and we’re not any closer to the front. But we did get ahead of one of the Ferrari’s which is great team work from the guys in the pit stop and strategy.”
Lewis repeated his call for Mercedes to change the philosophy of their car design stating, “The next 6 months is gotta be the greatest 6 months of development we’ve ever had to close that gap.”
“We’ve got to look at what McLaren have done and go in that direction. But I truly believe my team can do it.”
McLaren got the jump on Mercedes
McLaren at the start of the year admitted publicly they had gone in the wrong direction with their 2023 car and were immediately looking to switch to a Red Bull style aerodynamic concept. Clearly with Norris finishing 30 seconds ahead of Hamilton on the same race strategy, McLaren made the right call.
“Hopefully with the change of philosophy we’ll be back to where the team deserve because this is a world championship team,” Lewis revealed.
“But decisions that were made in this period of time are critical to our trajectory,” Hamilton warned.
— Oracle Red Bull Racing (@redbullracing) September 23, 2023
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