Finishing in second place in today’s Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne has re-energised Lewis Hamilton’s hopes for the 2023 season, and Mercedes’ chances of catching their Red Bull rivals.
After a trough start to the season, including being up to a second off the pace of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez in Saudi Arabia, Hamilton and hius team mate George Russell were much stronger this weekend.
While Verstappen took pole position at Albert Park, Russell qualified in second just ahead of Hamilton – the pair’s best performance so far this season.
And it got even better at the start of Sunday’s race, when Russell and Hamilton both got better starts than Verstappen when the lights went out and leapt into the lead on the first lap.
Russell eventually fell foul of a mistimed first stop under an initial safety car, leaving Hamilton leading the race. But once DRS was enabled there was no way Hamilton could prevent Verstappen from reclaiming the lead.
The Red Bull was up to 11s at one point, but a brief wayward moment and more safety cars and red flags closed things up for a dramatic final restart giving Hamilton further chances to fighting back.
In the end he had to settle for second after all ahead of Fernando Alonso in the Aston Martin, but Hamilton was nonetheless delighted by Mercedes form in Australia.
“Considering we’ve been down on performance – we’re clearly down on straight [line] pace compared to the Red Bulls – for us to be up here fighting with Aston is just amazing at this point in the season.
“We can close that gap. It’s going to be tough but not impossible,” he said in the post-race interviews in parc ferme before the formal podium celebrations.
“I definitely didn’t expect to be second, so I’m super grateful for it,” he admitted, adding: “We just have to keep on fighting. A big, big thank you to all the people back at the factory. Let’s keep pushing.”
- Read also: Verstappen wins in Australia after chaotic late restart
Mercedes principal Toto Wolff concurred: We had strong pace today and it was really close with the Aston Martins and the Ferraris. That is good news for us
“I think we have made a step forward this weekend, both on one-lap and race pace. We maximised what we have, and we need to now comb through the data and continue to learn about the car.
However Hamilton conceded that he was still finding the W14 something of a handful, despite his improved pace today.
“I still feel uncomfortable in the car, I still don’t feel connected to it,” he said. “I’m driving as best I can with that disconnect and I’m working as hard as I can to try and create that connection. But I think it’s a long project.
But despite the celebrations, there was also concern for the team after Russell suffered an engine fire just 18 laps into the race.
“It’s really unlucky for George today,” Hamilton acknowledged. “On our side, we’ve got to look into our reliability, it’s generally been really good.
“So that’s really unfortunate. Otherwise, to get those points is really amazing,” he said.
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Hamilton spent a lot of the mid-section of the race discussing tyre management with his race engineer Peter Bonnington, clearly concerned about making his hard compound last the full distance after his pit stop on lap 8 of 58.
The driver insisted that he “definitely wasn’t bluffing” in his radio communications with the Mercedes pit wall. However additional safety cars and two late red flags made the tyre wear moot.
“Lewis drove a difficult race well and had to find a fine balance between tyre management and defending,” commented Mercedes’ trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin.
“The pace of the car has been better than at the first two races; we’ve made some changes to the setup for the circuit but hopefully we can take some of that learning into the upcoming races.”
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