What the Spanish GP tells us about Mercedes' upgrades

The numbers behind Mercedes’ revival and what their upgrades really tell us - Getty Images/David Ramos
The numbers behind Mercedes’ revival and what their upgrades really tell us - Getty Images/David Ramos

At the Spanish Grand Prix, the upgraded Mercedes W14 had its first serious test on a circuit that could offer a clue as to the team’s hopes for the rest of the season.

If a car goes well at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya it is likely to go well at most tracks. Sunday’s double-podium and haul of 33 points was by far the team’s best performance of another difficult season. Lewis Hamilton was more upbeat than he has been all year.

Yet it is easy to get carried away by the enthusiasm. The same team left the same circuit a year ago after an improved performance even more buoyant than they were on Sunday, but that came to little.

To attempt to work out how strong their showing was in Spain, we must make meaningful comparisons between their weekend here with the rest of their season and also last year.

What the qualifying numbers say

We can compare the team’s fastest lap in qualifying relative to the pole sitter, both this year and last, as well as their 2022 season average and their 2023 early-season average.

As all circuits differ in length, layout and lap time, doing this by percentage offers the most useful comparison. The fastest lap in qualifying, then, is expressed as 100.000 per cent, so over a theoretical 1min40sec lap (100 seconds) a percentage of 101.000 would equate to being one second a lap slower than the fastest qualifying time.

Mercedes have, so far, improved in qualifying in absolute terms compared to 2022. In relative terms, the presence of Aston Martin and Ferrari has complicated their place in the pecking order. However, the results last weekend were not much of a leap forward. Mercedes were again, as in Monaco, the fifth fastest team over one lap, this time behind Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari and Alpine.

Drilling down into that further, in Spain last year Mercedes were 0.817 per cent slower than the fastest Red Bull. This year they were 0.755 per cent slower. That showing in 2022 was a big leap being their second best qualifying of a perplexing opening 10 rounds.

Last weekend was a slight improvement from their overall 2022 average (100.948 per cent) but if you compare this year’s qualifying in Spain to their 2023 average before the upgraded W14, the result in Catalunya is almost bang on their season average: 0.755 per cent off the fastest time in Spain against 0.745 for the first five rounds.

Monaco is not all that relevant due to its unique layout but was actually slightly better (0.504 per cent off pole) and that was also with the upgraded car. But neither qualifying session in the last two rounds was their best of the year.

There are some caveats in that Russell’s set-up meant he struggled in qualifying (with bouncing and a lack of tyre-warm up that Hamilton did not experience) and Hamilton failed to extract the maximum from the car, too. Had the seven-time world champion put his best three sectors together his lap time would have been good enough for the front row, around three-tenths off Verstappen’s pole time.

What the race numbers say

For the entirety of the post-2021 regulations, the Mercedes has been a far better race car than a qualifier, with their persistent struggles at getting the tyres in the right window hampering them on Saturday.

Heading into this weekend, the average gap between the race winner (a Red Bull every round so far) and the leading Mercedes was 39 seconds, excluding the race in Australia which finished under a safety car. That is nearly two pit stops’ worth of time at most tracks and amounts to, on average, nearly six tenths of a second per lap.

On Sunday, the 24.090sec between winner Verstappen and runner-up Hamilton was Mercedes’ smallest margin of defeat this year. It is close to the 25.866sec margin in Saudi Arabia but that flattered Mercedes as the race resumed on lap 20 after a safety car, so is not entirely comparable.

But was the 24 seconds representative of the running on Sunday? “I think it was less, Lewis was cruising at the end... probably it’s just sub-15 seconds,” team principal Toto Wolff said after the race.

There is some merit in the Austrian’s claim. Hamilton lost 4.1sec on the final two laps (when he knew second was secure) so perhaps the “real” gap is more like 20 seconds. That is around 0.3sec per lap or roughly half of their average race lap-time deficit in 2023.

George Russell’s run to third from 12th on the grid should also be taken into account. Especially when you consider that Sergio Perez in the second Red Bull started ahead of him, finished behind him and was giving it his all to catch him at the end.

After Russell broke into the top four on lap 14 he only lost 11.5 seconds to Verstappen in the following 45 laps, or around 0.25sec per lap. That is still a hefty gap, though. Of course, Verstappen would not have been flat-out for the entire 66 laps given how far he was in front.

How optimistic should Mercedes be?

This was definitely Mercedes’ best race compared to Red Bull, and that is the benchmark they should be using to judge their performance. Their battle is not yet with Red Bull, it is with Ferrari and Aston Martin. The former had a strange weekend with only one of their cars ever in the reckoning and the latter had their worst weekend of the year, both men finishing more than a minute down the road from the winner.

Mercedes were, for the first time, comfortably the best-of-the-rest behind Red Bull this weekend. Will that continue? The Barcelona track is a good bellwether for a car, but each track has its own characteristics. Was this uptick because of the upgrades, anomalous, or was it because of cooler conditions flattering the car?

In short, it is too soon to tell if this is the start of Mercedes breaking clear of its rivals around them, let alone closing down the gap to Red Bull. Aston Martin and Ferrari lagging behind could become a trend, but we will have a better idea in a few races.

The fact there is already more room for improvement, that the upgraded W14 will set a new “baseline” according to the team means that closing the gap to the leaders is possible. The aerodynamic development advantage they possess over Red Bull will also help. It is such a monumental gap to close that even if – a big if – they nail their in-season development, they will still be out of touch come Abu Dhabi.

The biggest reason to be cautious is that Mercedes have frequently failed to understand why their car is quick when it is quick as much as why it is bad when it is bad.  And let us also not forget the numerous false dawns in 2022. Even after a rare win in Brazil the team slipped well back behind even Ferrari in the final race of the year. It is a big leap to become contenders again, but Mercedes are only going to get there with steps in the right direction and this was certainly that.

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