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The Spanish Grand Prix was always going to be a telling race in the context of Formula One in 2023. The return to a more “traditional” track layout after the run of street circuits would not only point to where the true power lay in Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez’s title fight, but it would also indicate any shift in the competitive order as teams updated their cars.

At the very front, there was no change. Verstappen led every single lap on his way to his fifth win in seven races, offering another masterclass at the front of the field. Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez could only recover to fourth place, causing the gap at the top of the standings to grow to 53 points. The odds of a true title fight looked slim post-Monaco. Now they look even slimmer: Pérez could win the next seven races and, assuming Verstappen finished second each time, still not overhaul the Dutchman.

Yet it was the two cars that followed Verstappen home that were the big talking point post-race. Running a raft of upgrades amid a shift in the team’s development direction, the Mercedes W14s of Lewis Hamilton and George Russell came home a comfortable second and third.

The result was a big moment for Mercedes, not only in the story of the current season, but in the entire generation of technical rules currently used in F1. Since the overhaul of the car designs in 2022, Mercedes has struggled to take the fight to the dominant Red Bull team. Its streak of eight consecutive championships came to a clattering halt with a miserable season that yielded just a single victory.

The work over the winter wasn’t enough to get the team back in the fight. The early rounds made painfully clear how far it lagged behind Red Bull, leaving it to battle with Aston Martin and Ferrari for what was left on offer. It was a big wakeup call, showing the need for a change in the car’s design direction if it wanted to become an F1 juggernaut once again. “I think we just needed the shock at the start of the season to see that this (design) is not going forward,” team principal Toto Wolff said Sunday. “There were no more performance gains in it. That shook it up and then we pushed forward.”

Verstappen and Red Bull remain in a different league, proof coming in the 24-second margin of victory that probably could have been much more had he needed to push. But the fashion of Mercedes’ charge to a double podium and, more importantly, the feeling both Hamilton and Russell had in the car, signaled the turnaround is starting.

As Hamilton put it post-race: “It’s definitely the best the car has been for the last year-and-a-half.”

Making the double podium happen

The Mercedes upgrade package that debuted in Monaco was never going to be the cureall that would immediately make it a front-runner again. As Wolff so often says, such a thing simply does not exist in F1, particularly when the gap to Red Bull is so large.

Instead, it was about opening up new development paths that would allow that gap to be bridged eventually, something the previous car concept could not offer. Monaco offered a few positive signs for Hamilton and Russell, although the unique nature of the street circuit made it tricky to glean any real impressions. Barcelona, about as traditional as track layouts come, would always be the big litmus test.

After Friday’s practice running, Hamilton seemed uncertain about what kind of step forward would be realistic. He went as far as doubting his chances of qualifying inside the top 10. He made it to fifth in the end, but Russell was eliminated in Q2, leaving him 12th on the grid.

Mercedes’ car has typically worked better over the longer race stints on Sundays this year, managing its tires well over the longer distances compared to main rivals Aston Martin and Ferrari, who held the edge over a single lap. Spain was more of the same, only to a greater degree.

Hamilton’s race was fairly straightforward. He cleared Lance Stroll early on for third, having grabbed a spot off Lando Norris off the line, before easing past Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari on Lap 28 after a longer first stint gave him fresher tires to attack. Sainz was powerless to keep Hamilton back, or to even keep up, finishing over 20 seconds adrift at the checkered flag.

Sainz would slip behind the sister Mercedes in the process as Russell battled hard through the field. He gained five places on the opening lap before picking off Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon in the opening stint. As other drivers complained about degradation, Russell was on the radio saying how good his tires felt. “Even after two laps, I thought, you know what, we can do this (podium) today,” said Russell.

The clincher was his overtake on Sainz, a slick move up the inside at Turn 1 that got him the compliment of “solid job” over the radio from race engineer Marcus Dudley. “Just solid?” quipped Russell. He was clearly having fun out there, the biggest concern being the sweat on his visor that he mistook for rain after failing to tuck all of his hair inside his balaclava.

“The car was really, really great today,” said Russell. “The team did a great job with the strategy. It was a really satisfying race, making some good moves on the people around me.”

A breakthrough — but is it the true picture?

Hamilton hailed the result as a “really amazing day” for Mercedes. After so much hard work on the car updates, the soul searching to understand where things went wrong with the new regulations and why Red Bull could steal such a march on the field, it was a breakthrough.

“This will be a big boost for everybody’s morale,” said Hamilton. “We’re going to take that energy to develop the car.”

The Mercedes was clearly the second-quickest car on Sunday in Barcelona, proven by the ease of Russell’s rise through the field. Aston Martin and Ferrari both had rough races, making them non-factors, really, in the fight for second. Sainz said the “biggest surprise” in Spain was how Mercedes “slotted in between” that usual battle and the Red Bulls at the front, taking a step forward. Today put it ahead of Aston Martin in the constructors’ championship.

Russell acknowledged the cooler conditions in the race may have played in Mercedes’ favor, and also pondered if a bad day for both Ferrari and Aston Martin might have skewed the picture a bit. “We know it might be slightly different in the future races,” he said. “I think generally, Ferrari and Aston were a little bit more off the pace than normal.”

Hamilton said that even if doing well in Barcelona, a track with a good mix of high, medium and slow-speed corners, is a sign the car will be “generally good everywhere”, it was too early to draw firm conclusions.

“There will be times when the Aston is maybe slightly ahead or the Ferrari maybe is ahead,” said Hamilton. “But I think our race pace is a strength of ours, as it was last year. This weekend in particular, we’ve understood the car even more. We can count on that being strong moving forwards.”

The race to catch Max

Wolff also wanted Mercedes to keep its expectations in check, even when celebrating the double podium. “There’s such a long way to go in order to catch Red Bull,” he said. “We just need to grind away. It’s a good moment to see the development direction is right.”

Hamilton estimated after the race that Verstappen was still as much as half a second quicker per lap over the distance and even more over a single lap in qualifying. No matter how much optimism Mercedes can extract from today, the reality is Verstappen and Red Bull took home the biggest trophies.

“We’re not solely satisfied with P2 and P3,” said Russell. “We’ve got our sights set right at the very top.”

But when can Mercedes get back there on a consistent basis? Realistically, not this year. “With the current car that we have, I don’t think we’ll be matching their performance,” Hamilton said. “They’re so far ahead, and ultimately, Max will continue to win this year.”

Spain nevertheless acted as proof Mercedes is moving in the right direction with its car. Hamilton teased there was “something in the pipeline moving forward” with the car that meant he was “hoping at least by the end of the year, it would be great if we can challenge (Red Bull).”

Verstappen brushed off any concern about Mercedes turning the tide. “They’re improving, but from our side, it’s not about being worried,” he said. “We just have to focus on ourselves and try to keep on improving the car. At the moment, it all looks great. But you can’t stand still in this world.”

Red Bull won’t be resting on its laurels. But Barcelona could prove an important moment for Mercedes in its bid to get back to the top.

“I want to be where he is,” Hamilton said, referring to Verstappen’s winner’s spot on the sofa in the post-race press conference. “Or racing him, at least.”

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(Lead photo of Lewis Hamilton: Adam Pretty/Getty Images)



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