MELBOURNE: Red Bull ace Max Verstappen might have dominated a wild Australian Grand Prix, but Mercedes were also a big winner with the “Silver Arrows” finally starting to look competitive.
After the season-opening grand prix in Bahrain, team boss Toto Wolff declared they had “one of their worst days” in racing, with Lewis Hamilton complaining of becoming “the fourth-fastest team”.
It followed a lacklustre 2022 when the eight-time constructors champions were dethroned by Red Bull, with the outlook bleak heading into the new year.
But they made strides in Saudi Arabia and are now singing a different tune after seven-time world champion Hamilton came second to pole-sitter Verstappen, at one stage briefly leading the action-packed race.
His teammate George Russell was also lightning-quick and in the hunt before a power unit failure ended his day on lap 17.
It followed a stirring qualifying session that saw both Mercedes outpace Fernando Alonso in his rejuvenated Aston Martin and the struggling Ferraris of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz.
“Considering we’re down on performance, to be fighting with the Aston Martins is amazing for us at this point in the season,” said an upbeat Hamilton after holding off a surging Alonso, and overcoming battles with safety cars and three red flags.
“We’ve just got to keep fighting. A big thank you to all the people back at the factory. We can close that gap, it’s going to be tough but not impossible.”
With a three-week break till the next race in Azerbaijan, Wolff said they would take their learnings from Australia and keep moving forward.
“We had strong pace and it was really close with the Aston Martins and the Ferraris. That is good news for us, and I think we have made a step forward this weekend, both on one-lap and race pace,” he said.
“We maximised what we have, and we need to now comb through the data and continue to learn about the car. This will help bring the upgrade packages and that will be the key in challenging the leaders more often.”
Nevertheless, Red Bull remain on a different level, with Sergio Perez able to slice through the field to finish fifth, banking the fastest lap in the process, despite starting last after brake issues wrecked his qualifying.
Team boss Christan Horner said he was not concerned about Mercedes’s new-found pace.
“We (Verstappen) pulled out a 10-second gap on Lewis and were managing it,” he said. “They were fast starting, very aggressive on the first lap. But Max showed great patience I thought not to get embroiled.”
While Red Bull, Mercedes and Aston Martin all picked up valuable points, Ferrari left Australia empty-handed after Leclerc crashed on lap 1 and Carlos Sainz came 12th after a five-second penalty.
After three races, they are a gaping 97 points behind Red Bull in the constructors standings, with Leclerc bemoaning “the worst start to the season ever”.
But team principal Frederic Vasseur insisted the results were not an accurate picture.
“The result, not scoring points, does not reflect the progress we have made as a team,” he said.
“We have taken a step forward in terms of pure performance and even more importantly, we had a decent and consistent race pace on the various tyre compounds.
“We go back to Maranello knowing that we are moving in the right direction and we now have three weeks to keep working on optimising and updating the SF-23 for the coming races,” he added.
McLaren was a winner in Melbourne, with both cars among the 12 finishers to earn their first points of the season after Lando Norris was sixth and rookie Oscar Piastri eighth.
AlphaTauri also earned their first point of the year through Yuki Tsunoda’s 10th place, meaning all the constructors are now off the mark.