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Formula 1

What's different about Mercedes' first driver disparity of 2024

by Josh Suttill
4 min read

A big qualifying position gap between the Mercedes drivers, in either Lewis Hamilton or George Russell's favour, is a pattern the 2024 Formula 1 season opener has continued.

OK, in the end the actual difference was just over a couple of tenths - but it has left Hamilton lining up ninth on the Bahrain GP grid while team-mate George Russell is third.

Previously it's been the result of a knife-edge Mercedes W13 or W14 that's usually left only one driver getting the set-up right per weekend or one driver driving around the limitations and compromises of the car better.

And there's an element of set-up differentiation within the W15's debut weekend - but the driver and team response to paints a different picture to the years prior.

Both drivers found a good set-up after Thursday practice for single-lap performance - Hamilton and Russell ended FP2 1-2, albeit with a dozen caveats - and left the day generally glowing with the "big step forward" Mercedes has taken over the winter.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, F1

The poor qualifying result for Hamilton - ninth is the lowest he's qualified for a season-opener since the 2009 Australian Grand Prix (pictured above) - hasn't dampened his enthusiasm about the new Mercedes, one he'd said on Thursday finally felt like a race car again.

"The car is really fantastic, it's a real big improvement from previous years. A big step forward, a lot more fun to drive. For George to be three tenths off Max [Verstappen] is incredible," Hamilton remarked after qualifying.

So why couldn't Hamilton be up there with Russell?

Lewis Hamilton and George Russell, Mercedes, F1

"Yesterday George and I had identical car set-ups, the car was feeling great and we veered off. He went one way, I went another, you could say the one I was on was not good on a single lap, I hope it's good in the race!," he explained.

"I wasn't comfortable with my race pace [in FP2] and so I changed the car to hopefully make the race pace better. We'll see tomorrow if that really is the case.

"I'm trying to find a good balance because... race pace is really everything here."

Hamilton called Russell's third place a "real testament to how good a job everyone is doing back at the factory, finally giving us a car we can fight with".

But he pointed to one particular set-up element, believed to be a mechanical change, that disturbed the balance: "I just wasn't able to utilise it today when I made that set-up change, we put something on car that we haven't put on for the last two years and I was hoping it would be OK. I just stuck with it, and it wasn't nice to drive."

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, F1

Hamilton said he'd "definitely sacrificed more single-lap performance than I hoped to but I hope that pays off tomorrow" and said it will be a lot of work to get past the quick cars ahead of him in Saturday's grand prix.

He seems to have gone further with a race pace/qualifying pace trade-off than Russell - although the difference in the set-ups will not be drastic, as Mercedes wanted to adjust the car more with the race in mind anyway after being a bit too quick over a single lap in practice.

Team boss Toto Wolff said the team "intentionally tried to set the car up for tomorrow's race though, so we hope we're in more of a sweet spot for the grand prix".

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, F1

"The set-up changes we made certainly contributed to the drop in our performance today," Wolff added. "At the start of qualifying, we wondered if we had sacrificed too much for tomorrow [when Hamilton needed a late lap to escape an early Q1 exit] but in the end it wasn't too bad.

"P3 is a good place to start but we were still three tenths off pole position."

There was a hint that Mercedes was affected by the change in track conditions on Friday versus Thursday too with trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin saying it was "much harder to get the laptime out of the car" in qualifying than during Thursday practice.

Russell appeared slightly more apprehensive that his set-up direction may cost him some race pace.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, and George Russell, Mercedes, F1

"What we saw in testing was, our qualifying pace being a little bit offset, and our race pace probably being next-best to Max. Now we've improved the qualifying pace, we hope it hasn't hindered our race pace," he said in the top three press conference.

Only time will tell if that's the case in the grand prix, but what's clear is both Mercedes hasn't at all been deterred by the kind of driver-to-driver performance swing that's haunted it in the ground effect era so far.

Nor is there a belief that it represents a return of that trait of wildly oscillating performance between not just one track to another but even one day at a track to another.

It hasn't shaken the team's belief that the W15 provides a far better platform to, as Hamilton put it, "add performance and chase [Red Bull] for the rest of the season".

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