Where are Mercedes and Ferrari? Frankly, you don’t want to hear the answer
A running joke, visible in front of the cameras, is playing out between Max Verstappen and Fernando Alonso this season. After Verstappen only qualified ninth for Sunday’s Miami Grand Prix, second-placed Alonso predicted – in a routine which would be laughable if it wasn’t so accurate – that the Red Bull would slingshot past him by lap 25. In similar circumstances three races back in Saudi Arabia, wily double world champion Alonso was near-enough spot-on with the same prophecy.
Except this time, it didn’t take Verstappen that long. By lap 15, Verstappen had overtaken seven sitting ducks to reach the rear of team-mate Sergio Perez. Eking out the maximum performance in his set of hard tyres, the Dutchman was in prime position to overtake Perez by the time he pitted for mediums on lap 46. Two rounds of the circuit later, Verstappen stormed clear of Perez’s valiant defence to take a statement victory. That, plus the fastest lap, handed the championship leader a perfect 26-point day.
His gap to Perez is now 14 points. Aston Martin’s Alonso, in third, is 44 points behind Verstappen – the closest challenger outside the Red Bull behemoth. But it is the Constructors’ Standings which really tells the tale of this one-sided bloodbath right now.
Red Bull, on 224 points out of a possible 235, are 122 points ahead of Aston Martin, a surprise success story. Mercedes and Ferrari – giants of Formula 1, the supposed title challengers – are 128 and 146 points behind Red Bull respectively.
We have had just five grand prix weekends. Five.
Christian Horner, gleaming under the Florida sun after a fourth Red Bull one-two in five races, simply could not help himself: “We’ve never, ever had a start like this. We’re wondering: where are the others? We’ve made a normal step over the winter.
“Where did Ferrari and Mercedes go?”
The gap between the RB19 and the rest is truly staggering. Excluding the Australian Grand Prix which concluded under the safety car, the amassed gap between the RB19 and the next-best car is over 1 minute and 45 seconds. 106.8 seconds, to be precise, in just four grand prix.
In Miami, the gap was 26.3 seconds, which takes the runner-up spot behind the 38.6 second Red Bull advantage at the season-opener in Bahrain.
RED BULL’S ADVANTAGE OVER THE NEXT-BEST CAR
Bahrain: 36.6 seconds
Saudi Arabia: 20.7 seconds
Australia: 0.1 seconds
Azerbaijan: 21.2 seconds
Miami: 26.3 seconds
In short, Mercedes and Ferrari have never been further away from the front in the hybrid era. Last year, in what proved to be a season of double world championship glory for Red Bull, Charles Leclerc was at least winning races and challenging at the start of the campaign. By the end of 2022, Mercedes seemed to have, finally, unlocked their unique package with a one-two finish in Brazil.
Yet on Sunday, Leclerc was grappling with Haas’ and Alpines in the midfield on his way to seventh. Lewis Hamilton – who only qualified 13th-fastest – had to make a late surge to leap up to P6. Perhaps the most amusing moment in the closing laps was George Russell, in a state of bewildered shock running in fourth, asking his engineer: “Who is the car ahead of Fernando on track? We’re that close to Perez?!”
A simple response squashed any hope. It was simply a lapped car. “No, sorry. It’s Sargeant on track.”
Ever since admitting to needing to rip up their current car philosophy in Bahrain, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has referred to the next race in Imola as a potential season benchmark, with a new upgrade highly-anticipated. Yet while Hamilton insisted he needs a “one-second upgrade”, Wolff downplayed expectations.
“I don’t think we’ll get there and suddenly we’re half a second faster and in the middle of a fight,” he remarked, after a weekend in Miami when he also described the W14 car as a “nasty piece of work” and “poisonous.”
Ferrari, meanwhile, do have a car capable of challenging on a Saturday, as Leclerc showed in the last race in Baku with two pole positions. Yet the contrast to raceday – a reminder to the Scuderia: when the points are won – is perplexing to all those in scarlet red.
“Once again today, the significant difference between the SF-23’s performance level in qualifying and the race was clear to see,” a baffled Fred Vasseur, team principal, said.
Two weeks’ time in Imola will see Ferrari’s famed legion of fans, the tifosi, turn up in their thousands. What Ferrari greets them, however, remains to be seen.
Upgrades are coming for both. Mercedes – and the wider F1 fanbase, truth be told – are pinning their season hopes on this upcoming renovation. Ferrari have new parts coming too, amid a scratching of heads in Maranello.
Horner did point out that Red Bull’s penalty for breaking the 2021 cost cap will affect them as the season progresses. Even more reason, he says, to get “fresh air” between Red Bull and the chasing pack right now. But he need not worry. The gap already looks near-insurmountable with 18 races to go. The title fight looks likely to be played out between his men – and even then with a now-undisputed favourite.
Keep those fingers and toes crossed for Imola. Maybe the upgrades can miraculously narrow the top-tier playing field. The competitiveness of this season may just hinge on it.