MONTMELO, Spain -- Mercedes scored its best result of the season at the Spanish Grand Prix, with Lewis Hamilton finishing a solid -- but still distant -- second to Max Verstappen and George Russell securing third after starting 12th on the grid. Given the performance advantage Red Bull has had over the rest of the field all season, it was as good a result as Mercedes could hope for, especially as Russell started the race one place behind Verstappen's teammate Sergio Perez and finished one place ahead.
Following a major update to Mercedes' car at the previous round in Monaco, there's a temptation to jump to the conclusion that the former champions have made a significant step forward -- certainly compared to Ferrari and Aston Martin, which both had disappointing weekends, and perhaps even versus Red Bull. But while the team has undoubtedly made progress, it's still a long way from where it wants to be.
Firstly, the Circuit de Barcelona Catalunya was always likely to be a happy hunting ground for Mercedes. As much as the car evolved with its Monaco upgrades, it still has some of the characteristics of the earlier version of the car, both good and bad. Chief among these in determining whether the car will be competitive on any given Sunday are the characteristics of the circuit. Any track where the rear tyres take a hammering has caused Mercedes issues this year, while those that put more strain on the front tyres -- such as Melbourne where Hamilton also secured a second-place finish -- present an opportunity.
In F1, circuits are characterised as "rear-limited" or "front-limited" depending on which axle will be the limiting factor in tyre wear between pit stops. The fast right-hand corners in Spain -- specifically Turn 3, Turn 9 and the changes in the final sector that now result in two high-speed corners to finish the lap -- put a serious load and stress through the front-left tyre. Perhaps helped by cloud cover over the circuit on Sunday afternoon, which resulted in cooler track temperatures, both Mercedes drivers were able to push harder for longer in the race compared to the vast majority of their rivals.
"Today was feeling really strong, but we know we've got more improvements to be made," Russell said after the race. "It was a little bit cooler today, which maybe played into our favour.
"I think even after that first stint, I believed a podium was possible, when I saw the other cars peeling into the pits. My tyres felt good. I think even after two laps, I thought 'we can do this today.'"
But that's not to say the circuit was the only factor in Mercedes' improved performance. Both drivers felt genuine progress had been made over the course of the weekend in understanding the car, which bodes well for extracting performance from the upgraded W14 at future rounds too.
"For me, definitely the best the car has been for the last year and a half," Hamilton said. "That's kudos to the amazing group of people we have at the factory continuing to work hard and push the car forward.
"It felt the best this weekend, it felt the best yesterday and today than it's felt for the past 14, 15 months, whatever it is. That's super encouraging.
"I think not only for me, but for everybody in the team. This will be a big boost for everybody's morale. We're going to take that energy on to develop the car."
Russell added: "Huge thanks to the whole team for bringing these updates forward, but equally, we're not going to get carried away just after this one race. We know it might be slightly different in the future races, and I think generally Ferrari and Aston were a little bit more off the pace than normal."
Although the latest upgrades have improved performance, they have also removed some of the doubts the team had about its previous car concept. In the words of team boss Toto Wolff, the upgrades have provided Mercedes with "a solid baseline" on which it can build, allowing it to add future updates with more confidence that they will deliver performance on track.
Although Mercedes never felt its unique zero-sidepod approach was to blame for the issues it has faced since the start of 2022, by taking a more conventional route with its bodywork it has removed the possibility that it could be a contributing factor. More importantly, the new design direction has also revised the W14's floor, and by modifying the front suspension, provided a more stable aerodynamic platform to extract performance from the underside of the car.
"These cars generate more of the downforce through the floor, not through the engine cover," Wolff explained. "But you want to take factors out of the equation, and if we were to return to a more conventional sidepod and engine cover, at least we don't need to discuss that any more. If it's the same [performance], then they why don't we do it.
"So we took some decisions to go in another direction, we changed so many parts, maybe variables we don't completely understand. It was a risky move and everybody just pushed forward and we've got a good race car."
Despite the haul of silverware in Spain, there is still a long way to go for Mercedes. Upcoming circuits in Canada and Austria are both rear-limited and will provide a more thorough analysis of where Mercedes is relative to Ferrari and Aston Martin.
From Red Bull's point of view, 135 points clear at the top of the constructors' standings, there is certainly no feeling of panic. At all of this year's races bar the Australian Grand Prix, which finished under safety car conditions, the world champions have had a winning margin of over 20 seconds. In Spain, Verstappen was a comfortable 24 seconds clear of Hamilton, and, as Red Bull team boss Christian Horner points out, the ferocious development at Mercedes will not have come for free.
"For sure they've made a step," Horner said in Spain. "They've introduced pretty much a B-spec car and they must have used a significant proportion of their development budget on that.
"I think that, when I look at the gap at the end of the races compared to where it was in Bahrain, all that is happening is that the running order behind us seems to vary from race to race. Fernando [Alonso] last weekend [in Monaco], Mercedes this weekend. It will be interesting to see how that plays out over the next few races."
What's more Mercedes is currently retrofitting a new design direction to a chassis built around a different concept. Aspects baked into the original chassis design such as the mounting points for the rear suspension and the relatively far-forward position of the cockpit cannot be changed until next year due to the devastating impact a new chassis design would have on the team's spending under the budget cap -- capped at around $135 million in 2023.
"If we were not in cost-cap land we would have introduced another chassis, which we can't," Wolff said a week ago in Monaco. "But what we did was a fundamental shift in the design direction and the way we generate grip mechanically and aerodynamically.
"We expect upgrades to come regularly within the financial parameters that exist. But everybody should be under the same constraints."
The situation is also not lost on Hamilton. The seven-time world champion plans to stay at Mercedes beyond the end of this season when his contract expires, but remains realistic about his expectations over the coming 12 months.
"With the current car that we have, I don't think we'll be matching Red Bull's performance this year," he said. "But we're working on improving the car.
"With the current package, we're limited to the pace that we had today. But I think there's a huge amount of work and studying and improvements that we hopefully have coming in the future.
"Naturally, they should probably also be progressing through the year, so we need to be taking big chunks out of them with every step we take. I don't know, I think today, they were a good few tenths ahead of us, maybe half a second ahead of us, per lap. And on the single lap, that's a little bit bigger.
"I think we're going in the right direction. And I know we have something in the pipeline moving forward. I'm hoping at least by the end of the year, we can, it would be great if we can challenge them. But I would say for me, I'm more focused on making sure that we have the car next year to challenge them from day one.
"The further we continue to push this car this year, the more that impacts next year also in some ways. But the more we also learn about this car, also sets us in the right direction. It's about finding the right balance.
"Red Bull are so far ahead, and ultimately, Max will continue to win this year. But that means they can start on their development for next year sooner than everybody else, if they haven't already. And that's the danger. We've got to keep working hard, but also try and get the right balance."
It remains to be seen, therefore, just how influential Mercedes' latest upgrade package will be in the team's recovery. The Spanish Grand Prix last year also gave reason for renewed optimism, only for the team to discover a bunch of altogether new issues at the following round in Azerbaijan.
Upcoming races in Canada and Austria this year will be a much tougher test for Mercedes and race circuits that will likely favour rivals Aston Martin and Ferrari more. As a result, they will provide a much better overview of how big a performance gain Mercedes has made.