MELBOURNE, Australia -- Seeing the top three drivers get out of their cars after qualifying session at the Australian Grand Prix, you'd be forgiven for being transported back to 2021. A Red Bull driver on pole followed closely by two Mercedes cars is nothing new in F1, but in the context of the 2023 season Saturday's result was a huge surprise.
At this year's first qualifying session in Bahrain, George Russell's Mercedes was 0.6s off Max Verstappen on pole, underlining the team's fears that it had lost ground to Red Bull over the winter. The disappointing result led team boss Toto Wolff to call for a complete overhaul of his team's design direction and he effectively wrote off any chance of fighting for the title.
Four weeks later in Australia and the title chances still look incredibly slim, but Russell's gap to pole position is now down to 0.236s.
"I could play it cool here and say that we expected it, but we did not," Wolff said after Saturday's session. "I think what you need to love in this sport is that with all the lows you have, you also have some highs.
"Obviously, it's not where we want to be, we want to challenge all the way to the front, but finishing P2 and P3 was definitely much than we expected coming into this weekend."
Where did the performance come from?
The 2023 season is still only two races old ahead of Sunday's showdown, but Mercedes' upward trajectory is clear to see. While the car is still a long way short of Red Bull's performance -- Verstappen indicated his lap wasn't brilliant and his teammate Sergio Perez crashed out in Q1 with a technical issue -- the team has extracted more from the W14 with each passing round.
The overall understanding of the car has undoubtedly improved, although it should also be noted that Saturday's qualifying session was unusual as it took place in surprisingly cold conditions that were very different to the two races in the Middle East earlier in the month. Getting tyres in the right temperature range was key to a good lap on Saturday at Albert Park, and while both Mercedes drivers nailed at least one lap, a lot of their rivals struggled to find the sweetspot.
"I think that obviously over more races we understand the car better," Wolff said. "I think what was particularly good today was the agility of the team in deciding on the structure of the qualifying, when to put in the fast laps, I think the mechanical setup group including the tyres did a good job, and the drivers did a good job in delivering.
"We could say that every track is different, and certainly it was cold today and that will have played a role that we got it right and maybe some others wrong, but again also there you need to take the average of all the results over the last three races in qualifying and that one is clearly pushing us up a little bit."
Hamilton added: "I think it's perhaps track specific, but ultimately it's just that there's no one in the team that has given up, they've all been working incredibly hard to try to squeeze the most out of what we currently have.
"We are a little bit down on downforce and where we want to be, but everything came together today and it feels amazing to be up here either side of Max and I really hope tomorrow that we somehow hold on to him, even though he might pull away in the distance like he has done in the past. We've got to give it our best shot."
Did Mercedes write off the W14 too early?
"I think we need to be careful not to oscillate between mania and depression, but keep the thinking rational," Wolff said. "What we have seen today is that there is a lot of potential to be unlocked within the car, that's clear, but we need to take the right decisions for the long-term and in that respect we will continue to race the best possible package that we have and whether that has a narrow body or wide body is irrelevant, we just need more downforce in the sweetspot of the car.
"Obviously, we are delivering such a good qualifying today and it swings to exuberance. It's like, everything we thought was the wrong thing, let's now continue to develop the car and then with the next bad result you think it the other round.
"We have never had any dogma on what the car needs to look like. We know exactly where we got it wrong, but we also know there is some goodness in the car if we put every step over a weekend right and we are able to extract what's in the car, you can see that."
The car's ride height and how it affects performance has been key to Mercedes' performance, or lack of it, since the introduction last year's new regulations, which put more focus on underfloor aerodynamics. Wolff said his team is starting to understand how best to get the most from the car's setup.
"I think where we put the car last year was probably too low, where we put the car for this year was probably too high, and all of these decisions can be retraced and understood now. And with what the package is now, the team is able to just pinpoint and find the sweet spot of the car much better.
"There's been some great work done in aerodynamics over the last few weeks, in trying to add performance, where we believe we missed it before. All of that is coming together, and like I said before, it's just a matter of having a good weekend and extracting the performance that is in the car, plus the understanding we have."
Can Mercedes win on Sunday?
A lack of running during Friday practice due to stoppages and wet weather means none of the drivers have a clear view of how Sunday's race will pan out. However, it's fair to assume that the significant advantage Red Bull held over the field at the last two rounds will not have disappeared and Verstappen goes into the race as the clear favourite.
Nevertheless, having two Mercedes cars starting behind Verstappen means the Red Bull will be outnumbered going into Turn 1, and if one or both of the black cars can sneak ahead on the opening lap, there might just be a chance at a victory.
"We've got to go for it, we've got to go for the win," Russell said. "Max is going to be extremely fast, there's no hiding that, and it's difficult to overtake around this circuit, so the start of lap one is going to be vital.
"But the Red Bull has extraordinary top speed, so it's going to be very difficulty to fight with Max. But let's see how we get on, we've got to do our own race, and if the opportunity is there we will go for it.
Reminiscing about his F1 debut in Australia in 2007, at which he moved up two places in the first corner, Hamilton said that his goal on Sunday was "to get to first," adding: "I'm going to be hoping for a day like the first year, 2007, Turn 1 here would be awesome. I don't know if anyone remembers, but that will be awesome if we can do that."
Asked to react to his drivers' comments, Wolff added a bit of realism to Mercedes' prospects on Sunday.
"I think at the moment we are not competing for a race victory or we haven't been able to compete for a race victory, and even more for a world championship. So you have to take it step by step and it's great that they have this drive and, whatever the car is capable of giving them, to say pole would have been on - that's the mindset in the right place."