Nothing has characterised the extremity of Mercedes’ fluctuating form in Formula 1 this season like George Russell’s shock Hungarian Grand Prix pole position.
Mercedes has swung between “depression and exuberance” during a challenging campaign with its capricious W13, says team boss Toto Wolff.
The car hasn’t always performed according to expectations and Mercedes hasn’t always had an answer why. But the real frustration has been that it has had a couple of ‘breakthroughs’ this year – the Spanish and British GPs spring to mind – then followed that up with a more low-key performance.
Russell’s first F1 pole is an obvious new peak in that experience but that brings questions as well. That it has come one week on from Mercedes’ first double podium finish of the season, on a very different circuit, hints at concrete progress. And Mercedes does believe it is on the right trajectory.
But such has been the “painful exercise” this year, as Wolff put it, that nothing is being taken for granted even with a first pole position of the season.
“It’s not that we have no clue why the car has been fast,” Wolff said.
“We had directions during the season where we believed it would unlock the potential of the car, and it didn’t.
“So here we have another direction. And that was very quick on the stopwatch.
“But I don’t want to have another false dawn and we come to the realisation tomorrow and Spa that it didn’t reap the benefits that we were hoping to have.
“In that respect, let’s just wait and see where this is going.”
First in that journey is Sunday’s grand prix. The Mercedes is closer to Ferrari and Red Bull on race pace but has rarely if ever, matched them this season in truly like-for-like circumstances.
Russell can win if the Mercedes can do that in Hungary. Given the track is so tough to pass on he probably only needs it to come close.
What he cannot afford is for the usual pattern of the season to be reversed now that Mercedes has finally performed in qualifying.
“It is one of the days where against all the tendencies of the season where we’ve been really bad in qualifying, but performing well on the Sunday, we’ve actually unlocked some potential in the car,” said Wolff.
“And if we can prove that our race pace hasn’t suffered, then I would see us back in a solid position.”
Mercedes was nowhere on Friday practice at the Hungaroring after getting some set-up experiments wrong.
Neither driver was happy, the cars looked a real handful on low fuel, and actually Russell and Lewis Hamilton seemed to be struggling with different things.
“It was probably our toughest Friday of the whole season,” said Russell.
“We were all here until 11pm, scratching our heads and morale was pretty down. And we felt pretty lost.”
Russell said the Friday night debrief included a chat about “overall philosophy” – and the question of whether “we’re going the right direction as a team” was raised.
“We’ve been closing the gap but obviously it was a disastrous day,” he said.
“We believe that there were many reasons as to why, and they all added up to making us well over a second off the pace. But that felt like we were being a bit generous.
“Then to have a day like [Saturday]…maybe P1 on pure pace [was out of reach], obviously Max had a bit of an issue, who knows.
“But we definitely turned it around. And we’re probably back to where we kind-of hope to hope to be.”
The W13 was clearly a car transformed in qualifying. While a step was inevitable, so bad was Friday practice, that the drivers were surprised at how big it was.
Seven-time world champion Hamilton aborted his final Q3 lap after a DRS problem at the start of it, but so good did the “night and day different” car feel that he reckoned that problem cost Mercedes a one-two.
Still, though, there remains a hint of uncertainty over just how Mercedes has achieved this and, by extension, how much it can believe its own progress.
“We don’t know where our pace all of a sudden just came from, it came from nowhere,” said Hamilton.
“That’s a huge positive.
“I don’t know where our race pace is going to be now, because yesterday it was slow in both [sessions].
“But maybe all of a sudden, we found something. If we have then great.”