Are Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes back on track as they rev up for French Grand Prix?

Silver Arrows look ready to challenge again - as Ferrari also moving up a gear

Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes celebrates on the podium after clinching third place at the Austrian Grand Prix on July 10, 2022. Getty
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Are Mercedes finally on the march again?

That’s the big question ringing around the paddock as F1 heads for a French Grand Prix in the sweltering hills that run down to the Mediterranean.

And the same could be asked of Ferrari. With victory in Austria, Charles Leclerc bought to an end a bruising few months in which either the Ferrari cars, their drivers or their strategy proved desperately brittle.

So, as we step into the second half of the championship at Paul Ricard, it is salivating to suppose the new ground effect formula is finally coming good.

Some seasoned onlookers are convinced the nature of their performances as well as five podiums in six races confirm the rise of Mercedes.

After all, nailing down their slot as the third best team in F1 is pretty small change for the reigning constructors champions and their ambitions are far higher, even this far into the season.

Paul Ricard’s billiard table smooth surface plays to the strengths of the Silver Arrows and some ambitious souls believe talk of a Mercedes win should be on the agenda.

They cite the fact that Hamilton is apparently over his early season doldrums and joining Russell as a consistent force.

Charles Leclerc wins Austrian Grand Prix - in pictures

Even though any hope of winning the driver’s championship has clearly gone, my bet is all ambitions at Mercedes are focused on getting back to their winning ways primarily to be best set for a full-on title tilt in 2023.

Max Verstappen is just too consistent for them to bridge the gap even if regular front-running form returns.

Hamilton trails the world champion by 99 points and would have to average around 10 points MORE a race to get back into the reckoning. It’s just not feasible that the Red Bull racer would be that poor consistently even if Hamilton could hit the front regularly.

But the thought of refining this year’s difficult beast into one that can take him to a record eighth title in 2023 is surely what sustains Hamilton.

As for Ferrari, most of their history they have stood for style, elan, prestige, in fact pretty much everything positive, except reliability.

And history is repeating itself. Boss Mattia Binotto admitted he could not even watch the data screens for the final few laps in Austria after his driver reported throttle problems a few miles from home.

The thought of the eighth race in a row being squandered was just too much to bear.

But win they did and it’s interesting to reflect Leclerc had been confident from the day before the race that he had found the key to his issues after a particularly gruelling final practice session.

Austrian Grand Prix winner Charles Leclerc of Ferrari, second-placed Max Verstappen of Red Bull and third-placed Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes with Laurent Mekies, Scuderia Ferrari Sporting Director, on the podium on July 10, 2022 in Spielberg, Austria. Getty

Going their own way and not being seduced into Red Bull’s games certainly seems part of it if Christian Horner’s words are to be believed.

Critics forget, though, that Maranello is coming off one of its worst seasons in 40 years so it makes more sense to view this year as a launch pad for greater glories in 2023. Not a point, I am sure, Leclerc is willing to entertain for a second.

So can he repeat his Zeltweg victory – to make it the first time this year Verstappen has lost consecutive races?

Paul Ricard has one of the longest corners in F1 while high track temperatures and an abrasive surface, which is a real tyre shredder, make strategy and tyre management as crucial as speed and reliability, aspects Ferrari have not proved masters of this year.

On the plus side, Ricard’s breadth means a history of dull races is unlikely as multiple racing lines should guarantee drama.

The track limits controversy is sure to elicit more complaints from drivers, though, because of Ricard’s lack of kerbs for safety reasons.

And the debate about fans booing is sure to continue with partisan feeling apparent between Verstappen and Hamilton fans. For my part, I am wholly in favour of it.

I thought it was hypocritical for the Mercedes champion to lash out publicly at stewards and with the next breath call for restraint from fans.

He wasn’t the only one. Fans are passionate and everyone welcomes cheering so they can hardly ban booing. Of course physical assaults are never excusable.

Analysis and criticism is, sadly, a fact of life. Get over it. The best response is not to moan but to win.

Updated: July 21, 2022, 5:23 AM