Former World Champion Mika Hakkinen says Mercedes may join Ferrari and Red Bull in making the 2022 F1 World Championship a three-way fight for the title.
After eight successive Constructors' Championships, the arrival of a new set of technical regulations has seen Mercedes fall back somewhat in 2022, with the W13 notably struggling badly with porpoising.
But retirements for Ferrari's Carlos Sainz and both Red Bulls across the first three races have helped the Silver Arrows into second place in the Constructors' standings after last Sunday's Australian Grand Prix.
In the Drivers' Championship, George Russell has taken advantage of rivals' misfortune to rank second overall after a strong third place in Melbourne, and Hakkinen reserved special praise for the early-season form of the Briton, whose teammate Lewis Hamilton sits three places below him in fifth.
Hakkinen impressed by Russell's performance
"George drove a really strong race and that third place was very important," Hakkinen wrote in his column Unibet.
"It's really surprising to see him second in the World Championship, but his consistency and the car's reliability has been impressive – fourth in Bahrain, fifth in Saudi Arabia and now a podium in Australia.
"It's also noticeable that he is ahead of Hamilton, although the Safety Car had a big influence in Melbourne so I don't think that is any reflection of relative performance.
"Lewis and George are both doing a fantastic job for Mercedes while the team sorts out its performance problems, and that is another reason Red Bull need to fix their reliability issues.
"This championship could easily develop into a three-way fight between these teams and Ferrari."
Viewed by others:
Hakkinen believes McLaren are "starting to unlock performance"
Hakkinen also talked up a much-improved showing in Melbourne from McLaren, after the Woking-based squad had struggled badly with braking issues over the first couple of race weekends.
"The men and women at McLaren have really started to unlock performance from the car and it's clear to see a big step was made this weekend," said Hakkinen, who won his two World Championship titles with McLaren in 1998 and 1999.
"With a major regulation change it takes time to understand how to get a car working, but McLaren is clearly on the right path."
F1 Podcast: Can fast but fragile Red Bull respond to Leclerc's charge?
RacingNews365.com F1 journalists Dieter Rencken, Mike Seymour and Thomas Maher look back over the Australian Grand Prix, where Ferrari's Charles Leclerc triumphed and Red Bull's Max Verstappen retired.