What next for Mercedes after its Bahrain wake-up call?
It only took one qualifying session for the 2023 season to confirm Toto Wolff’s worst fears about Mercedes’ new F1 car. George Russell’s best lap time was 0.632 seconds short of Max Verstappen’s lap time from pole position – a huge gap, as big as the one he faced after the first qualifying session last year and one that only widened the next day for 57 laps. Bahrain Grand Prix.
To make matters worse, on the same qualifying lap and during Sunday’s race both Mercedes lost to Fernando Alonso’s Aston Martin equipped with a Mercedes engine, Mercedes gearbox and Mercedes rear suspension. By the end of the weekend, Wolf admitted that his team would only become truly competitive again if they radically changed the concept of their car.
While Wolff’s comments seemed somewhat dramatic after only one session of qualifying, the worries about the W14 were actually around the time of its mid-February launch. The car only managed 15km on its debut track at a wet Silverstone due to gremlins in its hydraulic system, and even when it returned to the track for another 100km the next day, the feedback from the drivers was overwhelmingly negative. There were some positives in that the design bureau met its downforce targets for the winter and the dolphin issues that plagued the start of the 2022 season were resolved, but the upcoming pre-season testing in Bahrain was a rude awakening for both fronts.
Not only have all the teams solved the dolphin problem, Mercedes’ downforce targets have now proven woefully inadequate. Even with the most optimistic pre-season test lap times, Mercedes’ main rivals Red Bull had a significant lead over the W14, and what’s more, the undesirable handling traits resulting from trial adaptation proved difficult to iron out.
Hamilton says Mercedes didn’t listen to his concerns about 2023 car
There was some progress in testing the car, but fast forward a week later to a disappointing fifth and seventh place in race one – Lewis Hamilton finished more than 50 seconds behind race winner Verstappen – and Wolf showed a brutal assessment of Mercedes’ position.
“If you look at where we were at the end of last season, I think we almost doubled, if not tripled, the gap to Red Bull and that’s something we need to look at,” he said.
“Everything between them, Ferrari or Aston, is just an interlude. We are all bad.
“Perhaps the speed on one lap was still good, but in the race we saw the consequences and, roughly speaking, we lacked downforce, and when you lack downforce, you slide your tires, and when you slide your tires, you go. in the opposite direction.”
Mercedes has been left alone with its concept car since Formula 1 revised the sport’s technical regulations last year. You don’t have to be an aerodynamicist to spot the difference between the W14 and its competitors, with its thin body lines, tiny side bins and exposed floor stripes that stand out from the crowd.
While the vast majority of the downforce generated by a modern F1 car comes from the invisible shapes of the car’s underside, it’s clear that Mercedes’ approach to generating that downforce is different from that of any other team on the grid, including leaders Red Bull.
The W14 is relatively competitive in slow-speed corners and straights – the latter gets a lot of attention in winter – but in high-speed corners, where downforce matters the most, the Mercedes falls short of the fastest cars. on the grid. While Red Bull’s development curve is only steeper over the winter, thanks in part to a series of weight-cutting measures, Mercedes appears to have stabilized by comparison. So what’s next?
In F1, as in life, imitation is sometimes the most sincere form of flattery, and it’s no coincidence that Aston Martin made great strides after switching to Red Bull-style bodywork at last year’s Spanish Grand Prix. What’s more, the hiring of CTO Dan Fallows from Red Bull last April placed a man at the very top of Aston Martin’s technical structure who not only had a complete understanding of the Red Bull concept, but also came up with ideas on how to take it beyond that. what was possible. look from the side.
Given that the Aston Martin’s drivetrain and rear suspension are identical to the Mercedes, and that they use a Mercedes wind tunnel, the progress of green cars has not escaped those of the former champions.
“We just have to add downforce to the car, we don’t have enough downforce,” Hamilton said after Sunday’s race. “This is really something that the time will come to – once we increase the load on the rear and front, we will pick up this pace.
“But big congratulations to Fernando today, he did a really great job. It’s really amazing. The entire Aston Martin team did such an amazing job.
“We have a job because half of their car is ours! They build their cars in our wind tunnel…do their aerodynamics in our wind tunnel, so we have a job to do.”
Frankly, Mercedes has been experimenting with alternative vehicle concepts in its computational fluid dynamics (CFD) research last year. On Friday ahead of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Technical Director Mike Elliott insisted that the team “has done a lot of work looking into other types of solutions” but throughout its research it has kept coming back to the existing concept as the one with the most potential. .
Now it seems that Wolff’s patience with this approach has worn thin, and in the 24 hours between Elliott’s comments on Friday and the W14’s disappointing performance in qualifying, the team’s position on their car concept turned almost 180 degrees.
“I don’t think this package will end up being competitive,” he said. “We tried our best during the winter, and now we need to regroup, sit down with engineers who are absolutely dogmatic about nothing – there are no sacred cows – and decide what is the best direction of development in order to be competitive enough to win races.
“It’s not like last year where you win a lot of podiums and end up getting there. I am sure that we can win races this season, but we need to look at the medium and long term and what solutions we need. do.”
After the race on Sunday, he added: “We considered a couple of ideas and did not stand still. This is not only after two weeks when we saw that we could not close the gap, but also did so since then, as simple as being open-minded.
“It was still with the focus on getting it done [concept] work, obviously, but we’ve already covered different concepts.”
Mercedes has scheduled an update for round six of the season at Imola, which sounds like it would be a step away from its current design.
“We have a different body,” Elliott confirmed ahead of the race weekend in Bahrain. “He will not be like other people, and he will not be like ours. But it will be different.”
However, the update was developed before Bahrain was a wake-up call, and Wolf downplayed the chances that it would greatly affect the team’s chances of a title challenge this year.
“It’s not about finding 0.3s and polishing the car, it’s about serious performance that we need to find to get us back in a situation to fight for race wins and championships,” he said.
Despite the apparent disappointment in the car’s performance earlier in the year, Wolf said he would not blame individuals for the wrong turns made last year.
“In this team, we blame the problem, not the person, and at the end of the day, I have responsibilities and I would need to fire myself if I wanted to do something. [about the performance]“We had all the ingredients to succeed with people and infrastructure that won eight championships in a row.
“Last year we made a mistake, we thought we could fix it by sticking with this car concept, but it didn’t work out. We need to refocus on what we think is the right direction, what it is. we are not enough and therefore the data this weekend is very important.
“We’ve seen in GPS where we lack performance and we’ve seen where we’re good and we just need to figure out what it is and whether it’s installing big side pontoons on the car or really subtle things that improve performance. another question.
“Definitely within the group we will enter on unbeaten paths.”
To do this, Mercedes must first understand alternative car concepts better. Limited resources like wind tunnel time, CFD data and money within the budget constraint need to be spent wisely to ensure that the new path the team is taking has the long-term potential that Wolf talks about.
“I think it’s pretty clear where we need to go, we just need to make the data work,” he added. “I think the most important thing is to rebuild a solid foundation, to say that we are here, without surprises, and then move in that direction.
“Actually, the gap is very big, and to catch up, we need to take big steps, not the usual ones, adding a few points every week, because everyone will do it.
“Getting such an advantage is extremely difficult, but it is what we need to do and we have no choice. I’m not sure that the budget constraint puts a constraint on the position we’re in, because we just have to decide which direction we’re going. going and putting all the resources behind him.
“We’re still developing one car, the question is which car.”
The timeline for championship success still looks long from an F1 standpoint and it seems unlikely that Mercedes will end up in contention for the title this year. It’s true that Bahrain was just one track type among 23 different tracks F1 will visit this year, and there’s every chance the performance of one or two other tracks could lead to an occasional win.
But this is not enough for Mercedes. Need something…