Will the stripped-back W14 return Mercedes to the front?
As Mercedes’ eight consecutive league titles came to an end last year, Toto Wolff was adamant that his team would not enter a long-term decline.
He said his management team had learned from the toppling of previously dominant teams such as Ferrari in the mid-2000s and Red Bull in the early 2010s, and a modern Mercedes team would not follow the same trajectory. Confident that the issues that caused Mercedes’ problems in 2022 are now clear, Wolf figured Formula One history would eventually view the team’s 2022 season as a surge rather than a recession.
Over the next nine months, the validity of this statement will be tested, and the result will largely depend on the performance of the new elegant Mercedes W14, presented on Wednesday.
Mercedes is on its way.
With its carbon fiber bodywork and continuation of the unique slim design of the side pontoons, the Mercedes W14 is an attempt to cling to a child while pouring water out of the tub. However, as a number of midfield teams including McLaren, Aston Martin and Williams, buying Mercedes engines, have adopted design concepts pioneered by Red Bull last year, Mercedes’ decision to continue on its own path is looking increasingly suspect. brave.
“I don’t believe we’ve ever been a team that copied others,” Lewis Hamilton said on Wednesday following the launch of W14. “We have always had our own opinions and have always been an incredibly creative and innovative team that loves to do things their own way. I think it has worked in the past.
“You see some cars coming close to what Red Bull might look like, with the exception of Ferrari. Last year we came and said, “Damn, our car looks fast” and then it wasn’t with all the problems we had.
“Now we are approaching next season with a car that is very similar in many ways because a lot of the elements are hard to change… but you have to trust the engineers and I do.
“We’re sticking with it, we’re going with it, and I hope that when we get into it, it will have the features we asked for.”
Mercedes is confident that he understood last year’s problems and has long been engaged in their methodical correction. At the heart of the problems was a significant difference between the levels of downforce that his simulations showed and the often harsh reality of driving a car on a track.
Theoretically, last year’s W13 could have rivaled the Red Bull, but in order to access the downforce promised by the factory simulation, Mercedes had to run the car at incredibly low real-world ground clearance. Trying to do so resulted in the car flattening against the surface of the track and causing the bouncing, commonly known in F1 as dolphins, that plagued the early stages of the 2022 Mercedes season.
The inability to drive the car at the ride height for which it was designed meant the team had to compensate for the loss of downforce from the floor of the car by fitting large fenders front and rear. This, in turn, increased the car’s level of aerodynamic drag and lowered its top speed, making its two drivers an almost insurmountable obstacle in racing.
It took Mercedes a few rounds to figure out the dolphin problem, and when it did, it was left with a car that required significant tuning compromises to get sub-optimal performance. Solving the main problem during the season was such a massive task that it was simply not possible with the limited F1 budget, and therefore the focus was switched to fixing the nascent W14.
Launch photos clearly show that the team hasn’t completely abandoned some of the W13’s body concepts, but the images only show the upper airfoils, not the floor of the car, which the team is focusing on the most. was focused.
“If you look at the experience we had last year and the tools we put together, hopefully we got all the metrics in the right place to figure out what we need to do with the car so it doesn’t bounce. [this year]”, – said technical director Mike Elliot at the presentation of the car.
“Last year, we occasionally asked ourselves questions and said: “Have we made a serious mistake and do we need to radically change what we do?”
“But I think we knew that if we wrecked it all and started over, we would take a step back, so it’s about making the right decisions.
“Despite the fact that we had problems with the car last year, there were still a lot of good things in the car and a lot of things that helped us. So you have to be careful not to throw it all away and start over.”
One concept that has survived the transition from the W13 to the W14 is the distinctive narrow side pontoons, which remain unique to Mercedes this year. The decision caught everyone’s attention when it was unveiled during testing in Bahrain last year, and its distinctive appearance meant it was often unfairly blamed for Mercedes’ problems early in the season. From W13 to W14, the concept has seen some changes, while Wolf has made even bigger changes to come with the start-of-season upgrade package.
“It’s important to be brave in this sport and I’m still proud of the solutions we put into the car last year,” Wolf said. “We don’t think the narrow side pad design is the main reason we didn’t perform.
“There are no sacred cows in our concept, but this does not mean that we do not want to follow someone’s idea. We are left with the narrow side platform as it is, but from now on you can see some developments that may come with updates.
“This is the first iteration and once we get through the first few races things will change a bit but like Mike said in the presentation if you want to completely change the concept you are not looking to take one step back but probably 2 or 3 so we stayed where we are.
“I love the fact that we are brave, we have remained brave and just continue to follow what science tells us.”
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the new Mercedes is its paintwork. While the color is a departure from Mercedes’ traditional silver, the all-black bodywork has a roundabout connection to the team’s history, as both silver and black were obtained by stripping the paint to reach the weight limit.
The origin of Mercedes’ famous silver livery dates back to the 1934 Eiffel Grand Prix, when the German manufacturer stripped a W25 single-seat car of white paint to reach a maximum weight limit of 750kg. What was left was the bare aluminum racing car that would go on to dominate the pre-war era of Grand Prix racing and eventually create the legend of the Silver Arrows.
In the case of the W14, the undersides of the car were stripped of paint to reveal the black carbon fiber cloth underneath. Again, the decision is aimed at limiting weight – although in this case the minimum weight limit is 796kg – and some black paint has been retained on the top side of the monocoque and the top of the engine shroud.
“We are at the weight limit that we wanted to reach and obviously when we looked at all the weight savings everyone had to commit,” explained Wolf. “So it’s really a performance issue”
“You can’t save tons of paint on paint, but it shows the purpose of what we’re doing and the storytelling is just right, not only because of the historical context of the creation of the Silver Arrows, but also because our attempt to paint a machine, issued a few years ago is still valid. So it all made sense.”
What the team has gone into in pursuit of weight loss, coupled with Wolff’s talk of early-season upgrades, has raised the question of whether Mercedes is really trying to meet its early-season goals. The broader question still remains whether last year’s problems are indeed 100 percent resolved, and it seems like even the team won’t know the true answer until they head out for testing in Bahrain next week.
“There are definitely improvements that we are sure will make the car faster,” George Russell said after driving the car for the first time in a shakedown at Silverstone. “The car will be lighter than the one we saw last year, that’s the exact lap time, we know that.
“We have worked very well and hard to reduce drag because we saw how much we lost to Red Bull, especially last year, and we believe we have achieved this, so we also need to be faster in the straight line.
“It’s something we know will guarantee performance, but as soon as you brake before a corner or go through a corner, downforce has to start working and we don’t really know how it will work and count. compared to Red Bull and Ferrari.”
Wolf insists the team hit its targets over the winter, but hasn’t made bold predictions about Mercedes’ title chances until he sees what the W14 will face in the early rounds of the season.
“We’re on the slope that we wanted to be on in terms of our performance, but then you don’t know where others are,” he said. “I think modesty is the most important thing and we have always tried to be modest, especially after last year, we need to remind ourselves that for most of last season we were pretty far away.
“We have seen very positive feedback from other teams that we will be there, but we need to prove to ourselves that we are making the right decisions, and I would like to fight there in the front, and not just in the top. three teams, but maybe some of the others can join us there. It would be good for Formula 1 and that’s why it’s so nice.”