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Formula 1 Bahrain GP

Why ‘no slower’ Mercedes is giving up on its F1 car concept

When Mercedes qualified within six tenths of pole position for last year’s Formula 1 season opener in Bahrain, it was viewed as a sign of the potential the team had. 

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14

After a troubled pre-season testing run, the German manufacturer brushed itself off, dug deep, got to the bottom of the problems it faced with the W13, and later in the season won the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Fast forward to now and an almost identical six tenths gap – from a 0.680 seconds deficit to pole position in 2022 to a 0.632 seconds gap this year – has triggered a completely different reaction. 

Rather than it pointing to a good baseline for Mercedes to move forward from in the annual F1 development war, it has instead thrown up the white flag. 

Within minutes of the end of qualifying, and even before George Russell and Lewis Hamilton had sat down with the engineers, team boss Toto Wolff declared that title hopes were all but over and a new car concept was needed. 

“I don't think this package is going to be competitive eventually,” he said. “We gave it our best shot all over the winter, and now we just need to all regroup and sit down with the engineers, who are totally not dogmatic about anything. 

“There are no holy cows and we need to decide what is the development direction that we want to pursue in order to be competitive to win races.” 

F1 teams are normally eager to wait a few races before properly judging how its cars stack up against the opposition – especially as different circuits can juggle up the competitive order quite a lot as strengths and weaknesses are exposed. 

So Wolff declaring it virtually game over with the W14 after just a single qualifying session may seem quite strange. However, there are some solid reasons behind his stance. 

Mick Schumacher, Reserve Driver, Mercedes-AMG, with Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG

Mick Schumacher, Reserve Driver, Mercedes-AMG, with Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

Chief among these is that Mercedes knows it is a completely different situation to last year when there was a mismatch between the potential of the W13 and what it was seeing on track. 

It knew that somewhere deep within the quirks of its 2022 car was an awful lot of downforce that it just needed to be able to extract without it triggering porpoising. 

This time around the team is a different place. The W14 is performing exactly as the team anticipated, and it is not a case of there being a lot of lap time that it knows can be unlocked further down the road. 

The team has admitted that a pretty big update is being worked on, potentially ready for around the time of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in mid-May, but that may only bring a couple of tenths. 

That is not the game-changing performance Mercedes needs to be able to take on the might of Red Bull, Ferrari and now Aston Martin, who are also likely to be bring further upgrades to their cars over the next weeks. 

As Wolff admitted on Saturday night, Mercedes had not delivered a car that is performing worse than anticipated. It is just not good enough compared to the other cars. 

“We hit our targets,” he said. “And that's why we gave it our best shot.  

“The moment comes when the stopwatch comes out, and that showed us that it's simply not good enough. We haven't got enough downforce. And we need to wait to find solutions to fix that.” 

Aston Martin data point 

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23

Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23

Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images

Mercedes’ struggles have been further exposed by the fact that customer team Aston Martin has leapfrogged it in the pecking order. 

But while the progress Aston Martin has made in delivering arguably the third-fastest car is a blow, its rival’s pace will at least provide a wealth of answers for Brackley about where its gains need to come. 

With Aston Martin having the same power unit, gearbox and rear suspension as Mercedes, there are some clear answers about where the W14 package is lacking. 

As Wolff said: “They gained two seconds in half a year, and their car is half ours from the engine, gearbox and the rear suspension. They use the same wind tunnel, so there are a lot of parallels. We just need to acknowledge that they've done an outstanding job. 

“If it was mechanical or suspension [weakness] then Aston Martin should have it too.  

“The point is we're losing it in the high speed. It's Turns 5/6/7. This is pretty much the only place where we're losing large chunks of time. We are okay in the other corners, we are okay on the straight.” 

The big decision 

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14

George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Whatever the outcome of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Wolff is insistent the team needs to switch paths with its car. 

He talked in Bahrain of the need to go down ‘untreaded’ paths in the quest for the kind of performance step that it needs to get itself back to the front. 

That route looks almost certain to mean ripping up the concept of the current Mercedes – which goes beyond just its zero-pod concept and extends to its floor and diffuser design. 

And, with most of the grid having changed tack to pursue the Red Bull downwash solution that looks dominant again, there seems little doubt that Mercedes too will have to swallow its pride and look at it. 

What will deliver the biggest dilemma for Mercedes is whether it completely abandons all efforts on the current car to start on its new concept, or if it tries to work on both concepts in parallel. 

Such a decision is especially tricky in the cost cap era, as the team is unlikely to be able to afford the kind of response that could unleash a totally overhauled B-spec this season. It means it will have to stick with the W14 for a while.

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Any new car concept is most likely going to be something arriving for 2024, so the question is how soon does Mercedes switch off work on the current car? 

One scenario, which sources say the team is open-minded to, could be in abandoning the work coming for the Imola upgrade and instead embark on the new concept work immediately. It would mean some short term pain, but long term gain. 

Wolff suggests it may be too early to commit to such a path yet, but he is aware that time is ticking. 

“Definitely everyday counts, and you are losing these days,” he said. “It's going to be difficult to catch up. Therefore we need to take the right precise decisions now in order to set the sails in the right direction.” 

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