When Mercedes qualified within six tenths of pole position for last year’s Formula 1 season opener in Bahrain, it was seen as a sign of the team’s potential.
After a difficult pre-season testing period, the German automaker brushed its teeth, dug deep, got to the bottom of the issues it was facing with the W13 and, at the end of the season, won the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Fast forward to now and an almost identical gap of six tenths – from a 0.680 second deficit at pole position in 2022 to a 0.632 second gap this year – has sparked a completely different reaction.
Rather than pointing to a good starting point for Mercedes to move forward in F1’s annual development war, it instead raised the white flag.
Minutes after qualifying ended, and before George Russell and Lewis Hamilton had even sat down with the engineers, team boss Toto Wolff said title hopes were nearly over and a new concept car was needed.
“I don’t think this package will be competitive over time,” he said.
“We did our best all winter long, and now we just need to all band together and sit down with the engineers, who are absolutely not dogmatic about anything.
“There are no sacred cows and we have to decide what direction of development 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 their cars compare to the opponent – especially as different circuits can juggle the order of competition a lot as strengths and weaknesses are exhibited.
So, Wolff stating that the game was pretty much over with the W14 after just one qualifying session might seem rather odd. However, there are some solid reasons behind his stance.
Chief among them is that Mercedes knows the situation is completely different to last year, when there was a mismatch between the W13’s potential and what it saw on the track.
He knew that somewhere deep within the quirks of his 2022 car was an awful lot of downforce that he just needed to be able to extract somehow without triggering porpoising.
This time around, the team is a different place. The W14 performs exactly as the team intended, and there aren’t many lap times that it knows can be unlocked further down the road.
The team admitted that a sizeable update is in the works, potentially ready for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix in mid-May, but it might only net a few tenths.
It’s not the breakthrough performance Mercedes needs to be able to take on the might of Red Bull, Ferrari and now Aston Martin, who themselves are likely to be making further improvements to their cars over the next few weeks.
As Wolff admitted on Saturday evening, Mercedes did not deliver a car that performs worse than expected. It’s just not good enough compared to other cars.
“We achieved our goals,” he said. “And that’s why we did our best.
“The moment comes when the clock comes out, and it showed us that it’s just not good enough. We don’t have enough downforce. And we have to wait to find solutions to solve this problem.
Aston Martin data point
Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
Mercedes’ struggles were further exposed by the fact that the client team Aston Martin overtook them in the pecking order.
But while Aston Martin’s progress in delivering arguably the third-fastest car is a blow, its rival’s pace will at least provide Brackley with a host of answers about where its gains are going.
With Aston Martin having the same powertrain, gearbox and rear suspension as Mercedes, there are clear answers on the shortcomings of the W14 package.
As Wolff said: “They gained two seconds in six months, and their car is half ours in engine, gearbox and rear suspension. They use the same wind tunnel, so there are a lot of parallels. We just have to recognize that they did an amazing job.
“If it was mechanical or suspension (weakness) then Aston Martin should have that too.
“The fact is that we are losing it at high speed. It’s rounds 5/6/7. It’s about the only place where we waste a lot of time. We are good in the other corners, we are good in the straight line.
The big decision
George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images
Whatever the outcome of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Wolff insists the team must change lanes with their car.
He spoke to Bahrain about taking “uncharted” paths in the quest for the kind of performance stage he needs to get back on top.
That route seems almost certain to mean tearing up the concept of the current Mercedes – which goes beyond its zero pod concept and extends to its floor and diffuser design.
And, with most of the grid having changed course to pursue the Red Bull downwash solution which again looks dominant, there is no doubt that Mercedes will also have to swallow their pride and look at it.
The biggest dilemma for Mercedes is whether it completely abandons all efforts on the current car to start on its new concept, or whether it tries to work on both concepts in parallel.
Such a decision is especially tricky in the era of cost caps, as it’s unlikely the team will be able to afford the kind of response that could trigger a totally overhauled B spec this season. This means it will have to stick with the W14 for a while.
Any new concept cars will most likely arrive for 2024, so the question is how long does Mercedes stop working on the current car?
One scenario, which sources say the team is open-minded to, could be to scrap the upcoming work for the Imola upgrade and jump right into the new concept. That would mean short term pain, but long term gain.
Wolff suggests that it may still be too early to embark on such a path, but he is aware that time is running out.
“Certainly every day counts, and you lose these days,” he said. “It will be difficult to catch up.
“So we need to make the right precise decisions now in order to set sail in the right direction.”