Wolff joked frequently last season that the car would be hidden in a corner of the Mercedes museum never to be seen again. But he’s relented on that and is happy for it to be displayed in the lobby of the team’s Brackley base. And not as a monument to failure, but to the ambition — albeit frustrated ambition — that underpinned its design.
“I’ve changed my approach a little bit, because I wanted it to go in the lobby as a reminder that you must not rest on your laurels,” said Wolff. “But actually, I want to place it in the lobby because it is a symbol of boldness and courage. We took a radical design direction last year and we dared and we failed.
“So for me that shows a lot about the mindset of the team, how it is important to cope with success and failure at the same time. I wouldn’t want us to go in any shape or form conservative in the future. I want us to take calculated risks and be bold.”
Mercedes had prepared for the moment it slid down the order for some time. Wolff was well aware that “eventually we were going to have a difficult one” and had put significant thought into how to deal with it. A keen student of business management, and even a teacher of it through his work with Harvard Business School, it was all about ensuring the right response. And by all accounts, the spirit and the determination of the team remains intact through the trials and tribulations of 2022.
The question is whether that is harnessed to the team having fully understood its 2022 problems and created a car that works from the off. The suggestion is that there will be a relatively slow start and Wolff has even suggested that, during the season, the distinctive sidepods could be changed. Plenty has been learned from last year’s difficult car, there’s no doubt about that. But has Mercedes missed something that means it is set for another difficult year? Internally, the belief is they have turned over every stone, but even then, until.the car builds proper mileage, there is always the possibility something might have been overlooked. While it built a good understanding of last year’s car and could accurately predict its performance in the later part of the season, that was a model built with extensive real-world data. The new car is the product purely of the many simulation tools that misled it last year, but which it has extensively modified since then based on the lessons of 2022.
This is the test that every dominant force in F1 faces. It’s an unavoidable fact that every empire crumbles and Mercedes had already done the seemingly impossible by stringing together seven consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ titles from 2014 to 2020. To that was added the ’21 constructors’ crown and, very nearly, another drivers’ title for Lewis Hamilton. That’s an unprecedented run of success that bridge across a major technical regulations change when F1 switched to wider, higher-downforce cars in 2017.
Major rule changes historically can upset the competitive order. It stands to reason that a team that’s dominating will want stability and having achieved so much under the old rules, the change to ground effect cars in ’22 clearly exposed a weakness at Mercedes. There’s myriad reasons for team’s sliding from serial winners to also-rans, and the externally imposed switch to new knowledge area where a team might have shortcomings is one of them.
This is what makes this season such a big test for Mercedes. With the cost cap now into its third year and aerodynamic testing using the wind tunnel and CFD now more limited than ever, it’s not possible for big teams to brute-force spend their way out of trouble. But given the resources it does have, there’s no question that it has what it needs to continue to be successful. The question is whether the processes and operations of a team that has had to downsize for the cost cap era are good enough and whether that leads to as in-depth a knowledge of the underlying science as is required.
The situation Mercedes is in is dramatically different to the one Red Bull faced when its period of domination from 2010-2013 ended. That was, first and foremost, the consequence of Renault’s 1.6-liter V6 turbo hybrid engine package being unreliable and undercooked in 2014, an ongoing problem in subsequent years. Red Bull only re-emerged as a title threat with Honda engines and has now gone to the extreme of creating its own powertrains division to ensure it is in control of its own engine destiny in perpetuity. Mercedes makes its own power units at Brixworth, so has never had to worry about that problem.
Mercedes can afford one troubled year, but 2023 will confirm if it can be a consistent challenger under new technical and financial regulations. To pass that test, it doesn’t have to win the championship this year, but it does have to prove conclusively that it has the know-how technically to produce a car that can fight Red Bull on level terms. Red Bull is also an outstanding team and has identified clear areas in its design where it can find performance gains over last year, so if Mercedes is to do so, it needs to develop faster. That will be no mean feat.
It remains to be seen how well the car goes in testing, and we haven’t even had the chance to take a proper look at the new Red Bull even though it has run on track. But the Mercedes battle to get back on terms with the pacesetters will be one of the key subplots of the season. Whether the team is simply managing expectations now and is strong out of the box, or it gets there in the end, the key is that it one way or another proves it can. If not, that could indicate that its dominance has not been interrupted, but ended for good with Red Bull and perhaps even Ferrari ahead.
For all that, recent history is a warning that Mercedes should not be underestimated. Anyone betting against it being a potent force this year would be taking a big risk as the smart money is on it turning last year’s struggles into a knowledge base that sets it up for many more wins to come.