“For us, everything is bad.”
“That was one of our worst days in racing.”
“We are not good enough.”
“I don’t think this package is going to be competitive eventually.”
Those quotes might sound familiar, and that’s because they were all from Mercedes Formula 1 team principal Toto Wolff either during or after the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix. To add some context, Lewis Hamilton and George Russell had just finished fifth and seventh. Given the fact that in 2012 — three years after the team won the world championship as Brawn — Mercedes managed to score just a solitary seventh place from the final six races of the season, a year in which it won a race no less, you’d have thought by Wolff’s comments that both cars were out in Q1.
I get it, Mercedes has extremely high expectations and to be so far off Red Bull’s pace for the second consecutive season hurt. But while that Red Bull dominance runs the risk of making 2023 boring to many neutrals who want a fight at the front, those Mercedes expectations and how it intends to try and meet them provides one of the most fascinating storylines.
For starters, we’re talking about a team that finished second in Australia, is just nine points behind the second-placed team in the constructors’ championship and already has a front-row start to its name this year. It could be in bigger trouble, and certainly could have further to climb.
Yet it’s the actual second-placed team in the constructors’ championship, Aston Martin — with a Mercedes power unit, gearbox and rear suspension components — that highlights just why Wolff was so despondent early on. That another team using those Mercedes parts could be quicker was a massive shock.
And yet the narrative changed almost instantaneously. As quick as Wolff and Mercedes were to take the optimism of the car launch and throw it into the bin in Bahrain, by Saudi Arabia the team principal was almost giddy when talking about the steps already being found back at the factory as it searches for new directions.
When was the last time a front-running team was speaking in such terms about sweeping car changes?
Of course, so much of the focus is on the sidepod concept that Mercedes has opted for, standing out so clearly compared to the rest of the grid. But as it got to work trying to redesign its car for 2023 and beyond, Mercedes clearly identified there was much more to it than that. The team had previously stated the sidepods weren’t a major performance differentiator, and that’s a position that holds.
“To be honest, perhaps we’ve adopted the word ‘concept’ to mean sidepods, but what we are doing is looking at bigger departures from what we have been doing,” trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin said recently. “So this car is an evolution of the car that we had last year — a lot of that is tied around where we have got the side-impact structure. We’re looking at bigger departures because it’s evident that this hasn’t given us the performance that we’d like.
“Saying that, there are other areas of the car that we know that we can improve as well. It would be very misguided to believe that if we put a different sidepod on it all of that gap is going to vanish. The reality is that the vast majority of that gap is going to have to come from other performance areas.
“We’ve got a lot of projects at the moment to try and bring performance over the next five races.”
The key to understanding why Mercedes switched approach so quickly — and why Wolff went from optimism to despair to optimism faster than the W14 can change direction — comes from the reality of when the team knew it was in trouble. To that end, Shovlin says a quick turnaround is possible due to how early the team recognized it didn’t have the development potential it wanted.
“You can look at your development rate in the wind tunnel and before we had even got to Bahrain there were conversations about looking at bigger departures,” Shovlin said. “That’s not like looking at it in isolation for this year’s car development — we’ve done that over the course of the last 10 years. If you’re not finding the gains you need, you make a bigger change, explore another area and often you unlock that.
“That had already happened before Bahrain, but perhaps the urgency to try and bring those bits to the track has gone up following the early races.”
In a cost cap era, decisions need to be clear and made at the earliest possible opportunity in order to get the most value out of them. No longer can a team like Mercedes simply explore every avenue with almost endless investment until something clicks; it needs to identify a route it believes has potential and commit to it fully.
That means doing so when there’s not the same ability to back out as in the past. It explains to an extent why there was such determination from Mercedes to exhaust the current direction first, because the time and money invested into it couldn’t be written off prematurely.
But that also adds to the intrigue around its current situation. If Mercedes really is finding exciting new directions that are likely to provide a major performance gain compared to the previous car, then it’s going to result in a clear closing of the gap at the front, whenever it can actually bring items to the track.
Shovlin’s “next five races” included Melbourne, but that’s still taking us up to the end of May or early June, and it’s still a stretch. Teams map out development plans many months in advance — McLaren has already talked about a B-spec car sometime between Baku and the summer break — and Mercedes has changed tack late.
It’s a bit too simplistic to think the current gap in races provides more freedom to develop the car, given the fact that the race team doesn’t design wind tunnel parts and vice versa. But it will allow some more in-depth analysis of what is and isn’t working on the current car, because there are going to be strengths that Mercedes will want to protect based on its performance in Australia.
Last year was a case of trying to iron out a few specific, very big, problems with a car that Mercedes had faith in. This year is the opposite as it chases a complete revision as quickly as possible in a season that still has 20 races remaining.
Get it right and the impact could be huge, not only within the current year but also future seasons given the stability of the regulations. Get it wrong and the impact could still be huge, but for different reasons.