until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Formula 1

Is Mercedes on a Williams-style F1 decline?

6 min read

All dominant Formula 1 teams have blips. But when does that blip become a crisis, and when does it become a terminal decline?

Every week The Race Members’ Club has the opportunity to send in questions to be answered on The Race F1 Podcast, and this week member Jeremy Hustead raised a point about Mercedes that he admitted we’d dismissed as being premature when he first asked about it last season.

“If Mercedes continues to fail miserably in its quest for another championship, let alone a competitive car, at what point do we start comparing it to Williams and its fall from grace in the late 1990s?” Jeremy wrote.

As he pointed out, we didn’t get on board with that comparison in 2023. But as Mercedes endures a third straight poor start to a season, is Jeremy on the right lines?

Here’s what Glenn Freeman, Scott Mitchell-Malm and Edd Straw made of the Williams/Mercedes decline comparison when they delved into it again on the podcast in the wake of Mercedes’ abject Australian Grand Prix.


Glenn Freeman: Woah Jeremy, what a question! I see the logic. I still think it’s premature.

The thing is, the Williams fall from grace was obviously linked to two things. One was losing Adrian Newey. So I can see the similarity there in one way: Mercedes has lost its way with the cars in the same way that Williams lost its way with the cars at the turn of the century and never really recovered it.

But the key difference is Mercedes remains a manufacturer team - not just a team with a manufacturer engine, as Williams was until it lost BMW. Mercedes’ resources aren’t going to go away.

We can definitely continue to ask questions about whether Mercedes understands this ruleset and what you’ve got to do. I don’t think it does at the moment. We’ve got an increasing set of evidence here that Mercedes is lost. I get that comparison to Williams.

But I don’t think we’re going to see a Williams-like decline because I doubt Mercedes will be splitting with itself and leaving the race team without a works engine partner and all the benefits of manufacturer backing - as happened to Williams.


Scott Mitchell-Malm: It’s not exactly the same because McLaren’s 2010s decline was a case of being a customer going up against a works partner.

But you’ve got that kind of gentle slide because Mercedes hasn’t immediately fallen to a state of only getting the odd podium and also sometimes struggling to score points as Williams did. So I don’t think it’s quite as dramatic as Williams.

But you have that initial step off of not fighting for wins, and that is what happened to McLaren in 2013. They’ve made a really big concept decision that’s backfired, which is again McLaren 2013 after it had the fastest car at the end of 2012.

And then I don’t think Mercedes is an arrogant organisation but McLaren probably didn’t think it was an arrogant organisation in the 2010s and yet for whatever reason there’s a bit of being lost and not having the answers.

And the longer it goes on, the more confusing it gets and the less convinced you are that there’s going to be a short-to-medium term recovery.

To me it feels more like that McLaren path than the Williams situation, which felt like it was beginning a really long and irreversible decline.

Click here to join The Race Members' Club

Glenn Freeman: McLaren thought its cars were better than they were for a long time and the 2013 change that it made maybe was out of arrogance because they thought, ‘Well, we’ve got this great car that’s been let down, but we know how to do it better’. I don’t think Mercedes is in that situation.

It took McLaren a long time to get found out. In the Honda years they kept telling us the chassis was amazing and, ‘Look how quick we are through sector three at Barcelona’ - how many times did we hear that? And then they got found out when they switched to Renault engines.

Mercedes knows that the car isn’t good enough. It’s not saying, ‘The car’s great, it’s just something else letting it down’.

The one thing they have been telling us up to now is, ‘We know how to fix it, we just need a new chassis, we just need to do this - these are the things holding us back and once we fix those next year, we’ll be there…’ And then it hasn’t happened.

It’s maybe a different side of the same coin as McLaren but I still see big differences.


Edd Straw: Now it’s the third year where Mercedes is still having problems. You could very easily accept one year as a one-off aberration. Even two years because it carried the car concept over.

But it’s had its restart and this is a little bit worrying.

So while I don’t think it’s a Williams scenario in terms of the prevailing conditions that led to Williams’s decline, it is possible it’s a team decline in terms of not being able to get on top of the car design work as well as it needs to even though it’s still got what it needs in terms of budget and theoretically facilities (because something’s not quite adding up).

So I agree with what was implied in the question: if you’re asking if this is a point of Mercedes being in a decline and it’s not a foregone conclusion that it’ll get back to winning ways, then yes you are at that point.

But I don’t see those bigger factors like those that played a role in Williams’s decline, which is why you think that Mercedes should get back there.

But it becomes less confidence-inspiring with every year of failing to do so.

Scott Mitchell-Malm: Ultimately every team’s situation is different. We can make these kind of surface-level comparisons to Williams or McLaren - blips, slumps, declines, whatever it ends up being.

I agree with Toto Wolff saying that they’ve ‘not become idiots overnight’ - this is the team that was able to dominate F1 for so long. But it does show that even the best organisations can have weaknesses in them.

To use a quote that Fred Vasseur absolutely loves: the moment you stop progressing in F1, you’re dead. And in terms of being at the very sharp end, that is what’s happened to Mercedes in the last couple of years.

For your chance to have your questions answered on The Race F1 Podcast, receive exclusive podcast content including additional Bring Back V10s episodes, and get an ad-free environment on The Race website, join The Race Members' Club.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • More Networks