Mercedes is taking advantage of this period of pause in the Formula 1 calendar to push hard with development work ahead of the debut of its evolved W14 at Imola next month.
It’s no secret that big change is coming, given that team principal Toto Wolff has repeatedly stated that the current design concept of the car will be overturned with updates – though work on the Imola changes was already underway before that decision was taken, so this could be a multi-step process rather than the Imola upgrade being definitive.
The zero-sidepods philosophy has officially been rejected without much hesitation after seeing the limited potential of the W14 in pre-season testing. It’s a clear and direct approach by the team in wanting to change direction and effectively start from a blank sheet.
This was supposed to be the year of Mercedes rejoining the battle at the top of F1 and returning to fighting for victory in every race. Wolff’s patience has been exhausted and the engineering team led by Mike Elliott will – despite the team’s devotion to its no-blame culture – feel pressure and something of an ultimatum, having continued insisting on an aerodynamic philosophy that was unsuccessful in 2022.
The good results obtained in the second part of last season, including the incredible victory in Brazil, made Elliott’s team (proponents of the zero-sidepod concept) desist from radically changing the design philosophy. The current W14 has in fact had some important evolutions compared to the old W13, incorporating part of the aerodynamic solutions that we have seen on the Red Bull. However, there hasn’t been the leap in performance hoped for, indeed the gap to the leader has increased.
While Ferrari has never declared its intention to overturn its design philosophy (despite a hint from Carlos Sainz that it should), Wolff and Mercedes have made no secret that the gains they made during 2022 compared to a Red Bull team that had stopped developing its car deceived them into persisting with an idea they now regard as a failure. It’s now time to start from scratch and the components to do that are already in the windtunnel.
Wolff’s frustration also derives from the fact that Aston Martin, a customer team of Mercedes which buys from it various mechanical components, is more competitive at the moment. Elliott cannot afford for the ‘W14-B’ project to go wrong, too. While it could be tempting for any team to try a copy and paste of the Red Bull right now, what Mercedes should do given the existing sharing of components plus the results its customer is getting is go in the direction of Aston Martin.
The W13’s troubles were mainly related to porpoising – not foreseen in the simulations and which caused major problems in the first part of the season as it was also present in corners – and to a set-up window that was too narrow to make the floor and tyres work. Last year the two drivers often couldn’t explain how the car managed to be bad at the outset, but if the right setting was taken in free practice the car found incredible downforce.
This still happens to some extent on the 2023 car, and we have also seen it in Australia. The Mercedes was put in the right window of use for qualifying and a great performance arrived, which allowed George Russell and Lewis Hamilton to slot in behind Max Verstappen. However this still happens too casually, and is often conditioned by external factors. For example, the rise in temperatures over the Australian weekend helped Mercedes find extra grip from the tyres.
It is therefore not a question mainly of an incorrect aerodynamic concept, as with Ferrari. Mercedes had an important handicap directly from the lack of correlation between the simulation data and the track.
The indications from Wolff’s comments are that more conventional sidepods will be part of Mercedes’ plan, though the implications for the side-impact structure mean that might not be able to happen instantly. But Mercedes should look to what Aston Martin has been able to do with its own sidepod concept change for 2023, as it has so many of the same internal components as Mercedes.
When it comes to straightline speed, Mercedes immediately took a step up from 2022 with the new rear wing design introduced at the first race in Bahrain. The new family of rear wings has made it possible to reduce drag, which was a decidedly negative aspect of 2022 Mercedes.
It is no coincidence that Aston Martin, a car that looks more like the 2022 Mercedes W13 around the rear wing, is among the cars with the most drag. But combine the strong points of the Mercedes and the Aston Martin and the potential is clear.
Elliott and Andrew Shovlin often said last year that the zero-sidepod project was very fast in simulations, faster than they had imagined. However, this was not the case on the track and the car lost downforce due to porpoising and too rigid a set-up. Raise the car just a little from the ground and the floor no longer worked, or a too-stiff suspension set-up had to be adopted.
In part this problem has been solved with the W14, but with the updated version the target will be to be able to run closer still to the asphalt.
Mercedes doesn’t just need a restyling of the sidepods, the design itself will need to work in a completely different way. That will mainly have to come from the mechanical set-up and the use of new rear suspension that ought to arrive together with aerodynamic updates from Imola.
The limiting factors for Mercedes and all the other teams chasing Red Bull is the budget cap, which prevents heavy spending on forcing through large-scale update programmes. It means Mercedes certainly won’t be able to work miracles this year but it showed excellent recovery ability last season.
The goal is to finish ahead of Ferrari, and above all its customer team Aston Martin. And its starting point needs to be to learn from what that customer has got right.