What happened to Mercedes F1? After the opening round of the 2023 Formula 1 season suggested Mercedes have once more failed to build a title-contending car, we take a look at how the sport’s once-dominant outfit reached this point, and where they go next.
What happened to Mercedes F1?
The positive noises coming from the Mercedes camp throughout the off-season quickly gave way to pessimism as Lewis Hamilton finished fifth and team-mate George Russell seventh in Bahrain.
Hamilton finished 50 seconds behind his great rival Max Verstappen, who eased to victory ahead of team-mate Sergio Perez as Red Bull dominated.
Mercedes were not alone in being unable to compete with the reigning constructors’ champions, but the fact they finished behind the Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso and Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari left the team in despondent mood.
Hamilton, aware that his hopes of this year claiming a record eighth drivers’ title are already looking extremely faint, appeared to criticise his team for failing to listen to his views on car design, while team principal Toto Wolff described the Bahrain GP as “one of the worst days in racing”.
With expectations well and truly tempered as Mercedes prepare for this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, the second of a record 23-round schedule that is all live on Sky Sports F1, we take a closer look at their stunning regression.
The first signs of trouble
Mercedes completely dominated F1 after the introduction of the turbo-hybrid engines in 2014, reeling off eight successive constructors’ titles, the first seven of which were accompanied by drivers’ crowns – six for Hamilton and one for Nico Rosberg.
While Red Bull had proved themselves a match for Mercedes as Verstappen claimed his maiden title in 2021, a decision had already been taken to introduce radical new design regulations for 2022, which would theoretically provide the possibility of a reset of the established pecking order.
Given Mercedes’ sustained brilliance, when the team unveiled an alternative ‘zero-sidepod’ concept at pre-season testing, most assumed they had once more outfoxed their rivals, who had more traditional designs, and would begin another period of dominance.
It was therefore a major surprise when it became clear they had been caught out by the new regulations and were suffering – more than any other team – with porpoising, a bouncing phenomenon that was an unexpected consequence of the way the 2022 cars had been designed under the new rules.
While just about every team suffered to some level, Mercedes’ issues were the most severe, and heavily impacted the performance of their W13, along with the comfort of their drivers.
They were well off the pace as Red Bull and Ferrari battled for wins throughout the first half of the season and were clearly out of championship contention long before the campaign reached its halfway point.
Mercedes did admirably improve their car, regularly outperforming Ferrari and coming close to victory on multiple occasions, before Russell finally delivered an uplifting triumph at the penultimate race of the season in Brazil.
The win appeared to indicate that Mercedes had got on top of their issues and gave the team and their supporters optimism that 2023 would bring a return to title contention.
A demoralising start to 2023
It turned out that the relative upturn in form during the second half of the season may have been the worst thing that could have happened to Mercedes, as it was enough to convince them to stick with their much talked about zero-sidepod concept.
There was cautious optimism emanating from the team’s Brackley factory throughout the winter, with Wolff and his drivers striking a defiant tone, as faith in the untapped potential of their concept remained.
At their W14 launch on February 15, Wolff warned they might start the season behind Red Bull but was confident the car would “eventually be competitive enough to fight at the very front of the grid”.
There was concern at pre-season testing as the second of the three days saw Hamilton struggle for balance in the morning before Russell broke down with a hydraulic issue in the later session, but a better final day saw some positivity retained.
Russell left Bahrain, which hosted both testing and the opening race, to work on improving the car back at the factory in the UK, and upon his return to the Sakhir circuit expressed confidence that significant progress had been made.
“I think we had really good time between the test and the race to analyse what happened,” Russell said ahead of first practice. “There were a few things going on with the car that we didn’t quite expect, but we’ve been able to resolve pretty easily. We were just working in slightly the wrong window. So we’ll put that change in for this weekend.”
However, that would be the end of the positivity. Three practice sessions, Qualifying and a race later, it had become clear to Mercedes that their concept was flawed and that their 2023 title hopes were already in tatters.
What has gone wrong?
Mercedes’ dominance from 2014-2021 was built upon the fact they had the best engine, so it is possible to argue that their aerodynamics department never needed to be the best.
While it would be wrong to suggest their very talented designers and engineers are sub-par, it is fair to question whether they have anyone who matches up to Red Bull’s chief technical officer Adrian Newey, but you could say that about every other team without his services.
While something has clearly gone wrong with the concept of Mercedes’ W13 and W14, there are also concerns that their engine is no longer the most powerful, with Ferrari and Red Bull both appearing to be more powerful following the sport’s 2022 engine freeze, which remains in place until the end of 2025.
Teams were required to submit a final design of their power units before the start of the 2022 season, with changes only allowed to be made to improve reliability or safety.
Mercedes appeared to produce a highly reliable engine from the off, whereas other teams, such as Ferrari, perhaps went for a more aggressive approach of producing a higher performance engine that they could then make more reliable.
One possible explanation for Mercedes’ misfires is a loss of key personnel in recent years. Engine boss Andy Cowell departed before the 2020 season, former technical director James Allison took on a new role in 2021 that saw him step back from day-to-day duties, chief aerodynamicist Eric Blandin moved to Aston Martin, and most recently chief strategist James Vowles left to become Williams team principal.
In addition, Mercedes lost the head of their mechanical engineering division, Ben Hodgkinson, to Red Bull last year as their rivals went on an aggressive recruitment drive for their new powertrains division, which saw around 15 other employees make the move.
It is also worth considering that Mercedes, one of the richest teams in the sport, are adjusting to the 2021 introduction of a budget cap, which prevents them from throwing money at problems in the way they may have been able to do in the past.
How quickly can they get back to the front?
Frustratingly for Mercedes, their hopes of challenging for titles this season already appear to be extremely low, and the question for many is whether they can rebuild for the 2024 campaign.
That is not to say they will completely give up on their W14, they can make radical changes to it that could help them on the path back to success.
Sky Sports F1’s Karun Chandhok recently compared the situation they are facing to a building project, significantly pointing out that plans for Mercedes’ 2024 car will already be at an advanced stage, such is the relentless pressure F1 engineers face.
“It’s like building a block of apartments,” Chandhok said. “Think of a cycle of four years to build a four-tier apartment block.
“Mercedes have got to think about, ‘listen, do we throw away and knock down the first two years that we’ve built and build three tiers in the same time that everyone else is going to build just the last tier for next year?’
“And that decision will have to be made now because the architecture and the layout and the concept of the car will get signed off by April for all the teams. So in the next couple of races, they have to make the decision on whether to abandon the concept and go with a whole new concept for next year.”
The noises coming from Mercedes post-Bahrain suggest that significant change is coming. In his GP recap, trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin hinted the team may finally conform with – or at least move towards – the more traditional sidepod design that Red Bull have been so successful with.
“Given the gap to the front, of course we are going to look at bigger departures and more radical changes,” Shovlin said.
“But those changes take time to turn into a faster solution in the wind tunnel – you can’t do them overnight. There is quite a lot of development that you’ve got to do around any sort of big change in geometry in that area.
“Of course, we are looking at where we can improve the car, we are looking for potential to develop, and you will see visible changes coming on the car over the next few races.”
Meanwhile, Mercedes also sent an open letter to their fans which said they were “working urgently and calmly to build our recovery plan”, but would not “panic, make knee-jerk reactions, or look for scapegoats”.
Is Hamilton’s Mercedes future in doubt?
A developing subplot around Mercedes’ struggles is the future of Hamilton, and his designs on becoming the sport’s first driver to win eight world championships.
Having come so close when he was cruelly and controversially denied by Verstappen in 2021, the Brit has a burning desire to achieve his goal, but at the age of 38, it remains to be seen for how many years he will be able to maintain an elite level of driving.
His current contract expires at the end of this season, but at the end of 2022 and before this campaign got under way, both Hamilton and Wolff had indicated the agreement of an extension was a formality.
“As for contract discussions, we have a full year to go,” Wolff said in January. “We are so aligned – in the last 10 years our relationship has grown.
“It’s just a matter of him physically being back in Europe, sticking our heads together, wrestling a bit, and then leaving the room with white smoke after a few hours.”
Well, Hamilton has been back to Europe and no deal was announced, but speaking ahead of the opening race in Bahrain, the 103-time race winner insisted another “difficult” year would not alter his intention to remain with the team.
However, after a frustrating weekend his post-race claims that the team “didn’t listen” to him regarding concerns over the W14, reignited speculation as to whether he could consider what once seemed an unthinkable move away from Mercedes.
While a transfer to the Red Bull team he fought so fiercely against appears impossible, Hamilton was linked to Ferrari several years ago and has in the past expressed his respect and admiration for the Italian team.
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