2023 has been a rude awakening for Mercedes with the realisation that its concept was firmly wrong – but that doesn’t mean it is going to throw everything away.
Around this time last year, the word coming from Mercedes was of a revolution coming for its second attempt at a ground effects Formula 1, and one that would, as far as it was concerned, put Red Bull firmly back in its place.
Victory at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix on a weekend Red Bull got the set-up wrong lulled the team into a false sense of security with the belief that zero sidepods was a good concept that just needed time to work.
But the team was severely disabused of that idea in Bahrain when boss Toto Wolff came out after qualifying to declare that the team would be abandoning the concept and moving towards a more conventional design – which broke cover in Monaco.
Progress has been made forward, but the team is facing the prospect of a first winless season since 2011 and a second straight for Lewis Hamilton – who has agreed to stay on with a fresh two-year deal taking him until the end of ’25.
That is plenty of time for Mercedes to turn its fortunes around – but can it? What lessons can be taken from the troublesome W14 which is a difficult car to get into a set-up sweet spot, lacks high-speed stability an could do with some extra grunt down the straights?
As far as Hamilton is concerned, many.
“Well, we won’t ever bin the car of course. These cars are still masterpieces, really, even if they’re not the fastest car in the world,” Hamilton tells media including Lipglouse.com.
“2000 people have worked so hard to build these things, and they will continue to be a part of our history and our learning curve.
“There will be bits of it that we try to change, try to hold on to some of the positives because there’s always positives, good and bad sides, and so we’re trying to hold on to the positives.
” With the new direction we have it’s far too early to say it than to be optimistic about next year’s car because we are just in the process of going into that.
“But I have full faith in the crew that they’re going to take it in the direction that it needs to go.
“There’s been a lot of learning in these past two years so if we haven’t figured it out by next year then obviously we will just keep working away at it. But I’m hoping that they have.”
That final remark from Hamilton is telling as he admits that Mercedes might not be in a position to challenge Red Bull in 2024. If it is not, then 2025 will likely go the same way with stable regulations before the ’26 cycle comes into force. Mercedes could, if it does not get 2024’s W15 right, be looking at writing off the first-ground effects era of the modern era.
New challenges facing Mercedes
Coupled to the challenge is the resurgence of Aston Martin and McLaren.
Aston has fallen away over the course of the 2023 season, whilst McLaren is making a late charge, but both have Mercedes power in the back. This makes it clear that the problems Mercedes have are firmly Mercedes problems as the power unit package is otherwise competitive.
As the team continues to battle with Ferrari for second in the 2023 standings, it can’t switch full attention to the ’24 car with the Scuderia breathing down its neck.
Trackside Engineering Director Andrew Shovlin attests to this, by using qualifying as an example.
“We are doing a lot of work to try and solve some of the problems on this car, to make sure that we don’t have them next year,” Shovlin said.
“We have moved it forward, the car we had previously, in 2022, tended to be an awfully long way off in qualifying, but was generally a bit bette in races.
“The performance was very, very track-specific. So insome areas we have improved. The big issue though is that we’re just not quick enough.
“We need to find a good chunk of performance, to challenge Red Bull in particular. But the other thing is the field is now super close.
“You look at some of the gaps we had 12 months ago, and you can have a decent qualifying position, you might be fourth or fifth on the grid but you were eight, nine-tenths off. Now, if you do that, you end up getting bumped in Q1 or Q2.
“There’s lots for us to work on and certainly some of the work will be about making sure we can give the drivers the confidence in the car that they’re lacking at the moment.
“That’s a big area. We’ve got some interesting projects that hopefully they’ll come off.”
Hamilton is a serial winner, and given the events of Abu Dhabi 2021, he wants to go out as the driver who wrestled his crown back from the clutches of his successor as the ‘man-to-beat’, break the record he was denied at Yas Marina and ride off into the sunset.
He will not want to go out with a third-place finish in the championship, finishing nearly 50 seconds down on Max Verstappen as he did in Japan when the W14 was the fourth-best car.
Time is ticking as eventually, Hamilton will be unable to defeat the great rival that defeats even the very best in the end: Old Father Time.