Mercedes has set sky-high standards over the past decade in Formula 1, winning 15 out of 16 available drivers’ and constructors’ championships in the eight seasons before it was reduced to supporting role last year. The watching world expects the Mercedes W14, which made its on-track debut at Silverstone this week, will catapult the team back into the hunt for titles after last year’s “blip.”
That’s not an outrageous expectation given the remarkable achievements of Mercedes and the fact it wants for nothing in terms of tools, resources or budget. Yet while Mercedes presented a gently optimistic tone around its launch, there was a hint of equivocation. That was encapsulated by team principal Toto Wolff, in a carefully-considered quote included in the launch press release, saying the car is expected to “eventually be competitive enough to fight at the very front of the grid.”
The implication is clear. And it tallies with the quiet murmurings emanating from Brackley that the numbers Mercedes has hit with this car are not as strong as hoped. This doesn’t mean Mercedes will have another 2022 — a year spent troubleshooting a fundamental problem that costs it months of development time — but it could mean it still has work to do to get on terms with expected pacesetter Red Bull and a bullish Ferrari.
“I was contemplating that word for 15 minutes when we talked about the press release,” said Wolff when asked about the use of the “eventually” as a qualifier.
“On one side, you want to say we will be competitive. On the other side, you need to stay humble and realistic, so you could be saying, ‘I hope that we will be competitive. And the midway is we will be competitive, we just don’t know when. That was the ‘eventually.’
“We are on the slope that we wanted to be in terms of our performance, but then you don’t know where the other ones are. And I think humility is most important. We’ve always tried to be humble, and especially after last year. We need to remind ourselves we were quite far off for a long time in the season.”
In isolation, the cautious note could be dismissed as just that. Mercedes downplayed expectations even during the good times, so it would be bizarre for Wolff suddenly to become punchy and predict glory. The team simply doesn’t operate like that, which is part of the culture that has made it so effective. But combined with last year’s struggles, the chastening impact of a bad year (in Mercedes terms, that means “only” one victory and third in the constructors’ championship) and the cautious messaging, it is significant. Even more so given technical director Mike Elliott warned that “we are starting behind.”
Mercedes has carried over the so-called “zero sidepod” design of last year, albeit with a clear evolutionary step. You might say these now more represent zero-point-five sidepods as there has been a gentle shift slightly in the direction of the more conventional, although the fundamental concept remains the same. The team was always adamant this design was not the root cause of its porpoising and bouncing problems last year, and that’s true as far as it goes.
The critical performance area of today’s F1 cars is the hidden, powerful ground effect underfloor, but the way that works is connected to the sidepods. It’s easy to conceptualize an F1 car aerodynamically as modular, but it’s far more complex than that. It’s a network of interacting airflow structures that must work together as anticipated to generate the performance, which doesn’t work in isolation of other characteristics such as the ever-shifting mechanical platform. It’s easy to be tripped up.
However, it’s testament to the team’s fortitude that it’s not simply gone with the pack and scrapped a sidepod design that nobody else is pursuing. Williams started last year with it, then ditched it with a mid-season upgrade that took many of its cues from Red Bull (but a little from Ferrari), but the rest have only ever taken a look at this approach and dismissed it in the design phase. Mercedes has long argued that the sidepod concept variation in terms of the basic visual concepts (the others are generally characterized as the Red Bull downwash design and the Ferrari “bathtub”), is not significant in terms of the performance potential. Of course, there is always the possibility it’s missing something given its standing alone, but given the progress made last year Mercedes can be given the benefit of the doubt on that.
The belief is that the Mercedes W14 has been born of understanding the shortcomings of last year’s car, which was designed to produce stunning downforce numbers but at the cost of running very low and stiff. The interaction of the aero and the mechanical platform led to significant porpoising and bouncing problems and it wasn’t until the middle of the season that Mercedes got into what it termed “normal development.” That led to a development flat spot measured in months during which others made gains while Mercedes searched for answers.