Mercedes: Surprise engine problems

As the summer break from the 2023 Formula One season begins, Mercedes engine chief Hywel Thomas reflects on the unexpected challenges that have marked the start of the racing year. The Mercedes works team and its customer Aston Martin currently sit second and third respectively in the constructors championship.

However, the start of the season proved to be a testing period for the engine department at Brixworth. Thomas recalls, “The first three events were the most surprising and disappointing. We were faced with retirements in each of these races, both within our factory teams and our customer teams.

The season opener in Bahrain saw McLaren’s Oscar Piastri make his Formula One debut retiring with an electrical engine issue, while Aston Martin’s Lance Stroll suffered an early retirement in Saudi Arabia due to engine failure. George Russell’s works car also suffered in Australia.


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Unforeseen challenges extend beyond the races

“It really forced us to understand how we got into this situation and to make sure we weren’t just putting band-aids over the problems. That marked the first quarter of the season,” says engine boss Thomas.

He explains: “It took a lot of reflection and change in the way we did things to make sure we didn’t have another repeat [of the defects]. Part of that quest for reliability was how we did the perfect create a race weekend.”

Thomas reveals that the challenges didn’t just surface during the races, but also plagued the team during practice sessions. “We had too many problems on a Friday, so we put in an enormous amount of work to understand what’s happening with the power unit to ensure that all our settings are correct,” he reveals.


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The importance of reliability

“Reliability has always been of paramount importance to us. Any premature withdrawal from a race has a significant impact. This reality was evident at the beginning of the season when we were faced with these setbacks. Although not unprecedented, the situation has become more difficult as we are restricted in our ability to improve our performance,” he recalls.

This is due to the current freeze on engine development in Formula 1, which also extends to performance enhancements. “This is the second year of the hardware performance freeze,” confirms Thomas. For the first time, software development has also been halted.

Thomas explains, “This presented us with a new challenge that required a revised approach. However, it still allowed us to implement upgrades to improve reliability during the off-season,”

One might question if performance is a secondary benefit to any reliability upgrade of course.


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Remedies implemented and challenges overcome

“We rectified several aspects identified from the previous season,” notes Thomas, who also shares, “We were faced with uncertainties regarding the performance of this year’s cars, including bounce, downforce and, consequently, full-throttle durations.”

He continues, “The landscape seemed ambiguous, so we had to be flexible and prepared. This uncertainty may have contributed to the initial challenges we faced”

Nevertheless, the team’s efforts seem to have paid off, as the prevailing difficulties appear to have been mitigated in the meantime.

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