Mercedes AMG F1 engineers for seven seasons were “A number one, Top of the list, King of the hill…” but then as always in all forms of sport, the kings who rule on high were toppled. The surprising part of this story was that it happened without there being any big Formula One regulation changes.
In 2021, the Red Bull in the hands of Max Verstappen was set to win the drivers’ championship until a late run of form from Lewis Hamilton saw him win the four penultimate races prior to the show down in Abu Dhabi.
Mercedes go their own way
Whichever way that title had gone, Mercedes were no longer dominant and Red Bull had crawled back to parity or even better.
The came the biggest set of regulation changes in a generation. The 2022 cars were stripped of almost 50% of their downforce from the upper body aerodynamics ad forced to use a ‘ground effect’ design which uses airflow under the floor to suck the cars onto the circuit.
From that moment one team emerged as having mastered the regulation change and Adrian Newey with his early years thesis on ‘ground effect’ was best placed to exploit this kind of aerodynamic car design.
Mercedes went a completely different way from Red Bull with their car design, something Lewis Hamilton became extremely vocal about when he realised how far behind his team had fallen. Yet the internal squabble between the proud Mercedes engineers who believed they could eventually make their design concept a race winner and Lewis Hamilton who wanted them to copy Red Bull continued through the 2022 F1 season.
Toto Wolff unclear of direction
At the launch of the 2023 Mercedes car the rift was still clear as Mercedes then technical director Mike Elliot described this years W14 as an “evolution” not a revolution. Toto Wolff appeared to agree describing the W14 as having “the same DNA” as last years’ car.
Then the performance of the car was clearly well off the pace in Bahrain and after the second round of the season, where George Russell and Lewis Hamilton finished around half a minute away from victory, Wolff opened up on where the team will go from here.
“If you look at the Red Bulls, they are just so quick. [But] I think we understand the car more [and] I’m looking optimistically [to] the future. We just need to put it in a different window,” the Mercedes team boss commented.
“We’re changing the bodywork of the car, how the floor works, all of these things – mechanically we’re looking at certain areas. The team in Brackley is just flat-out.”
W14 “a dead end street”
The Mercedes boss went on to admit the work by his engineers over the winter had failed to deliver on their claims the underlying of the W13 concept in fact would work.
“We headed into one direction last year and we wanted to have it work. It worked and it got better and better. But now, coming out this year, we really realised it’s a dead-end street.”
Hamilton too had his say and in the now famous rant in front of assembled media where he appeared to call for the head of Mercedes technical director Mike Elliot.
“Last year, I told them the issues that are with the car. Like, I’ve driven so many cars in my life, so I know what a car needs, I know what a car doesn’t need.
“And I think it’s really about accountability, it’s about owning up and saying ‘yeah, you know what, we didn’t listen to you, it’s not where it needs to be and we’ve got to work’.”
Have Mercedes improved?
Within weeks Elliot was gone and Mercedes previous technical director responsible for their final championship win – James Allison – was restored to his role.
The big Mercedes upgrade came and went and there have been more upgrades since, each the team and Hamilton claim has improved the car.
Of course Mercedes are ahead of Ferrari by 23 points with three Grand Prix remaining and so are better placed than they were at the end of the 2022 season.
Ferrari closed the gap last time out in Mexico, though in reality their poor strategy once again handed Mercedes more points than they should have scored as the Scuderia ploughed on with their pre determined race tyre strategy and were caught out by the safety car.
Ferrari close behind
Of course the 2024 F1 car designs are now well under way for all the teams but Lewis Hamilton is still sending coded messages to what appear to be stubborn Mercedes engineers.
After driving to P2 in Mexico City, Lewis Hamilton was bullish when asked about the possibilities for next season.
“I am incredibly proud of my team and I have total faith in the team,” he beamed. “I know we can build a great car. We haven’t for the past two years. But we can build a great car.”
However, Lewis found to necessary to caution his team for failing to learn from Red Bull’s success leaving the impression there is still some residua stubbornness at Mercedes to abandon their concepts and simply design a car similar to Red Bull.
Hamilton coded message to Mercedes engineers
“There are a lot of engineers, nobody wants to copy anybody, they want to find their own way. But I think we are progressing. But I’ve heard that Red Bull are progressing, as well,” said Hamilton.
“So we have to be really, really strategic and really clinical – they know that already – in order for us to be battling those guys. They are so quick on the straights, we are losing two and a half tenths into Turn 1. But I believe. I’m ready. If we can get a car that can match them, we’re going to have some great battles next year.”
Hamilton’s tone has changed at recent races and he has attempted to be more positive over the alleged gains Mercedes “hard work back at the factory” is delivering.
And while it may be the case the Mercedes W14 has improved and is less on the edge when being raced, the reality is the eight times world champions are no closer to Red Bull in the hands of Verstappen than they were at the start of 2022.
Mercedes no closer yet to Red Bull
The benchmark set by Toto Wolff was the 25 seconds behind the winning Red Bull in Jeddah 2022. This was the gap he wanted his team to close.
Yet despite the euphoric Hamilton celebrations last time out in Mexico, he finished almost 14 seconds behind the winner Max Verstappen. Yet if we add back the time Verstappen was ahead before the safety car/red flag was deployed together with the fact Lewis Hamilton restarted the race on the quicker medium tyre, the gap to Red Bull has changed little.
The big question to be answered is how are Mercedes approaching their 2025 car and why did Lewis Hamilton feel it necessary to mention engineers who refuse to copy other teams’ car designs?
Is there a residual stubbornness at Brackley to simply accept Red Bull came out with the best ideas in 2022 and it is time for them to fall in line as other teams have done?
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