Feature F1 Unlocked
Mercedes roll the dice with the W14 as they bid to return to title-winning ways – but will it pay off?
If column-inches translated into points, right now we’d already be asking rhetorically if anyone could catch Mercedes in 2023. It is traditional for one team to dominate the media landscape before a wheel is turned in anger, and through January and February, that team were the Silver [later revealed to be Black] Arrows.
They’re an unusual candidate for such scrutiny: the honour usually goes to defending champions; or teams with new management; with marquee driver signings or rumoured to be on their financial uppers. Mercedes, conversely, are the model of continuity – though it’s not an exaggeration to suggest the ability of 2023 to hold the interest of the Formula 1 community is perhaps dependent on the performance of their W14. No pressure lads…
2022 was not the most dramatic of years for F1. Oracle Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen ran away with both titles; 10 wins in the final 11 races for the RB18 turned the second half of the season into an extended victory parade for the Milton Keynes squad, and the feeling for 2023 is that somebody needs to step up to prevent the ‘Bulls’ going on the rampage once more.
In the mathematical sense, Ferrari were their closest opponents in 2022, with Mercedes trailing behind in third… but Ferrari had a good year in 2022 and Mercedes did not. It’s harder to visualise Ferrari making the big leap forward than it is to see Mercedes fixing their issues.
Part of that comes from the clear signs Mercedes were making progress last year; that maybe they were getting on top of the early season problems that led to Lewis Hamilton calling the W13 ‘undriveable’. In the second half of the season, they outscored Ferrari, and looked like the class of the field at Interlagos with a one-two finish.
This, perhaps, is why Oracle Red Bull Racing’s Helmut Marko stated before Christmas that he expected Mercedes to be his team’s closest challenger in ’23 – unless the good doctor was simply amusing himself at the expense of Maranello... or perhaps at the expense of Brackley.
Cheerleading a Mercedes recovery places quite a burden of expectation on the team, and in his pre-season comments, TeamPrincipal Toto Wolff has indulged in some verbal gymnastics in an effort to both express confidence in the new car, while downplaying that expectation. The phrase that caught the eye in Wolff’s initial musing was the description of the W14 as: “A car that will eventually be competitive enough to fight at the very front of the grid.”
Wolff later confessed that use of the word ‘eventually’ had occupied his thoughts for some time. “On the one side, you want to say we will be competitive; on the other side, you need to stay humble and realistic. I hope we will be competitive … we will be competitive – we just don’t know when. After last year, we need to remind ourselves we were quite far off for a long time in the season.”
Part of Wolff’s caution undoubtedly comes from the mercurial nature of his team’s performance in the second half of 2022. Yes, there was an improvement – but the robustness of that improvement was difficult to quantify as it ebbed and flowed from circuit to circuit, right up to the final double-header of the season: from the high of George Russell’s maiden victory in Sao Paulo, to a meek finale seven days later in Abu Dhabi, where neither driver seriously threatened the podium.
Many teams suffered this sort of inconsistency in the first year of the new regs, though it’s rare to see it quite so pronounced for a front-runner. Technical director Mike Elliott addressed this head-on at the launch of the W14: “We made some progress towards the end of the season but we knew it was going to be a big winter. We knew we needed to dig deep… [It took] a huge amount of intellectual thought to try and get the design that we’ve got to.”
The W14 was unveiled on February 15, late enough in launch season for it to be apparent Mercedes are resisting the rush to homogeneity. While Wolff hinted at changes in the pipeline, for the moment, amid a lot of intricate new detailing, the most striking feature of the W14 remains the ‘zero-pod’ concept, with the flanks of the car pulled in and the side-impact structures exposed.
“The core DNA is still the same,” conceded Elliott, “but there’s quite significant changes in the bodywork. We’ve looked at every single area and said: how can we improve what we’ve done? We looked at the problems we had last year and said: how do we guarantee – as best we can – we don’t have those problems this year?”
Mercedes insist there was considerable ‘goodness’ in the architecture of the W13 that only needed to be unlocked – but also acknowledged that, within the current era of constrained budgets, limited testing and wind tunnel time, abandoning their design direction to start from scratch wasn’t an attractive option.
Effectively doubling-down on their original concept leaves them looking somewhat isolated as the rest of the grid begin to converge around something closer to the concept applied at Oracle Red Bull Racing.
The reason for this, and perhaps why the Milton Keynes outfit are such strong favourites for 2023, is that very little has changed in the technical regs since the cars last ran – with the caveat that, where there has been change, it would seem to favour Mercedes.
While George Russell’s win in Brazil was the team’s only on-track success of 2022, greater significance might be attached to their PR victory to address ‘porpoising’: the bone-jarring, headache-inducing cycle of compression and stall that had these low-slung, ground-effect cars, repeatedly bouncing off the track last year.
While every team suffered with bouncing, Mercedes seemed to suffer more than most, and thus the revised regs designed to moderate the effect – raising the floor edges by 15mm, combined with associated tweaks to the diffuser – should provide them with more aid.
Car set-up became a streamlined science in 2022 with the question of ride-height dominating every other consideration. Extracting pace was focused on how low each team could run their car. With the limits imposed by raising floor and fences, plus a beefed-up oscillation metric to monitor bouncing, tweaking set-up to extract performance should return to a more nuanced practice.
For every team, there’s a lot riding on how they adapt to what has the appearance of a relatively small change – albeit one with a lot going on beneath the surface.
“It’s all going to be in the details,” says Elliott. “It’s a lot of the bits that you can’t see, particularly under the floors. There’s going to be a lot of development. We’ve completely changed front and rear suspension, trying to help with the weight of the car, but also help with some of the handling.”
If Mercedes have managed to iron out their technical issues, attention is sure to turn to the drivers. The rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and George Russell was a charming amuse-bouche in 2022, with little to separate them on performance but also little relevance to their dynamic in a car that wasn’t often competitive.
If the new Mercedes is further up the grid, the scrap for fraternal dominance will be cast in a different light – and the number of column-inches that generates will be truly spectacular.
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