Feature F1 Unlocked
TECH TUESDAY: How effective Mercedes' W14 developments have been in clawing back the deficit to Red Bull
The Mercedes W14 has received two significant upgrades this season, at Monaco and Spa respectively. How effective have they been in their attempts at clawing back the car’s big deficit to the Red Bull?
There was some surprise when the W14 was launched with a further refined version of the W13’s ‘zero pods’ bodywork, given that the 2022 car had been a disappointment for the multiple title-winning squad, winning only one race.
The W14 had been conceived in the belief that with a more appropriate rear suspension to eliminate the W13’s bouncing problem, the zero pods aerodynamic concept could be made fully competitive with the more classical-looking Red Bull. The first race of the season in Bahrain – where the fastest-qualifying Merc was 0.632s (0.7%) adrift of pole – revealed that to not be the case and already team boss Toto Wolff was talking frankly of how they had ‘got it wrong’ and that a heavy update was already in the planning.
That update, with its more defined sidepod, new floor, diffuser and front suspension made its first appearance in Monaco. Lewis Hamilton and George Russell reported that it felt better under braking and give them more confidence on corner entry.
A look at the accompanying chart suggests there was an improvement in competitiveness although we need to treat that with some caution as there is always a variation in competitiveness from track to track even without updates. Furthermore, although the Monaco performance was much more competitive than that of the previous race (in Miami), it was still further adrift of pole than the original car had been in Melbourne for race 3. But if we split the car’s performances between pre and post-Monaco, we do see a trend.
Taking only the dry qualifying sessions (hence no Canada or Belgium), the Mercedes was an average of 0.71% adrift of pole in the pre-Monaco races. In the post-Monaco races that deficit has reduced to 0.48%. That is against a Red Bull which has also been developed.
It is therefore factually correct to say the Mercedes has been more competitive since its Monaco upgrade. Furthermore, its run from Monaco to Hungary in that ‘phase 2’ specification was crowned by Hamilton’s pole in Budapest (though the car was not in any way competitive with the Red Bull in the race).
For Spa came the second major update, which we outlined here two weeks ago. The sidepod bodywork and radiator inlet shapes had all been extensively reworked once again.
Just as with the first update, it came at a track with a highly unusual layout, making its effectiveness difficult to assess. This was further complicated by qualifying being run on a wet but drying track where track positioning at the crucial time was much more important than any fine differences in car performance.
In the dry of the race Hamilton finished fourth behind Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari. Before stopping for new tyres near the end in order to take the extra point for fastest race lap, Hamilton had been around 30s behind Max Verstappen on a track where the Red Bull’s dominance was at its greatest. Furthermore, the bouncing problem was back.
So has the second update been less successful than the first? Chief technical officer Mike Elliott was quick to put that into perspective after Spa, saying: “We could see the bouncing in other cars too and I think some of it is in the nature of the circuit at Spa… the question we need to ask ourselves is how much is just the circuit and how much is to be found in set up because it was a weekend where we had no dry running before the race…
"Generally we have good tyre degradation and do better in the race than in qualifying but this weekend it was all about tyre degradation and to get the deg you want you have to have the balance in exactly the place you want it and for us [at Spa] we weren’t there and I think that was just as a result of not having got dry running in practice and we ended up with a car not as well balanced as some of our competitors.”
Although Mercedes has fielded a less than fully competitive car for the second year in succession, the development story of the W14’s 2023 season illustrates the team is open-minded about alternative concepts to that which underpinned the W14 and its predecessor. The learning from this will inform many of the key features of the 2024 car.
Technical director James Allison believes there is still lap time to be squeezed from the W14, even with its architecture compromised by being based around the original zero pods concept.
“Absolutely there are improvements that we would like to make on the current car that we know will also carry into next year so it doesn’t feel like sort of throwing good money after bad," he explained. "It feels like you’re investing in both seasons with those upgrades.”