Home non category Will the stripped-back W14 return Mercedes to the front?

Will the stripped-back W14 return Mercedes to the front?

Will the stripped-back W14 return Mercedes to the front?

When Mercedes’ run of eight consecutive constructors titles came to an end last year, Toto Wolff was adamant his team was not entering a long-term decline.

He said his management team had learnt from the toppling of previously dominant teams, such as Ferrari in the mid-2000s and Red Bull in the early 2010s, and the modern-day Mercedes outfit would not follow the same trajectory. Confident that the problems that had caused Mercedes’ issues in 2022 were now understood, Wolff believed F1 history would ultimately view the team’s 2022 season as a blip rather than a downturn.

Over the next nine months, the validity of that claim will be tested and the outcome will largely rely on the performance of the sleek new Mercedes W14 launched on Wednesday.

Mercedes continues on its own path

With its bare carbon-fibre bodywork and the continuation of Mercedes’ unique slimline sidepod design, the W14 is an attempt to cling on to the baby while pouring out the bathwater. However, as a number of midfield teams — including Mercedes’ engine customers McLaren, Aston Martin and Williams — have flocked in the direction of design concepts pioneered by Red Bull last year, Mercedes’ decision to continue on its own path is looking increasingly bold.

“I don’t believe we’ve ever been a team that copied other people,” Lewis Hamilton said on Wednesday following the launch of the W14. “We’ve always been of our own mind and always been a team that’s incredibly creative and innovative and like to do it our way. I think that’s worked in the past.

“You see some of the cars are converging to what Red Bull, perhaps, will look like, except for Ferrari. Last year we arrived and were like ‘damn our car looks quick’, and then it wasn’t with all the issues we had.

“Now we are coming into another season with a car that’s kind of similar looking in many respects, because a lot of the elements are difficult to change… but you’ve got to have confidence in the engineers, and I do.

“We’re sticking with it, we’re going with it, and I hope when we get in it has the characteristics that we’ve asked for.”

Mercedes is confident it has understood last year’s issues and has long been in a process to methodically rectify them. At the core of the problems was a significant variation between the downforce levels its simulations were showing and the often brutal reality of running the car on track.

In theory, last year’s W13 might have been a match for Red Bull, but in order to access the downforce promised by simulations at the factory, Mercedes had to run the car at an impossibly low ride height in the real world. Attempting to do so caused the car to bottom out against the track surface and triggered the bouncing — commonly known in F1 as porpoising — that plagued the opening rounds of Mercedes’ 2022 season.

Being unable to run the car at the ride height it was designed for meant the team had to compensate for the lost downforce from the floor of the car by fitting larger wings at the front and rear. That in turn increased the car’s drag level and curbed top speed, giving its two drivers a near insurmountable handicap in races.

It took multiple rounds for Mercedes to understand the porpoising issue, and when it did it was left with a car that required significant setup compromises to extract sub-optimal performance. Addressing the core of the issue during the season was such a vast task that it simply wasn’t affordable under F1’s budget cap, and so the focus switched to baking a more permanent fix in to the nascent W14.

The launch photos make clear that the team hasn’t completely abandoned some of the bodywork concepts of the W13, but the images only show the upper aerodynamic surfaces and not the floor of the car, which is where the vast majority of the team’s attention has been focused.

“When you look at the learning we had from last year and the tools we put together, hopefully we got all the metrics in the right place to understand what we need to do the car so it doesn’t bounce [this year],” technical director Mike Elliott said at the unveiling of the car.

“At times last year we were questioning ourselves and saying, ‘Have we made a major mistake and do we need to change what we are fundamentally doing?’

“But I think we knew that if we tear it all up and start again we are going to make a step backwards, so it’s about making those right decisions.

“Although we had problems with the car last year there was still a lot of goodness in the car and a lot of things that did work for us. So you have to be careful not to throw it all away and start again.”

One concept that survived the transition from W13 to W14 are the distinctive narrow sidepods, which remain unique to Mercedes this year. The solution turned heads when it was unveiled during testing in Bahrain last year and its distinctive look meant it was often unfairly blamed for Mercedes’ struggles early in the season. There has been some evolution of the concept from W13 to W14, while Wolff at even bigger changes to come with an update package early in the season.

“It is important to be bold in this sport and I am still proud of the solutions we put into the car last year,” Wolff said. “The narrow sidepod design is not something we believe was fundamentally the reason that we didn’t perform.

“There are no holy cows in our concept, but it’s not that we don’t want to follow anybody’s idea. We stayed with the narrow sidepod as it is, but you could well see some developments from now on which could come with upgrades.

“This is the first iteration and when we are going through the first few races before that’s going to change a little bit, but like Mike said in the launch, if you want to change a concept completely you are not aiming at one step back but probably 2 or 3 so that’s why we stayed where we are.

“I love the fact that we are bold, we stayed bold, and we are just continuing to follow what the science says for us.”

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the new Mercedes is its stripped-back paintwork. While the colour is a departure from Mercedes’ traditional silver, the all-black bodywork has a roundabout link to the team’s history as both the silver and black colours were arrived at by stripping back paint to hit a weight limit.

The origin of Mercedes’ famous silver liveries comes from the 1934 Eifel Grand Prix when the German manufacturer stripped its W25 single-seater of its white paint to hit a 750kg maximum weight limit. What was left was a bare aluminium racing car that went on to dominate the pre-war era of grand prix racing and ultimately create the legend of the Silver Arrows.

In the W14’s case, the lower sections of the car have been stripped of paint to reveal the black weave of the carbon fibre underneath. Again the solution is aimed at hitting a weight limit — albeit a minimum weight limit of 796kg in this case — and some black paint has been retained on the upper side of the monocoque and the upper part of the engine cover.

“We are on the weight limit what or we wanted to achieve and obviously when we looked at all the weight savings, everybody needed to make a commitment,” Wolff explained. “So it is really a performance issue”

“There is not tonnes of weight you can save on the paint but it shows the intent of what we do and the narrative is just right, not only because of the historical context of how the Silver Arrows were created but also that our attempt in painting the car back several years ago is still valid. So it all kind of made sense.”

The lengths to which the team has gone in the pursuit of weight reduction, combined with Wolff’s talk of early season upgrades, has raised the question of whether Mercedes is actually scrabbling to hit its performance targets for the start of the season. There’s still the wider question of whether last year’s issues are really 100 percent solved and it seems even the team won’t know the true answer until it hits the track in Bahrain testing next week.

“There are definitely improvements that we are sure are going to make the car faster,” George Russell said after driving the car for the first time at a shakedown at Silverstone. “The car is going to be lighter than what we saw last year, that is definite lap time, we know that.

“We have worked really well and hard on reducing the drag because we saw how much we were losing to Red Bull particularly last year, and we believe we have achieved that, so we should be faster in a straight-line as well.

“These are things that we know are going to be guaranteed performance, but as soon as you brake for a corner or go through a corner, the downforce needs to start working and we really don’t know how that is going to perform and tally up compared to Red Bull and Ferrari.”

Wolff insists the team has reached its performance targets over the winter, but stopped short of making bold predictions about Mercedes’ title chances until he sees what the W14 is up against in the opening rounds of the season.

“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,” he said. “I think humility is most important and we have always tried to be humble, especially after last year we need to remind ourselves we were quite a long way off for a large part of last season.

“We saw very positive comments from the other teams that we are going to be right there, but we need to prove that ourselves that we are taking the right decisions and I would like to have a fight in the front there, not only the top three teams but maybe one of the others can join us there. It would be good for Formula One and that’s what makes it so enjoyable.”

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