Mercedes face moment of truth as hopes hinge on critical Imola update W14 · RaceFans

It’s rare to hear a team principal use the word “poisonous” to describe their car’s handling. But that is exactly what Mercedes boss Toto Wolff did in Miami.

The team endured another tricky weekend at the Miami Grand Prix. Mercedes lead Friday’s practice 1-2 but then suffered a shock Q2 elimination on the Saturday for Lewis Hamilton

They were perhaps more encouraged by their race pace on Sunday. George Russell, who scraped through to the final part of qualifying by a mere 0.052s, brought his car home in a respectable fourth position after making up two places.

However Russell was 33 seconds off the winner Max Verstappen while Hamilton, sixth, was nearly a minute behind.

Toto Wolff, Mercedes team principal, Miami International Autodrome, 2023
Wolff called the team’s W14 chassis “poisonous”

Toto Wolff and the Mercedes technical team have been left scratching their heads since the start of last season. With the W14 they remained largely faithful to last year’s car concept, bar some adaptions for the 2023 floor rule tweaks, believing it still had a big upsides.

But they decided weeks ago a change in direction was needed. Their rollercoaster weekend in Miami was a further demonstration why: the team is sorely lacking consistency in the performance of its car.

“That’s the story of the car,” said Wolff after the race. “We have very good sessions like on Friday, then we had a very difficult qualifying and then on Sunday we have solid pace.

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“But solid pace is not where we want to be. And we need to understand why we are lacking that speed for a lap.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Miami International Autodrome, 2023
Hamilton missed Q3 in Miami

“So there is nothing to be relieved of by having a more decent Sunday because you’ve just got to start at the front and you’ve got to be able to manage all the Red Bulls and the other guys and that’s not the case yet.”

Mercedes is introducing a major update for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, which includes changes to the floor, front suspension and its distinctive sidepods. The revisions are eagerly awaited, but Wolff is at pains to stress they won’t immediately transform the team’s performance.

“We need to manage our own expectations because we’re bringing an update package that’s going to consist of new suspension parts and bodywork and some other things,” he said Wolff. “I have never in my 15 years in Formula 1 seen a silver bullet being introduced, where suddenly you unlock half a second of performance, so I very much doubt that this is going to happen here.

“What I’m looking forward is that we take certain variables off the table where we believe we could have introduced something that we don’t understand in the car and to go more to [of] a stable platform. Then we should see where the baseline is and what we can do from there.”

If they can achieve it, better platform control should allow the team to run the car lower, produce more downforce consistently and increase rear stability. On top of that, the team will hope to see greater long-term performance potential in the revised car.

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“We are chasing downforce and we’re trying to do the best possible job in terms of the mechanical platform,” Wolff explained. “We’re introducing a new bodywork and a new floor and doing a new front suspension. That’s a pretty large operation, large surgery, and it’s gonna be a lot of learning in the virtual world.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Baku City Circuit, 2023
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Baku City Circuit, 2023

Hamilton has particularly struggled to get the maximum out of the W14 compared to Russell. At the second round of the season in Saudi Arabia, Hamilton said his position in the car is compromising how he drives it. This is something the team may not be able to change before producing its next car this coming winter.

“We sit closer to the front wheels than all the other drivers,” he explained. “Our cockpit is too close to the front.

“When you’re driving, you feel like you’re sitting on the front wheels which is one of the worst feelings when you’re driving a car. What that does is it just really changes the attitude of the car and how you perceive its movement.

“It makes it harder to predict, compared to when you’re further back and you’re sitting closer, more centre. It’s just something I’ve really struggled with.”

Like all teams, Mercedes are also constrained by the cost cap in how significantly they can change their car. They cannot alter the monocoque or make comprehensive rear suspension changes because of the cost cap and homologation rules. All individual gearbox designs were all homologated at the same time as the power units and are locked in until 2025.

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Although Wolff is wary of letting expectations grow too high around the upgrade’s potential, he is confident the team will get a good read on how well they work over the coming trio of races at Imola, Monaco (often a ‘bogey circuit’ for the team) and the Circuit de Catalunya.

Mercedes Miami Grand Prix car updates, 2023
The W14 will look very different next week

“I think we know what we’re doing to the car,” he concluded. “Really quickly we will see whether that correlates with the virtual world. I think it’s good to have three races in a row to understand what’s actually happening and then it gives us maybe a little bit of a buffer later on to filter that and then take next decisions of what to do in terms of updates.

“Monaco between the two is something that it’s a single-lap issue and a tyre that comes into life quickly. None of that we do good. So let’s see where we are in Imola.”

This is much more than a routine upgrade for Mercedes: They hope it will prove to be the new foundation they can build on in order to finally get back on terms with Red Bull. But to do that they must first prove themselves against Aston Martin and Ferrari and show their upgrades have indeed “set the direction” they can follow to turn the W14 into a winner.

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