After a difficult pre-season test, the German manufacturer cleaned up, dug deep, got to the bottom of the issues it was facing with the W13 and won the Brazilian Grand Prix later in the season.
Fast-forward now and an almost identical gap of six tenths – from 0.680 off pole in 2022 to 0.632 off pole this year – prompted an entirely different reaction.
Instead of pointing to a good base for Mercedes to move forward in the annual F1 development war, it has instead hoisted the white flag.
Within minutes of the end of qualifying and even before George Russell and Lewis Hamilton had sat down with the engineers, team principal Toto Wolff declared that title hopes were all but gone and a new car concept was needed.
“I don’t think this package will end up being competitive,” he said. “We’ve been doing our best all winter and now all we have to do is regroup and sit down with the engineers who are absolutely not dogmatic.
“There are no holy cows and we have to decide which development direction we want to take in order to be competitive and win races.”
F1 teams are usually keen to wait a few races before properly assessing how their cars stack up against the competition – especially as different circuits can juggle the competitive order quite a bit as strengths and weaknesses are revealed.
The fact that Wolff practically declared the game over with the W14 after just one qualifying session may seem quite strange. However, there are some solid reasons for his stance.
Mick Schumacher, Reserve Driver, Mercedes-AMG, with Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes-AMG
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
Most importantly, Mercedes knows it’s a completely different situation than last year when there was a mismatch between the W13’s potential and what it saw on the track.
It knew there was a lot of downforce somewhere deep in the quirks of its 2022 car that it just needed to extract without triggering porpoises.
This time the team is in a different place. The W14 performs exactly as the team expected, and it’s not like there are a lot of lap times that it knows can be unlocked later.
The team have admitted they are working on a fairly large update that could potentially be ready around the time of the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in mid-May, but that could only yield a few tenths.
That’s not the groundbreaking performance Mercedes needs to rival the might of Red Bull, Ferrari and now Aston Martin, who are also likely to make further improvements to their cars over the next few weeks.
As Wolff admitted on Saturday night, Mercedes hadn’t delivered a car that performed worse than expected. It’s just not good enough compared to the other cars.
“We have achieved our goals,” he said. “And that’s why we did our best.
“There comes that moment when the stopwatch comes out and that showed us that it just isn’t good enough. We don’t have enough downforce. And we have to wait until we find solutions to fix that.”
Aston Martin data point
Fernando Alonso, Aston Martin AMR23
Photo by: Steven Tee / Motorsport Images
Mercedes’ struggles were further exposed by the fact that customer team Aston Martin has skipped it in the pecking order.
But while the progress Aston Martin has made in delivering what is arguably the third fastest car is a blow, the pace of its rival Brackley will at least provide a wealth of answers as to where its profits must be coming from.
With Aston Martin sharing the same drive unit, gearbox and rear suspension as Mercedes, there are some clear answers as to where the W14 package is lacking.
Wolff said: “They gained two seconds in half a year and their car is half ours from the engine to the gearbox to the rear suspension. They use the same wind tunnel, so there are a lot of parallels. We just have to acknowledge that they did an excellent job.
“Whether it was mechanical or spring-loaded [weakness] then Aston Martin should have it too.
“The point is that we lose track at the high speed. It’s turns 5/6/7. This is pretty much the only place where we lose big chunks of time. We’re okay in the other corners, we’re okay on the straight.”
The big decision
George Russell, Mercedes F1 W14
Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Pictures
Regardless of the outcome of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Wolff insists the team must switch directions with his car.
He spoke in Bahrain of the need to tread “untested” paths in search of the kind of performance step it takes to get back on track.
That path almost certainly seems to mean tearing up the concept of the current Mercedes – which extends beyond its zero-pod concept and extends to its floor and diffuser design.
And with most of the grid changing course to pursue the Red Bull downwash solution looking dominant again, there seems little doubt that Mercedes too will have to swallow its pride and take a look.
The biggest dilemma for Mercedes will be whether to completely abandon all efforts on the current car to start with its new concept, or to try to work on both concepts in parallel.
Such a decision is particularly difficult in the cost-ceiling era, as the team likely cannot afford the kind of reaction that a completely overhauled B-Spec could elicit this season. It means it’ll have to stay with the W14 for a while.
Any new car concept will most likely be something for 2024, so the question is how soon will Mercedes stop working on the current car.
One scenario sources say the team is open to is abandoning work on the Imola upgrade and instead starting new concept work immediately. It would mean short-term pain but long-term gain.
Wolff suggests that it may be too early to commit to such a path, but he is aware that time is ticking.
“In any case, everyday life counts, and nowadays you lose,” he said. “It will be difficult to catch up. So now we have to make the right and precise decisions to steer the sails in the right direction.”