It took just one qualifying session of the 2023 season for Toto Wolff’s worst fears about Mercedes’ new Formula One car to be confirmed. George Russell’s best lap time was 0.632s off Max Verstappen’s pole position lap time — a huge gap as big as the one that it faced after the first qualifying session last year, and one that only got bigger the following day over the 57 laps of the Bahrain Grand Prix.
Worse still, over a single lap in qualifying and during Sunday’s race both Mercedes cars were beaten by the Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso, which features a Mercedes engine, a Mercedes gearbox and Mercedes rear suspension. By the end of the weekend, Wolff conceded his team would only be truly competitive again if it made radical changes to its car concept.
While Wolff’s comments seemed somewhat dramatic after just one session of qualifying, in truth there were concerns about the W14 around the time of its launch in mid-February. The car only completed 15km on its track debut at a soaking wet Silverstone due to gremlins in its hydraulics system, and even when it returned to the track for a further 100km the next day, the feedback from the drivers was overwhelmingly negative. There were some positives in that the design office had hit its downforce targets over the winter and the porpoising issues that had plagued the start of the 2022 season had been resolved, but the upcoming Bahrain preseason test offered a rude awakening on both fronts.
Not only had all teams solved the porpoising issue, Mercedes’ downforce targets now appeared to be woefully inadequate. Even by the most optimistic reading of the lap times from preseason testing, Mercedes’ main rivals Red Bull had a healthy margin over the W14 and, what’s more, the unwanted handling traits from the shakedown were proving difficult to iron out.
Hamilton says Mercedes didn’t listen to his concerns about 2023 car
Some progress was made with the car over testing, but fast forward one week later to the disappointment of a fifth and seventh place finish at the opening race — with Lewis Hamilton finishing over 50 seconds off race winner Verstappen — and Wolff delivered a brutal assessment of Mercedes’ position.
“If you look at where we were at the end of last season, I think we have almost doubled, if not tripled, the gap to Red Bull, and this is what we need to look at,” he said.
“Everything in between, Ferrari or Aston, that’s just a sideshow. With us, everything is bad.
“Maybe the single lap pace…
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