When winning becomes a win of life, nothing is more painful than losing.
For almost 160 grands prix and eight seasons, Mercedes’ supremacy in Formula 1 was near-absolute. Any who dared to challenge their might were quickly humbled. Until Max Verstappen and Red Bull fought them to the brink of defeat in 2021.
The final laps of the deciding race “robbed Lewis Hamilton of a deserved world championship”, in the words of team principal Toto Wolff. Disgusted by the events which cost their driver an unparalleled eighth championship – while nonetheless acknowledging Verstappen as a worthy champion – Mercedes channelled that anger over the winter. The W13, the first of a bold new ground-effect era, was to be the most aggressive car Brackley had produced.
But that intense desire to remind the paddock who the best in the world truly was only made their eventual failure all the more painful.
The 2022 season was nothing short of a disaster for the former all-conquering Mercedes team. Rather than fighting to reclaim what Red Bull took from them, their radical design approach produced far more problems for their drivers than benefits it provided. Hamilton and new team mate George Russell rarely found themselves capable of competing for wins.
A long and frustrating year followed. The headaches of the drivers caused by their car’s brutal porpoising and stiff ride were matched only by the headaches of their factory staff from pouring over terabytes of race data searching for solutions. Despite their struggles, they were at least flattered by Ferrari’s own failures which allowed them to regularly stand on the podium.
But the autumn winds carried with them great progress for Mercedes. By season’s end, they held the consolation prize of a single race victory in Brazil and a car that was able to out-perform Ferrari’s at some tracks. Third place was not what the team had envisioned, but it was what Mercedes had to accept as they watched Verstappen and Red Bull produce a season more dominant than any Mercedes had enjoyed over the previous decade.
With the dawn of 2023 comes a new opportunity for Mercedes to re-establish themselves at the very front and renew their fierce rivalry with the new world champions. The team’s pride will not allow for another year of humiliating mediocrity. Fortunately, team principal Toto Wolff is confident that his team have learned the hard lessons that such a disappointing year can bring.
“I think we have understood how we fell back and where the shortcomings are, where we have gaps in understanding or had gaps in understanding and we’re working hard on putting a car on the ground that has addressed all of that,” Wolff said.
“But we will only see when starting testing whether we have unlocked the potential that we believe has always been in the car.”
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Mercedes have not forgotten how to win and neither, of course, has Hamilton. From being just 5.2 kilometres from reaching previously unscaled heights in 2021, F1’s most successful driver endured the most fruitless campaign of his career last year. No wins. Not even a pole position.
Hamilton was put to heavy development work in the early season last year, becoming the guinea pig for a myriad of experimental parts and settings as Mercedes threw darts at the board hoping to find a solution to their ails. It was natural to judge Hamilton as underperforming in those early rounds, especially as Russell built up a significant gap over him in the championship, but Hamilton’s form in the later races suggested that there may have been more to his early performances than met the eye.
Much like Verstappen or Charles Leclerc before him, Russell quickly established himself as a genuine contender in his first season at the front of the grid. From outscoring Hamilton as often as he did to his impressive qualifying pace, snatching pole out of nothing at the Hungaroring, Russell more than justified Wolff’s decision to choose him over Valtteri Bottas.
With no chance of pursuing championship challenges of their own, Hamilton and Russell had to work together to build their team back into contention. The one time the pair fought directly for a win, in Interlagos, Russell showed he will not be easily intimidated by the most decorated driver of all time filling his mirrors. How their dynamic may changed if they find themselves both in contention for victory more regularly in 2023 remains to be seen.
That is, if Mercedes can produce a winning car this year. They may be boosted by the FIA’s intervention on ride heights and minor regulation tinkering to curb porpoising, but even the progress they made over the course of last season was not enough for them to draw level with Red Bull. The scale of the challenge Mercedes face to overcome a formidable, well-disciplined Red Bull team should not be underestimated.
Mercedes is also undergoing change. Head of strategy James Vowles has departed to lead Williams into their new era, with extensive structural changes to personnel expected to follow. Some of its other talent have also migrated to rivals like Red Bull or Aston Martin. But Mercedes has instilled a strong team culture within its ranks and must have faith that their ‘next person up’ mentality will prove its worth.
It would be foolish to suggest that Mercedes will immediately follow up their worst season in a decade by leaping back up to being the dominant force in Formula 1 once more. But there are also no excuses for Mercedes not to be fighting for the championship in 2023. No team with the resources, staff, drivers and pedigree that Mercedes possess can have their sights on anything but the greatest prize.
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