Mercedes boss Toto Wolff asserts that giving its drivers a car they have more confidence in is more important to its hopes of catching Red Bull than adding downforce.
The German outfit elected to persist with its zero sidepod concept for 2023, but its W14 car has failed to deliver the performance gains over the winter needed to challenge Red Bull, who have taken another giant step forward with an evolutionary version of its 2022 title-winning package.
Red Bull has won all four opening races in 2023, while Mercedes have only scooped a solitary podium and sit third in the Constructors’ standings behind engine customer Aston Martin.
Mercedes endured an arduous Azerbaijan Grand Prix, with lead driver Lewis Hamilton, unfortunate to drop five places after an ill-timed Safety Car, ending up behind both Ferraris and the Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso, as George Russell finished eighth.
Wolff has attributed overtaking proving incredibly difficult around the Baku City Circuit and the team heading down a “sub-optimum” set-up direction imposed on it by the interruption of the Sprint format as two primary factors behind its weekend troubles.
“There was very little overtaking even with a big pace difference,” he pointed out. “We headed into a sub-optimum set-up direction during FP1 and by the time we realised it was too late, and the car was in parc fermé conditions. It’s the same for everyone though under this format.
“The pace in free air today looked similar between ourselves, the Ferraris and the Aston Martins. It was hard to tell who was ultimately quicker though, because with the difficulty of overtaking you are stuck where you are stuck. The Red Bulls meanwhile sailed away into the sunset on merit.”
Both Mercedes drivers were unable to gain an extra position in the final stages, despite appearing to possess faster packages than the cars directly ahead of them.
Hamilton continuously found himself stuck in the wake of Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari while George Russell couldn’t fathom a way past Lance Stroll in the second Aston Martin.
The only car that was comfortably able to execute passes with the DRS open down the start-finish straight was Red Bull, with Max Verstappen possessing a speed advantage of 30 km/h when he passed polesitter Charles Leclerc for the race lead on Lap 4.
Verstappen would eventually be beaten to the race win by Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez, who was classified 21s clear of Leclerc’s Ferrari in third.
Although Red Bull proved to be untouchable in race trim once again in Baku, Wolff is remaining optimistic that Mercedes can catch up to the Milton-Keynes side this year.
But the Austrian chief insists that reducing the downforce deficit isn’t the only thing that will enable the Silver Arrows to erode the huge gap that currently exists to Red Bull.
“If we can get the platform right though, I think we can close that gap this year,” he proclaimed. “It’s not about adding points of downforce, more giving the drivers a car that they have confidence in.”
Although Mercedes’ 2023 car has not been as unpredictable as its volatile predecessor, the W14 has proven itself to be highly susceptible to wild performance swings depending on track characteristics.
The Silver Arrows went from qualifying second and third in Melbourne to wounding up fifth and 11th on the grid for last Sunday’s race in Azerbaijan.
Hamilton conceded after his fifth-place finish in Azerbaijan that he was “counting down the days” to the upgrade package Mercedes is planning to introduce for the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at the end of May.
Following on from Wolff’s comments in Bahrain that Mercedes had to accept its current car philosophy couldn’t yield the performance gains to be a winning one, it’s widely anticipated that at some stage this season the German side will adopt a new configuration of sidepod design.