Why Mercedes has gone too far with its 2024 F1 car

Twelve months ago, Mercedes abandoned the Formula 1 car concept with a major upgrade package introduced at the Monaco Grand Prix.

The notorious zero side legs have been eliminated in favor of a more traditional approach. However, a year later, Mercedes is still struggling. This is because by fixing his old problems, he has created some new ones.

That's why she not only came close to winning races, but also suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of one of her client teams.

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff described McLaren's turnaround over the past year – using the same engine – as a “fantastic recovery story”, turning it from podium finisher and grand prix winner.

But what about Wolf's team's less meteoric recovery story? Since McLaren has turned things around so spectacularly, why hasn't Mercedes?

Misleading side changes

When Mercedes made that very visible change at Monaco 2023, the focus from the outside world was inevitably on getting rid of those visibly empty sides.

But as the team has consistently said, this was not a major change. Instead, technical director James Allison pointed to the underfloor in particular – as well as the rear brake drums/ducts and front wing. There were also modifications to the front suspension to improve platform control.

It was all about putting Mercedes on the right path to having a car that could go low enough to generate the necessary downforce without running into bounce or porpoise problems.

The Mercedes W15 is the full realization of this change in direction. However, it is a solid fourth in 2024, both in terms of its constructors' championship position and its average pace – having recently taken a decisive lead over Aston Martin.

This at least proves that Alison was right that the side change didn't matter. But Mercedes is still a clear step behind the top three – Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren. While he was able to join those teams in Monaco, the previous weekend at the more traditional Imola was perhaps more representative.

As Lewis Hamilton said after his sixth-place finish at Imola, the race pace deficit was three or four tenths a lap – and he says that kind of lap time increase is “not within reach at the moment” for Mercedes.

However, using Imola as a case study, it is clear that Mercedes has made tangible progress over the years. Wolff referred to Mercedes' recent visit to Imola as horrific, with the huge rebound problems the team suffered in the early days of the current regulations in 2022 poorly exposed.

Mercedes is still suffering the effects of initially going in the wrong direction, but there are signs it is starting to catch up.

Progress – but not fast enough

Since its dramatic makeover 12 months ago, Mercedes has made progress in absolute terms, with its car generally faster than its predecessor.

At the six circuits that Formula 1 has visited so far in 2024 that were used last year, Mercedes has been quicker at five of them – excluding Miami.

However, in relative terms, it has actually declined quite a bit. After finishing last season averaging just over 0.5 percent off the pace, they are down just under 0.7 percent so far this year.

While last year's W14 was limited to the car's basic architecture, changes to the monocoque, gearbox and – most importantly – suspension design were expected to unlock greater development potential.

Despite the modest results, the steady progress being made with the car is evidence of greater potential – even if it's not fast enough to climb the rankings.

Alison believes that there are no longer many difficult points in the car that need to be changed. It is now just a matter of hard work and steady development to bring Mercedes back to respectability.

Where do the real gains come from?

The side skirts weren't the big change, although it's worth noting that removing them increased the chance of running airflow around the outside of the side skirts like other teams do.

Instead, when it comes to talking about concepts, it's more about the ride heights you envision the car riding at, how you achieve that and how you approach making it work across a wide range of cornering speeds and conditions.

With last year's car, Allison admitted it was designed to be a little higher by continuing with the concept of the 2022 car and underestimating the opportunity presented by adjustments to floor height regulations over the winter – which Mercedes had pushed for but then never fully exploited.

Mercedes has corrected that with this year's car and the larger anti-lift feature in the front suspension and anti-squat in the rear suspension, it's all about trying to make the car capable of lowering down to produce downforce without running into bounce or porpoise problems.

Promotions have been introduced steadily this season. In Miami, there was a modified front wing that featured a change in chord length as well as modifications to the floor edges.

Then, at Monaco, George Russell ran the only new front wing available. Both drivers will use this front wing, which Andrew Shovlin, head of trackside engineering, described as a “step in the right direction” in Montreal.

Just as ditching the zero sides for 2023 represented the abandonment of visually obvious innovation, the same goes for the front wing for 2024.

The new wing gets rid of the unique design that Mercedes presented at the beginning of the year. This attached the narrow upper cover of the front wing to the nose with a carbon fiber strip to meet regulations.

Doing this opens up cleaner airflow to the front of the floor. However, this is supposed to be at the expense of aerodynamic load at the front.

The changes to the front wing indicate the big problem that Mercedes still faces.

Struggles in slow corners

The biggest problem Mercedes has had recently has been rear stability in faster corners. Drivers complained constantly and fixing that was a priority, but Russell says this has led to overcompensation in this year's car.

Now that the car is better understood, it has proven its mettle at high speeds – after some problems at the start of the season – but the problem lies in turning the car into slower corners. As Hamilton says: “The slower you go, the less the car wants to turn.”

This is particularly worrying for Hamilton given that one of his strengths is his ability to brake incredibly late into slow corners while still turning the car quickly into the corner.

The result is a car that is strong in fast corners, but understeer in slow corners. If you change the setting to make slow cornering better, the Mercedes will lose some of its power in fast corners. That's why there's been a lot of talk about linking fast and slow parking performance.

To describe the problem, Wolff (borrowing a metaphor from Allison) uses the metaphor of a small quilt that's not big enough to cover you – you have to give up warmth at one end or the other – i.e. fast or slow corner performance.

The ongoing development program focuses on solving this problem. Alison believes significant progress will be made by the summer break.

At the moment, it is not about big transformations or magic bullets for Mercedes hoping to suddenly return to winning races and fighting for championships. Instead, it is about continuous and steady progress.

No more “zigzagging”

Wolff describes Mercedes' approach as no longer being about “zigzagging” in terms of development direction. This has led to repeated false dawns followed by stagnation.

But Wolff now says Mercedes has identified something fundamental that gives it confidence in the direction of continued development.

Encouragingly, this sentiment is no different from what McLaren team principal Andrea Stella expressed before last year's Austrian Grand Prix upgrade changed his team's level of performance.

Unlike McLaren, Mercedes is not expecting a sudden leap forward. But if he is really on the right track, continuous and steady development should gradually raise him to the front group. He's not there now, but he's not that far away.

Comparing Mercedes' performance with McLaren over the past year shows the relative performance – and how much of a difference a small gain can make.

Mercedes still has a lot to prove. It must prove that it can really sustain development and that it has finally built the basic understanding of ground effect machines required to be consistently successful.

But at least it is now in a place where what is needed is incremental development, not any major changes in direction.

Looking towards 2026

The progress Mercedes is making now is crucial if it wants to be in a strong position with new engine and chassis regulations in 2026.

The chassis rules are about to be finalised, and while aerodynamic testing on the 2026 cars will not be allowed until next January, all teams are already putting significant resources into other research and development.

New cars will continue to have powerful underground venturi floors, so all the knowledge being built now applies directly to 2026.

Paddock's gossip is that Mercedes is likely to be ahead of the curve when it comes to developing the power unit.

While there's still a long way to go and any comparisons don't mean much until the new cars hit the track, few doubt that Mercedes-AMG's high-performance engines will produce a competitive drive.

As Wolff says, Mercedes has as good an engine department as can be.

This is despite talk of a 'brain drain' at Mercedes, with Red Bull team principal Christian Horner recently claiming to have brought in 220 staff from Mercedes to run its engines.

Wolf responded by saying that the number of engineers taken was actually 19.

It is understood that the total number is slightly higher when taking into account non-engineering staff, but is significantly lower than the claimed 220 people.

Despite the public controversy, Mercedes is fully confident in Brixworth's ability to produce a high-quality engine.

The main question is whether this will be coupled with a car that offers nothing to its competitors. That's why the work being done now is so important in determining whether Mercedes can realistically return to the front in 2026.


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