Rarely outside of a season-opening meeting does Formula One engender such a febrile sense of anticipation as there has been around Mercedes in the buildup to this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix. Perhaps it was fated that it would be the streets of Monte Carlo hosting the team’s very public roll of the dice as they attempt to turn around this season and future endeavours. The stakes could not be higher.
At the start of the year there was optimism at the team. By the time the flag fell on the first race in Bahrain it had been laid waste. Way off the pace of the dominant Red Bull, whose successful interpretation of the 2022 regulation changes has delivered a car unbeaten this year, Mercedes’ team principal Toto Wolff’s blunt, honest reaction was indicative of how hard reality had hit.
Somewhat ashen-faced, he conceded they had followed the wrong design concept and would begin immediately on adopting a new philosophy to turn round their fortunes. The fruits of the process hit the track in Monaco this weekend in the “B-spec” of the Mercedes W14.
At the last round in Miami Lewis Hamilton said he was “counting the days” until the new model appeared but as he winds his way through Casino Square this weekend the seven-time champion does not believe that altering course mid-stream is a gamble.
“Last year we were a little bit lost in terms of how to fix the issue that we had,” he said in Monaco. “I feel like the team now have a north star, they know exactly where they need to go and we’re working on how to get there.”
Very cautious optimism was the reaction after the car’s first outing in practice at Monaco. Hamilton took third place in FP1, behind Carlos Sainz and Fernando Alonso. While in the afternoon running, Hamilton was in sixth place with Max Verstappen topping the timesheets.
The British driver however considered it a reasonable opening for the new car. “It’s not the place to ultimately test an upgrade but the car was generally feeling good,” he said. “Ultimately it’s a bit of a shame we weren’t as close as I hoped at the end of the session but definitely felt the improvements. We’ve just got to keep chipping away at it. Hopefully this gives us a platform to work on moving forwards.”
The changes are rooted in the aerodynamic philosophy of the car and have been focused on dropping the slim, “zero-sidepod” concept the team had adopted, alongside revisions to the front suspension and the floor. Primarily the intent is to make a more stable platform that performs consistently as expected, most importantly by improving downforce and grip by being able to run lower to the track and better channeling the airflow under the car as Red Bull have managed in mastering the ground-effect aero of the new regulations.
It should be noted that Mercedes cannot simply copy Red Bull, the aerodynamics are too complex and rarefied to do so without employing a correct underlying design philosophy. To that longer-term end they have not wasted time with the leadership team reshuffled and James Allison, the architect of the championship-winning Mercedes cars of 2018 to 2020 returning to replace Mike Elliott as technical director.
Yet his task is of a different scope now, with time pressure, a budget cap and limitations of aspects such as the gearbox design already fixed and homologated for the season to deal with. Expectations are understandably being managed. Wolff has warned not to expect a silver bullet, cautiously anticipating “the first step in a new development direction”.
Regardless at very least there will be an indication of whether this is a promising front foot endeavour or another faltering stumble but it may not be immediately obvious. The Mercedes trackside engineering director, Andrew Shovlin, has emphasised they are most interested in confirmation that they are at least on the right track.
“We are not just looking to bring a lap time update,” he said. “We are looking to head off in a different development direction. One that we think gives us a better chance in the long term of being able to challenge for race wins and world championships.”
There are caveats too in Monaco, which is far from ideal to assess the goal. The new car was intended to make its debut at the last round in Imola, a traditional circuit but with the race there cancelled, Monaco it is. Monte Carlo’s street circuit requires maximum downforce, with little concern for drag, while the setup is compromised to compensate for the bumps and camber of the track, meaning a higher ride height, which is not the direction Mercedes is interested in investigating with their new design.
Hamilton conceded that they might have to wait until the next round in Spain to really gauge the performance but he knows, as do Mercedes, that as a driver with an absolutely innate feel for a car he will understand instinctively whether there are legs in the great leap forward.
Red Bull are gone but realistically Mercedes will be targeting surpassing Aston Martin and Ferrari this season to build the platform to compete again for the title in 2024. At Monaco they will play their hand.