How Does A Dominant F1 Team Lose Their Speed?

Originally from a video script from March 2023 for WTF1, Dre talks about how Mercedes fell from the best team in F1, to Bahrain 2023.

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Read time: 3 mins

It was a humbling reality check for Mercedes in Bahrain. 2021 marked their eighth straight Constructors Championship, the longest sustained run of dominance in F1 history. Just two years later, Lewis Hamilton, arguably the greatest F1 driver ever, is 51 seconds off Max Verstappen’s winning Red Bull. Team boss Toto Wolff described it as “One of my worst days in racing.” So how can a juggernaut of an F1 team have such a shocking fall from grace?

It’d be easy to pin all of this on the major 2022 regulation change, but remember, Mercedes survived one of those already in 2017, the “Shark Fin” aggressive aero-era. Mercedes adapted to the change, and won another 4 Drivers titles. The Mercedes W11 of 2020 is still fondly remembered by their fans as one of the most dominant F1 cars ever seen.

But the pandemic had a major impact on the cars when the world stopped turning in 2020. The new hybrids we now see were pushed back a year, and some of the aero was trimmed from the cars to save costs. From a development standpoint, 2021 was a year that wasn’t supposed to exist. And Mercedes, who’s development curve was only planned until 2020, were hurt. Combine that with Pirelli’s overloaded tyres due to how fast the cars were, plus Red Bull catching up on development thanks to having a less mature aero concept , and just like that, 2021 produced a title fight that Mercedes rivals’ eventually won… depending on who you ask. 

2022 gave birth to the regulations we now see today, and one of the key changes was the return of ground effect aero. Mercedes tried an outlandish concept of having next to no side pods and a new rear suspension layout that made the car too stiff and prone to excessive bouncing. On top of that, Mercedes’ once massive advantage – Their power units, wasn’t really an advantage anymore. Ferrari had just as much power, if not more, coming off the corners; Renault’s mid-range acceleration was excellent, and Honda, the former laughing stocks, had quickly caught up to the competition and were now giving Red Bull arguably the best power-unit in the field. 

There’s also been significant personnel changes behind the scenes in recent years. Technical director James Allison moved away from direct F1 involvement to front Ineos’ America’s Cup team (and is now understood to have come back into the F1 fold to help fix the W14). Engine guru Andy Cowell left to front Project Pitlane, F1 using their resources to build ventilators to help fight against COVID-19. Some key staff below them – including now Aston Martin aerodynamicist Eric Blandin and Alpine technical director Matt Harman – were poached. 

You may be thinking, if the current aero concept is that bad, why not just dump it and start over? Well, the sport’s changed post-pandemic. We now have a budget cap and restrictions on aero development depending on how high you finish in the Championship. 

You can’t just dump a huge concept anymore and spend a ton of money to try and fix the problem quickly. You have to either evolve your existing concept further, or sacrifice a large portion of your now limited resources to fix it. 

You can understand why Mercedes were reluctant to move away from their zero sidepods – their simulators were telling them that this concept was working! And according to some of the media, their strong finish to the end of 2022, including their 1-2 finish in Brazil, might have given them enough hope to not give up on their car so soon. 

But the shock of Mercedes’ heavy defeat to Red Bull in Bahrain last week might have been the final straw for Toto Wolff. During the weekend, Toto admitted that “I don’t think that this package is going to be competitive. We gave it our best go, and now we just need to all regroup, sit down with the engineers, and decide what is the development direction that we want to pursue in order to be competitive [enough] to win races.”

Mercedes aren’t the only team to fall so hard from the top of the pile in recent years. Red Bull became  the top-team they are today thanks to the 2009 rule change when slicks were brought back and the aero was changed to be more driver-orientated, catching out McLaren and Ferrari. Only for Red Bull themselves to be caught out when Renault developed a poor power-unit when the turbo-hybrid era started in 2014. It took the energy drink suppliers a good half decade to become consistent winners again. 

But what do you think has led to Mercedes’ downfall? Can Lewis Hamilton steer them back into competitiveness? Let us know in the comments, and if you liked the video, be sure to subscribe! Thanks for watching!

About the Author:

Dre Harrison

Leader of a Broadcast Journalism University project that went WAY out of hand. Even managed to parlay it into a WTF1 gig for a little while.

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