There was a period during its record streak of eight consecutive world championships from 2014 to 2021 that Mercedes seemed unbeatable.
Yet when new rules were introduced to Formula 1 last year, changing the car designs to provide better racing, Mercedes’ prospects strikingly changed. The team failed to adjust to the new rules as well as the Red Bull and Ferrari teams, leaving it unable to compete regularly for wins.
It was a day that Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, always knew would come.
“Every single year when we were successful, we discussed that eventually, we’re going to have a difficult one,” he said.
“There is no sports team in the world that won every single competition that they participated in. That moment came last year, and it was difficult.”
Mercedes ended the year third in the standings, winning just one race and finishing 244 points behind the champion team, Red Bull, which won 17 races. Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time world champion, went a full season without winning a race for the first time in his Formula 1 career.
The experience has prompted Hamilton to be more cautious about his chances going into his 11th season with Mercedes.
“I wouldn’t say I’m bullish like I was last year,” Hamilton said. “I would say just more cautious. I know that whatever we’re faced with, we have the best team to deal with whatever we come across.”
The core problem Mercedes faced last year was a phenomenon called porpoising, where the car bounces when reaching high speeds because of the airflow stalling when passing underneath the car. It was something all teams faced, but Mercedes struggled the most, even raising safety questions after Hamilton reported suffering back pain and headaches because of the bouncing.
But as Mercedes made changes to its car design midseason to solve the porpoising, more problems emerged. One of the biggest issues was the balance of the car going through corners, making it hard for the drivers to have confidence when pushing to the limit.
George Russell, Hamilton’s teammate, said he wanted “more consistency and a more predictable car” from Mercedes this season. “If you could choose a balance that you would least like to have, the W13 probably had it,” Russell said of last year’s car.
Hamilton had asked the team to focus on improving every element of the car, “from the tip of the back to the tip of the front.” He said the W13 “didn’t behave like a racing car should,” prompting a push for changes going into the new season. This included revised bodywork around the rear of the car, as well as completely new front and rear suspension designs.
But Mercedes did not want to undo all its work with last year’s car. The team did make big improvements toward the end of the season, allowing it to finish first and second at the penultimate race in Brazil, defeating Red Bull and Ferrari.
Mike Elliott, the team’s technical director, said there was “a lot of goodness in the car” that he wanted to carry over to 2023, particularly its reliability and consistent performance over long stints in races. “If we tear it all up and we start again, you’re going to start further backwards,” he warned.
Although many of the technical changes made for this year’s car are hidden underneath the bodywork, there was one very visible difference: the paint scheme or, in many places, the lack of one.
Weight was a big issue for teams under the new regulations. Because of improved safety requirements and heavier tires, many cars were above the minimum weight of 798 kilograms (1,759 pounds) throughout last year, costing them lap time.
To try to save weight, some teams removed paint from parts of their cars, exposing the black carbon fiber. But Mercedes took this to the extreme with its new car. The team switched its paint scheme from silver to black, so it could expose more carbon easily without affecting the overall livery design. Only the nose, cockpit and engine cover are painted black, blending in with the black carbon fiber elsewhere.
“We have tried to figure out where we can squeeze out every single gram,” Wolff said. “There is not tons of weight that you can save on the paint, but it shows the intent of what we do.” It also paid homage to the origin of Mercedes’ nickname as the Silver Arrow when white paint was scraped off its racecars in 1934 to meet the weight limit for a race, exposing the silver chassis.
Hamilton said that he felt glad that Mercedes’ weight problem had been taken seriously, and that while he preferred the black livery to silver, the color didn’t matter to him.
“It’s all-out for performance,” he said. “It’s not necessarily how it looks. It’s about how quick it goes.”
Hamilton will renew his bid for a record-breaking eighth drivers’ championship this year. While he hoped that Mercedes would be quick enough to compete with Red Bull and Ferrari from the first race, he wanted to reserve judgment until he drove on the track.
“It’s not until we get the car on the road, and we figure out what it’s doing and where the limitations are, that can we then steer the rudder and develop in that direction,” he said.
“But the great thing is we’ve got I think two strong drivers, so it’ll be clear straight away if there are issues. The guys understand the car much more to be able to deal with it. I’m excited.”
Max Verstappen, who won 15 races for Red Bull last year, expected Mercedes to pose a serious threat to his championship defense, which starts this Sunday in Bahrain.
“They will be our main rival, but also I think Ferrari will be strong,” he said. “Mercedes has shown, of course, over the last few years that they’ve always been really, really strong. They have a good group of people.”
But Wolff said Mercedes had to “prove that ourselves” and show the team had “taken the right decisions” over the winter to create a competitive fight for the championship.
“I would love to have a fight in the front there,” he said “That’s good for Formula 1. That’s what makes it so enjoyable.”