The Mercedes gamble as big questions surround all-new W15 challenger

Sam Cooper
Toto Wolff in the paddock.

Toto Wolff has plenty own his to-do list for 2024.

For anyone paying attention to Mercedes so far in 2024, they will have noticed a more muted way of doing things.

A contract extension for Toto Wolff was announced via an exclusive interview rather than a press release and the W15 will be unveiled at Silverstone, with no interview slots allocated for the three main faces of the team.

It gives off the impression of a heads down, time to work approach and with the W15 set to be radically different, Mercedes are betting it all on the new design.

Mercedes face third-season tipping point

If one season can be seen as a blip and a second explained as the aftermath of that, it is the third year when bad form becomes a pattern.

2022 saw a nosedive in the performance of Mercedes who went from dominating to disappointed with a W13 that was not as ingenious as they may have hoped.

The Sao Paulo victory gave them the false confidence that they were onto something but the first few laps of 2023 confirmed their mistake.

Mercedes did, in part, go back to the drawing board with a B-spec car first unveiled in Monaco but the nature of the cost cap always meant it was going to be a sticking plaster rather than a permanent fix.

The team recognised this and come the summer break, focus was put on the W15.

But a lot rests on the W15 and so far the messages coming out of Brackley have been positive.

Wolff revealed that Mercedes’ simulator driver Anthony Davidson said the car “felt like a car for the first time in two years” and the team boss was confident it would be the vehicle to power Lewis Hamilton back into title contention.

But saying it is one thing and producing a quick car on track is another, which is why Mercedes hope their staff reshuffle will pay dividends in the new season.

Mercedes’ staff shuffle set to pay off?

James Allison may not be in the spotlight as much as Hamilton and Wolff, but the British designer has been just as influential on the Silver Arrows’ success.

Allison arrived at Mercedes in 2017 after a second stint at Ferrari and set about creating a car that would continue to keep the opposition at arm’s length.

He was the technical director for what many would say is the finest creation in Mercedes’ history, the W11, but in 2021, he stepped away from the front line to the wider-reaching role of chief technical officer.

In his place came Mike Elliott and the first car designed under his watch? The W13.

With the W14 failing to significantly improve, Mercedes opted to switch the senior roles with Allison returning to the F1 environment in April 2023 but there was little he could do to resurrect that season.

That means the 2024 car will be the first designed fully under Allison’s watch since the W12, the last competitive Mercedes.

If rivals McLaren have been praised for their recruitment of two senior staffers, Allison’s return to the fold may be the signing of the season instead.

Stepping into the great unknown poses its own risks

Allison is at the front of the line as Mercedes take a step into what is relatively unknown for them.

Unlike Red Bull who have had two years of data to perfect their design, Mercedes have ripped up the blueprint and started again.

Of course, wind tunnel and simulator data eases the burden but as we saw in 2022, what a computer says does not always correlate to what happens on track.

From the outside looking in, it appears if Mercedes are in a make or break situation when it comes to the new design.

On one side it could work perfectly and have them challenging once again but there is the very real risk that the W15 becomes just as much of a problem child as its predecessors.

But it is not just the design that is changing but rather how Mercedes go about their design, as explained by Allison.

“To the mind of a designer or a performance person in F1, concept is actually nothing to do with the car,” he told Sky Sports F1.

“It’s about a process by which you decide what good looks like, and what bad looks like. It’s your methodology for sort of sieving out all the many, many things you might put on the car and finding only the ones that you really think are going to add lap time, it’s method. The car itself is just the output of that method.

“So when you talk to us about concept, we’re hearing, ‘What, you think our wind-tunnel weighting system wasn’t right?’ And we’ve changed that, or our way of meshing in CFD was wrong and we’ve changed the concept of that.

“That’s what concept means to us and the car just pops out at the far side of that when we apply that process and that concept.

“So, of course the last two years have required us to adjust our approach and our methodology, our concept, if you will, and as a result of that the hardware that pops out the far side of that, will necessarily be different hardware, because it’s defined by different decisions and different weightings of what’s important and what isn’t.”

Can Lewis Hamilton return to the pinnacle?

2024 is not just about the team as an organisation, but also the drivers with both facing questions.

At the forefront of those is what happens to Lewis Hamilton. Heading into 2022, a win drought of two years would have seemed impossible for a driver who had previously finished first on 103 occasions but that is the reality facing the seven-time World Champion.

Winning a title has also never been harder. Max Verstappen and Red Bull have created the rare car/driver synergy not seen since Hamilton and Mercedes and Michael Schumacher and Ferrari before that and there is every indication that the Dutchman will only improve in 2024.

And then there is the age aspect. Hamilton turned 39 this month and if he were to win this year’s title, he would be the oldest champion since Juan Manuel Fangio in 1951.

Of course, we have seen drivers performing at a high level later and later – see Fernando Alonso – but with two years without a win, that question as to whether Hamilton still has it is a valid one.

For Wolff, there is only one answer.

“Clearly yes, and I emphasise that strongly,” Wolff insisted when asked by La Gazzetta dello Sport if Hamilton can still win another title.

“There is a reason why Lewis has broken all records and won seven World Championships: because his skill is on a higher level. If we give him a good car that he can trust, he can get back in front of everyone.”

Hamilton is looking for what will possibly be the final success of his glittering career and a title win in 2024 would go down as his finest achievement.

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Is George Russell a Nico Rosberg or a Valtteri Bottas?

Before George Russell arrived at Mercedes in 2022, there was excitement to see how a perceived tougher test for Hamilton would perform.

That is not to say Valtteri Bottas was a slouch but in their 99 races together, the Finn finished ahead of Hamilon on just 25 occasions.

Russell, then, was something new and in 2022, it looked as if some fans had got their wish.

The young Brit finished 35 points clear of Hamilton, securing the team’s only win, but 2023 was a stumbling block in his progress.

The nature of the 2023 season suggested that the reason Russell excelled in 2022 was his Williams-taught experience of making the most out of a poor car. When that car improved ever so slightly in 2023, Hamilton took control.

It was a theme not lost on Russell who admitted to a difficult year but the question now is: which of 2022 and 2023 were truly representative of Russell?

It was telling in the quotes given by Wolff that he championed Hamilton as their best chance of success but 2024 is a chance for Russell, whom Wolff gave a big vote of confidence to as well, to prove that he is more than just an able team-mate.

The importance of 2024 for Mercedes

In the 14-year history of Mercedes’ return to the grid, the 2024 season can be seen as one of the most important.

Aside from Ferrari, no team on the grid is garnered to be in the title contention conversation and Formula 1 has a short memory.

Eight conducive titles begins to mean less and less to your credentials the further in the rear view mirror it gets and that is a problem Mercedes find themselves facing.

Staying as a consistent title threat of any sport is incredibly hard and for Mercedes to remain in that top bracket, their performance simply has to improve in the year to come.

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