Damon Hill’s ‘billion dollar question’ for Mercedes as teams struggle with ‘fickle cars’

Michelle Foster
Fernando Alonso racing against Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, up the inside. Bahrain March 2023

Neither Mercedes nor Aston Martin have managed to get a march on Red Bull.

After a weekend in which Mercedes’ slump coincided with Aston Martin’s resurgence, it has been asked whether either team understands their car, and the way forward.

Mercedes arrived at the Interlagos circuit having shown podium-finishing pace at the United States and Mexican Grands Prix, the first two races with their updated floor.

Billed as a step forward, Lewis Hamilton hailed the upgrade for bringing performance to the car and confidence to the drivers.

Naomi Schiff: There’s something that they aren’t understanding there

As for Aston Martin, their run-up to Brazil had been torrid with the team suffering a two-month slump and scoring just 21 points in six races which cost them in the championship as they dropped from third to fifth.

The Silverstone team, Red Bull’s closest competitor in the early part of the season, admitted they’d got it “wrong” with their upgrades and brought a new package to the United States Grand Prix to resolve that.

But it was one that didn’t fire, resulting in the team bolting a combination of new and old parts onto the AMR23 for the Brazilian Grand Prix. That did the trick.

Aston Martin secured a first podium since the Dutch Grand Prix while Mercedes had a “horrible” time in their “miserable” W14.

It has the Sky Sports F1 podcast panel wondering if either team actually knows what’s going on with their car.

“Aston started the year incredibly strong and they were definitely the talking point of the first you know a handful of races, we were all super excited about what this means and will we see a victory from Fernando and there was a lot of talk about the team and a lot of positivity around it but they definitely took step backward as well,” said Naomi Schiff.

“So how much they really understand their car is a little bit up in the air.

“They did loads of development on the car and brought an update to Austin that they were not expecting to perform terribly so there are these moments where they’re seeing one thing in the simulations, they see one thing in the wind tunnel, but then putting it on the car, it’s reacting completely differently.

“So that’s why they ended up during parc fermé conditions deciding to remove all of those upgrades from the car [in Austin], going back to what they had before and that was working better.

“This weekend [Brazil], apparently they’ve taken a combination of what they’ve had before and some of the parts they took off in in Austin and made a combination and that potentially works for different tracks.

“It again goes down to how specific the set-up is to each circuit is what it seems like for quite a lot of the teams. And I guess it is somewhat a bit of a gamble whether you get that right or wrong.

“And I don’t think that although Mercedes seem to suffer from this quite regularly although recently it’s been better, but they aren’t the only ones suffering with this issue.

“And although there’s something that they aren’t understanding there, I think it’s quite a global issue across all the teams other than probably Red Bull.”

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Damon Hill and the ‘billion dollar question’ for Mercedes

Nearing the end of a season in which Mercedes’ progress has been erratic, Hamilton told the media after Brazil that he can’t wait to ditch the W14.

Last season in Brazil the team was 1-2 while this year Hamilton was the only one to finish the race but did so down in eighth place, a full minute behind race winner Max Verstappen.

He’s hoping Mercedes’ promised all-new W15 will deliver where the W13 and W14 did not.

But Hill wonders if they understand what’s wrong and whether they “really do have a clue about what to do” for next season.

“It’s got the point where do they understand what they’ve done wrong?” Hill said on the Sky Sports F1 podcast. “I think with the floor they made a good step forward. They brought a new floor for Austin and the car performed well.

“We have seen this before with other teams where they bought an upgrade, even McLaren, and it didn’t work to start with. And they kind of persisted. And there are other things…

“That’s what I mean about fickle. These gains they’re trying to get on the car, the correlation and the theory in the wind tunnel and the actual performance, it’s very difficult to get any kind of consistency of information so they’re working sometimes a little bit less precise area.

“Now, talking about Red Bull. There are two ways to tackle these problems.

“One is you spend, if you call it man hours, you can have more people, double the people working for the same amount of time and you’ll get there if they’re working to the right plan, you’ll get there before the other people.

“Or you’re going to have the same amount of people that are working for double the amount of time, as at Red Bull where they’ve not had to fix problems it doesn’t seem this year. They’ve been able to focus on next year.

“So they’re already months ahead of all the others who’ve been trying to get their current car to work. And that’s the only thing that doesn’t bode well for next year.

“Mercedes have had to find the direction first before they can start on next year’s car. And that’s the million dollar question or the billion dollar question or whatever it is now in F1 – whether or not they really do have a clue about what to do.

“I think Lewis will be asking Toto every day, ‘Are you sure you’ve got this right?’ Because he was very forceful in it. ‘I don’t believe in this current concept’ when they came in with the new regs. So anyway, this is Formula 1, that pressure is huge.”

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