‘Ferrari, Mercedes F1 2023 cars showed no understanding of Red Bull’s secrets’

Oliver Harden
F1 most valuable team split screen. Ferrari

Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari cars in a split screen. June 2023.

The decisions of Ferrari and Mercedes to persevere with their unique car concepts for the F1 2023 season demonstrated a misunderstanding of the secrets behind Red Bull’s speed in 2022.

That is the belief of respected reporter Mark Hughes, who is hopeful that both teams will learn from their mistakes and be in a better position to challenge in 2024.

The implementation of F1’s ground effect rules in 2022 brought a range of unusual design solutions, with Mercedes’ zero-pod car and Ferrari’s so-called bathtub sidepods among the most striking.

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Despite winning races, both cars were firmly in the shadow of Red Bull’s RB18, which won all but five of the 22 races of last season as Max Verstappen eased to a second successive title.

With Red Bull’s dominance continuing into 2023, both Ferrari and Mercedes have made efforts to move more in the reigning Constructors’ Champions direction with Aston Martin and McLaren enjoying success with Red Bull-style designs.

Speaking via The Race podcast, Hughes believes that Ferrari and Mercedes are now in a better position to close the gap to Red Bull – but fears Verstappen’s team will continue to grow stronger.

He said: “Hopefully, it’s nothing more than the basic underpinnings of the Merc and the Ferrari not being conducive to the sort of layout that’s needed. At least you’d hope it’s that and that it’s not that they’ve simply not worked out what the development direction needs to be.

“The ’23 Aston was much more along Red Bull lines than those two cars and the McLaren has evolved towards that with its upgrades.

“Mercedes and Ferrari are still quite different and when you’re talking of tub shape, gearbox length, suspension pickup points, cockpit positioning – those hard-set things which can’t be changed until you do an all-new car – you don’t really know what you don’t know when comparing it to the car doing all the winning, so there’s still going to be question marks around them.

“Given that they’re starting from a significant way back, I think it’s a big ask for anyone to come up with a sure-fire Red Bull rival – [but] you never know.

“It surprised me that we’ve gone into the second season seeing Red Bull extend its advantage and it’s almost as if the other teams hadn’t fully grasped what the source of Red Bull’s advantage was in the first year of these regulations [in] 2022 and have just ploughed on in their own development direction without stopping to the smell of coffee and thinking: ‘Hang on, what are they doing?’

“And you’d hope that realisation has come now and they will be coming up with cars that reflect that next year, in which case we might see a sudden dissolving of that big gap that Red Bull suddenly has.

“But it’s a very complex technical challenge and it may well be that they retain that advantage.”

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Hughes likened Red Bull’s lasting advantage to that enjoyed by Lotus during the previous ground effect era in the 1970s, when rival teams took some time to uncover the secrets of Colin Chapman’s team.

He explained: “Red Bull are starting from a position further ahead and they could well be finding all sorts of further things out as they develop further, so do they stay one step ahead or do the others catch up?

“You see various patterns emerge when a regulation has a wholesale change like we had in 2022 and it usually does increase the gap in the first year, but you usually see a coming together subsequently – we’ve seen the opposite this time.

“[It] reminds me a little bit of the original ground effect revolution that Lotus did in ’77.

“You expected all the ’78 cars to be copies of that and they weren’t, there was only a couple, and it took until the following year before teams got their heads around exactly how that car derived its performance, so it’s maybe something more like that.”

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