Have Mercedes made the call to stick with the zero-pod into 2023?

Michelle Foster
Lewis Hamilton sidepods clearly seen. Austin October 2022

After months of debate, if not almost an entire season, it seems Mercedes will stick with their zero-pod design with next year’s W14.

From bulging sidepods to cutaway ones, this year’s all-new ground effect aerodynamics are not the carbon copy designs that Ross Brawn predicted.

Instead the Formula 1 teams have pretty much all done something at least a little different, with Mercedes taking it to the extreme.

Arriving at the second pre-season test, the Brackley squad debuted a sidepod design that was quickly dubbed the zero-pod as there’s almost no bulk to them.

That caused problems of its own, the bodywork not able to help keep the floor stable, Lewis Hamilton and George Russell bouncing from track to track in the first part of the season.

The closer the team tried to run the car to the ground, the more bouncing they suffered with motorsport boss Toto Wolff admitting “we thought we could run the car on the deck, but you can’t”.

Mercedes can’t, but other teams – most notably championship winners Red Bull – can.

Mercedes lines up behind a Red Bull. Bahrain March 2022

It had many in the paddock wondering even halfway through the season if Mercedes would ditch the zero-pods but Wolff kept faith.

“What is the goodness of the concept and what is the badness of the concept?” he said.

“And that is a question you can only respond to yourself, but I would be asking ourselves to get an answer, because that’s the real correlation we have.

“And then, we’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror and say: ‘did we get it wrong or not?'”

It seems he has is answer, the Austrian revealing over the United States Grand Prix weekend that while next year’s car would have different “DNA” that doesn’t mean Mercedes are changing the bodywork.

“The DNA of the car is going to change for next year, that’s clear,” he said as per Autosport.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that our bodywork is going to look very different.

“But certainly what is part of the DNA of the car, the architecture of the car, will change for next year.”

The zero-pods, it seems, are here to stay.

There is an upside for Mercedes in all this as next season they’ll have more wind tunnel time to work on improving the car.

Third in the Constructors’ Championship, 53 points behind Ferrari with three races remaining, they’ll have more aerodynamic development time than Red Bull who won the Constructors’ and most likely more than Ferrari barring a miracle for Mercedes going hand-in-hand with a disaster for the Scuderia.

As of last year that is decided on a sliding scale with the best-placed team permitted less time than the other nine teams.

That means Mercedes are set to have 14 per cent more time than Red Bull, while last season it was Mercedes who had less than their rivals having won the 2021 teams’ trophy.

Toto Wolff, Mercedes, walks up the stairs. Canada, June 2022.

“From that point, it was a significant disadvantage so far because all of 2021, we were the leading team and then we won the Constructors’ Championship,” said Wolff.

“So all of the first half of 2022 we had 7 per cent less wind tunnel time than the 18 months before of Red Bull and much less than Ferrari. Now it swings the other way around.

“Compared to Red Bull, we’re going to have 14 per cent more if we finish third, so that over time is exactly what the regulations were designed for, to give us the potential to eke the advantage out, to claw it back.”

Mercedes are going to need very big claws to go with their very small sidepods.

Although the Brackley squad has made inroads of late, leaps forward are still being followed by steps back.

In Singapore Hamilton came the closest he’s been all season to taking pole position, 0.044s away from P1. A week later in Japan he was almost a full second down. In Austin the gap was six-tenths.

The W13 is not a qualifying car, it falls short in single-lap pace but it does show better in races over a longer distance.

But even then Mercedes are still chasing win number one of the season, the team facing a first season without a P1 since 2011.

And even if/when Mercedes do it right they still have to take on the might of Red Bull, the Milton Keynes squad in a purple patch of note.

With 15 wins from 19 races it is inconceivable to think they won’t be as strong next season.

But if Mercedes unlock the car’s potential and performance, 2023 could be a season of Red Bull’s wings versus Mercedes’ zero-pods.