Stefan Johansson suspects Mercedes have brought back James Allison as technical director to help them better understand the overall package of the W14.
Mercedes recently announced a shake-up of their technical structure, re-appointing James Allison as technical director in a straight swap with Mike Elliott.
Allison had been technical director between 2017 and ’21, with Elliott taking over the role as Allison moved to the position of chief technical officer.
However, with the first two Mercedes cars of the revolutionary ground effect era proving less competitive than the team might have expected, Mercedes explained that Elliott instigated an internal review that led to the pair swapping roles.
The W14 has seen Mercedes stick with the ‘zero-pod’ concept that raised eyebrows when the 2022 W13 was first unveiled, with team boss Toto Wolff holding his hands up after this year’s season opener in Bahrain to admit the concept had taken the Brackley-based squad in the wrong direction.
With Allison back at the coalface of the day-to-day running of the team’s technical department, the question mark about whether the British engineer can help guide the team on an upward trajectory is one that can only be answered with the passage of time.
Stefan Johansson: The battle for Mercedes is getting into the right operating window
Former F1 racer and Le Mans winner Stefan Johansson believes the Mercedes cars could be properly fast, but the struggles to get them into their peak operating window is what’s holding them back from showing their full potential on a regular basis.
With the team having stuck with the concept for a second successive year, a design direction that Mercedes claimed showed huge potential in the wind tunnel prior to hitting the track, Johansson said he suspects Allison has been brought back to help widen the window.
“Obviously, when they launched the zero pod concept last year, I’m sure they believed that they had the magic bullet before the testing started, but they very quickly found out that they had a very serious porpoising problem, which probably stopped them finding out exactly what other issues the car had, until much later into the season” Johansson told PlanetF1.com in an exclusive interview.
“It does seem that, theoretically, the car is probably fantastic but the operating window seems to be so narrow that when they get it into that window where the car is happy and the drivers can actually get a good reading of the car, it’s right there, isn’t it?
“It’s fast, but to get it into that window seems incredibly difficult so I think that’s obviously one of the battles and maybe that’s just the nature of the beast with the design philosophy they chose to take.
“It’s way too difficult to get it into that window where it’s consistently right. That’s the impression I get.
“Having a one, two finish in Brazil at the end of last year may also have contributed to them choosing to follow the same concept for 2023 also, rather than abandoning and instead doing a more conventional design concept.
“I think that’s probably one of the reasons why Allison’s coming back again because he obviously has a massive amount of experience and may have a better feel for what the whole package should be like, especially now when they are two years into the new rules package and there is enough information across the pitlane to see what works and what doesn’t.
“I suspect there may also have been a few hurt egos along the way. It’s very hard for any designer to let go of an idea that they feel is brilliant, which I am sure their current concept is in theory, but it just does not work consistently in practical terms. We’ve seen this from almost all of the most brilliant designer throughout the history of the sport at some point or another.”
Stefan Johansson: James Allison, like Adrian Newey, is ‘a bit special’
While Red Bull’s Adrian Newey is the outright leader in terms of championship-winning designs, James Allison has played a crucial role in two of the sport’s most dominant F1 cars – the Ferrari F2004 and the Mercedes W11.
Having been part of two separate eras of F1 domination, Johansson believes Allison’s re-involvement with the W14 will have an effect once he finds his feet.
“In general terms, there are three guys in F1 that have had consistent success over the years. Allison is clearly one of them, together with Adrian Newey and Ross Brawn,” he said.
Pointing to the example of when Newey seemed to lose interest in F1 at the start of the hybrid era, when the chief technical officer went off and designed sailboats and hypercars before returning to oversee the F1 designs directly from 2019 with almost immediate effect, Johansson believes Allison could have a similar impact.
“A few years ago, Adrian went off and did boats and stuff as well. I think Red Bull went through a little bit of a weak patch as well, so I think all those guys are just a bit special in that it’s not just about theory all the time but they also have a great feel for will work or not and I think that’s what’s been missing,” he said.
But, regardless of that, Johansson reckons there’s no stopping Red Bull any time soon, such is their level of performance at the head of Formula 1.
“I actually said three years ago that we were witnessing the start of a 10-year domination of Red Bull, Verstappen, and Honda…or whatever shape the engine programme will take,” he said.
“They’re on a roll, they have the momentum and they have the complete package.
“They have all the key ingredients in the right places, and as long as they can keep the same key group of people together I think they will be very hard to beat. Max is getting better each year and I don’t think he’s close to his peak yet.”