Mercedes given ‘brutal’ assessment as Red Bull 2014 downfall comparison offered

Thomas Maher
George Russell, Mercedes, 2024 Chinese Grand Prix.

BBC F1 journalist Andrew Benson believes Mercedes won't be fighting for race wins again until, at least, 2026.

Mercedes are now a “million miles” away from where they used to be and lack understanding of why, according to BBC’s Andrew Benson.

Mercedes came home in sixth and ninth place in Shanghai with George Russell and Lewis Hamilton, respectively, having endured a difficult weekend despite Hamilton leading early on in Saturday’s Sprint race.

Andrew Benson: You need understanding to make yourself quick

Mercedes has had a difficult start to the 2024 F1 season, continuing in much the same vein as they have since the start of the ground-effect regulations introduced in 2022.

Team boss Toto Wolff has been open about the issues affecting the cars, with no correlation between what their data tells them should be happening on track and the reality of what actually happens.

Working hard to overcome this correlation issue has resulted in experimenting with setups, leading the team to try something different after the Sprint race ended on Saturday in China – only for Hamilton, in particular, to spiral down the field as he qualified 18th before racing on to ninth in the Grand Prix.

Mercedes claimed a dominant 1-2 finish the last time F1 raced in Shanghai, in 2019, and BBC F1 journalist Andrew Benson said it’s clear the team are currently treading water as they attempt to figure out what’s wrong.

“They are a million miles away from where they used to be, and where we’re used to them being,” he said on the BBC’s Chequered Flag podcast, discussing the form of the eight-time Constructors’ Champions.

“As a result, it’s not that big a surprise that the team – as a whole – they just a bit depressed about it.

“Because if you don’t know why you’re not quick, you can’t make yourself quick, because you need the answer. You need the understanding before you can make the progress.”

Put to him that Mercedes’ slipping from the top mirrors Red Bull’s struggles in 2014 and in the years afterward following the beginning of the hybrid era, Benson said there is one key difference that is more worrying for Mercedes.

“Red Bull’s car was still good,” he said.

“But what happened was Renault’s engine was nowhere near Mercedes at the start of the hybrid era.

“What’s different about Mercedes is that the Mercedes car has dropped off. Both of them are hard to fix.

“It’s brutal to say it but I think the reality for Mercedes, given we’re already coming towards the end of April so they’re already laying down the design for next year’s cars, is they will not be winning races before 2026 at the earliest, which is the new regulation change, which is chassis and engine.”

PlanetF1.com recommends

Chinese GP data debrief: Lando Norris dismantles a Red Bull 1-2

Chinese Grand Prix driver ratings: Super Norris in Shanghai

Andrew Benson: I’d be dumbstruck if James Allison is replaced

With Mercedes having to accept their position in the upper midfield and unable to currently join in the battle for victories, Benson said he doesn’t foresee any major changes in personnel as the team bids to push forward.

With James Allison, the designer responsible for some of Mercedes’ most dominant designs, returning to head the technical department midway through 2023 in a bid to change direction from the one introduced by Mike Elliott, Benson said Mercedes would have “lost their marbles” if they were to make changes there.

“It’s not like Toto is a football manager. He owns the team,” he said of the team boss.

“He’s a third owner, along with INEOS and Mercedes. Of course, INEOS and Mercedes could gang up and get rid of Toto.

“But Toto says that the issue is not a management issue, it is a technical understanding issue. He’s not designing the car. The issue is the car design.

“So that then passes the question on to the technical department, are they going to make changes there? Are they likely to replace James Allison as technical director?

“I’d be absolutely dumbstruck if they did, James Allison is incredibly, highly regarded. Most people would regard him as the second-best technical leader in F1 behind Adrian Newey.

“I think most people would think they’d lost their marbles if they got rid of Allison. The concern for them is that there’s something happening between their simulation tools and their wind tunnel, that’s not telling them the answers that people like Red Bull and McLaren and Ferrari are getting.

“That’s where the problems are. The question is, how do they find the answers while that’s going on? Bear in mind as well, at the moment, Aston Martin uses the same wind tunnel. They’re probably not using the same simulation software and everything but they are using the same wind tunnel.

“So it raises questions about whether Aston Martin is suffering as a result of that. Is it the wind tunnel, is it Mercedes software? Is it something else within the technical understanding? We don’t know the answers, because they don’t know the answers!”

Asked whether the situation is likely to improve through upgrades introduced through this season and next, ahead of the big chassis and engine regulation changes incoming for 2026, Benson said it all comes down to their understanding of what the car is doing.

“The moment when the car is in its most performing window, it’s really terrible to drive. They can make it nice to drive, but then it becomes slower,” he said.

“So that’s all to do with where they put the car in terms of its vertical ride height – lift it up, they can make it benign. But that loses aerodynamic downforce.

“Bring it down again, to get the downforce back and, suddenly, the balance is all over the place. It’s the same problem they’ve been having since the start of the ground effect regulations.

“They’re not understanding the relationship between the underbody of the car and the track, and the changes in ride height, and the way the car responds in yaw and pitch and roll – all of those complexities.

“They’re not getting a clear picture of how the airflow under the car is behaving in those situations. So, if you try and imagine that, and then think about the complexity of the airflow under the car with all those strakes, the diffuser, creating all these little sort of vortices going down the length of the car, all interacting with each other, going off in this direction and that direction – trying to get that together when you’re not understanding what’s happening there, it’s rocket science!”

Read Next: Ted Kravitz renews ‘built for Max Verstappen’ debate with Sergio Perez off the pace in China