Mercedes endure dismal start in Bahrain – but is a ‘Plan B’ car even possible to salvage season?

Toto Wolff insists Mercedes need to change their approach already after falling behind Aston Martin at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix – yet at what point could a ‘Plan B’ car realistically come to fruition?

Kieran Jackson
Formula 1 Correspondent
Monday 06 March 2023 12:45 GMT
Can Mercedes challenge Red Bull in new F1 season? | You Ask The Questions

Never mind waiting for the first race of the Formula 1 season. A weekend of testing, three practice sessions and qualifying in Bahrain had told Toto Wolff everything he needed to know.

No sandbagging. No magic fix. No hiding. Mere hours into the 2023 campaign the Mercedes boss – once the unflappable executive titan of the sport – cut a despondent figure speaking to the press in the late hours on Saturday. Acknowledging that his team’s persistence, bordering on stubbornness, had been a mistake, he revealed a change of tack is already in the pipeline.

Speaking after George Russell and Lewis Hamilton qualified sixth and seventh respectively, the Austrian stated: “I don’t think that this package is going to be competitive eventually.

“We gave it our best go over the winter and now we all just need to regroup, sit down with the engineers, be totally non-dogmatic and ask what is the development direction we want to pursue in order to be able to win races.”

As sporting U-turns go, this is pretty seismic. Race weekend No 1 of 23: rip it up and start over.

24 hours later, after Hamilton came home fifth and Russell two spots further down, Mercedes are distinctively the fourth-strongest team on the grid. Not only are Red Bull a second-a-lap quicker as Max Verstappen spearheaded a comfortable one-two finish, Aston Martin have leapfrogged the midfield to come into contention.

Forget Mercedes: Lawrence Stroll’s project may have more legs than Ferrari too, as Fernando Alonso overtook both Hamilton and Carlos Sainz to claim a spot on the podium.

Yet Aston Martin’s emergence has not been lost on Wolff and, hidden beneath the words, a sense of embarrassment is palpable at Mercedes. After all, Aston’s engine, gearbox and rear suspension are all supplied by the Silver Arrows.

“I think it’s just radical,” Wolff noted about Aston’s AMR23 car. “They deserve to be where they are because they did a fantastic job.

Mercedes have finally decided to ditch their unique ‘zero-pod’ design
Mercedes have finally decided to ditch their unique ‘zero-pod’ design (Getty Images)

“The good news for us is there is a lot of Mercedes in there so we know exactly where to pinpoint it.”

What you have at Aston Martin is, in essence, a car half-influenced by Mercedes and the other half by Red Bull. While key components come from Brackley, the hiring of ex-Red Bull aerodynamicist Dan Fallows by Aston has brought Red Bull’s leading philosophy to the team, with their car distinctly similar in design to Adrian Newey’s Red Bull masterpiece. So much so that Sergio Perez joked after the race that there were in fact three Red Bulls on the podium.

So, where on earth do Mercedes go from here?

Hamilton, earlier in the week, derided the prospect of a ‘Plan B’ car, particularly in a time of a cost-cap set this yeat at £111m. Yet mere days later, that is exactly what was being proposed by Wolff, throwing down the gauntlet to a team of engineers who must be befuddled by their boss’ latest development claim.

Toto Wolff insists Mercedes now need to be “radical” with their car approach
Toto Wolff insists Mercedes now need to be “radical” with their car approach (PA Wire)

No annual leave on the horizon, that’s for sure. But, as Wolff puts it, is a “radical” change of design on the scale of a brand new machine even possible?

In short, yes. Even after one practice session in Bahrain, technical director Mike Elliott admitted a new sidepod project was in the works.

“Toto already said we’ve got a different bodywork coming,” Elliott said on Friday, pre-weekend reality check.

“We have got a very different sidepod that’s coming. But it takes time to bring that. It takes time to make the bits, it takes time to change the bits that go underneath the bodywork to git, so we’ll bring it as soon as we can.”

Aston Martin have leapfrogged Mercedes and claimed a podium in Bahrain
Aston Martin have leapfrogged Mercedes and claimed a podium in Bahrain (Getty Images)

The bigger question then remains, how long are we talking? An expected upgrade to the current car for Imola, race six in mid-May, was quashed by Wolff. It has to be more “radical” than that, he said.

But building an entirely new car altogether? Are we talking the summer – Silverstone perhaps? That’s race 10, surely too late to salvage their 2023 season?

Due to the cancellation of the Chinese Grand Prix, a four-week gap has opened up in April after just three races. Could we, therefore, see the “Plan B” car in action at race four in Baku?

A high-speed street circuit – with one of the longest-straights in the calendar and a track where maximum downforce is paramount – the Azerbaijan Grand Prix also throws up the first of six sprint weekends this season. Surely Jeddah in two weeks’ time – and Melbourne a fortnight later – is far too soon?

Heads will be bashed at Mercedes HQ in Brackley over the next fortnight ahead of Saudi. There is no disguising the vast scale of the task for the designers and mechanics now. Hamilton, Russell and Wolff have lost patience with the unique ‘zero-pod’ once and for all. Russell insisted, somewhat gloomily, post-race that Red Bull should win every grand prix this year.

An imaginative approach has not borne fruit. Mercedes’ next move will come to define their 2023 season, a matter of moments after it’s begun.

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