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Mercedes and Toto Wolff are facing their biggest challenge yet as they try to make sense of the unexpected decline in their car’s performance.

Unhappy, terrible, confusing, and unjustifiable. Toto Wolff, the leader of the Mercedes team, expressed that he was speechless in trying to explain his team’s performance at the São Paulo Grand Prix, but he managed to find the words and they were highly critical. Mercedes struggled at Interlagos, resulting in their worst showing of the season, but the significance of this extends beyond just Brazil.

In the last two races, in Austin and Mexico, the team had been very positive. Their latest significant improvement had been successful and suggested, according to Mercedes, that they were making progress in figuring out how to improve performance for next year’s car. However, in São Paulo, that confidence was shaken.

On Sunday, the W14 proved to be a stubborn and difficult car. It was sluggish on the straightaways, struggled through the corners, and caused excessive wear on the tires. Lewis Hamilton finished in eighth place, easily overtaken by Pierre Gasly’s Alpine and finishing a full minute behind the winner, Max Verstappen. Hamilton’s teammate, George Russell, was on track to be lapped by Verstappen before his car experienced engine trouble and had to retire.

In March, following the first race in Bahrain, a solemn Wolff admitted that the team had chosen the wrong design approach and would be making significant modifications during the season. They have since recognized that the car for next year will be crafted with a completely different approach.

The focus of this year’s model was to enhance its performance and contribute to Mercedes’ knowledge on how to optimize next year’s ride. However, the recent performance in Brazil calls into doubt if the team is successfully achieving this goal and if they will be able to compete next year.

Given the car’s lack of performance at Interlagos, a track where they were victorious last year, Mercedes must evaluate if there are any deficiencies in their comprehension and application of the current aerodynamic rules. This inconsistency does not bode well for a successful vehicle. On the other hand, Red Bull, with their exceptional aerodynamic package, excels in almost any conditions and at all tracks.

Max Verstappen celebrates by spraying champagne after winning the Brazilian grand prix.

That Mercedes remain at a loss at this stage of the season, with the new car long established, is clearly of concern. “It is baffling. From a really quick car, the best balanced and drivers happy, to a nightmare. How’s that even possible?” said Wolff. “What is it? What is it that’s not right?”

It was not expected that the improvements would transform the W14 from what Wolff had previously called “a difficult machine” into a winning car. However, there was optimism that it would at least establish a stable starting point for further enhancements. Unfortunately, it appears that this starting point is now behaving erratically and causing more harm than good.

The team that achieved eight constructors’ championships from 2014 to 2021 is struggling to understand their recent failures. However, their struggles were not sudden; they originated from the flawed car design they introduced in 2022. Despite making improvements throughout the season, the leadership at Mercedes remained convinced that they were on the right path and stuck with the same design for this year. It wasn’t until after the first race that Wolff admitted their mistake, but by then it was too late to change course.

The current season has been heavily influenced by that event, leading to the choice to completely restart in 2024. Mercedes team principal Wolff stated, “Essentially, our car will be completely different next year and Sunday’s results prove that it is the best decision.”

This could be considered the most difficult challenge that Mercedes has encountered since rejoining the sport in 2010, but there may be some potential for optimism. The current car has flaws and is not an ideal testing platform. Its abilities are impacted by these limitations and, as Wolff pointed out, their loss in Brazil was not due to ride height or wing settings, but rather fundamental mechanical issues. The team’s understanding of these issues for the upcoming year will determine their destiny.

Hamilton did not have a great weekend and he made it clear that he wants to move on from his car. Even though he is signed with Mercedes for two more years, he thinks Red Bull may not be caught. The seven-time champion admitted, “The Red Bull is so far ahead that they will probably dominate for the next few years.”

Hamilton has consistently shown determination and there is no sign of him being any less devoted to Mercedes. However, he also anticipates higher achievements in the upcoming year. His endurance has been greatly challenged in the last couple of years; if a situation like Brazil in 2024 were to occur again, it could push him to his limits.

Source: theguardian.com