Wolff sees a 2022 development dilemma for Mercedes after off-season step backwards

2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

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When the covers came off teams’ reworked cars for the 2021 F1 season a month ago, the same word was on the lips of many teams at the middle and rear of the grid: “Transition”.

F1 is in the final year of its current aerodynamic rules. Up and down the grid, teams know the more effort and resources they expend on their new cars for 2022 now, the better off they will be not just next year, but in subsequent seasons. Particularly as the new-for-2021 budget cap restricts what they can spend on both this year’s car and next.

That’s why so many teams went into the new year talking about “transition”. They are ready to switch their efforts from this season to next earlier than the others. The likes of Haas have taken it to extremes, producing a mildly reworked 2020 car to comply with the new rules and prioritising 2021 above everything else.

That’s all well and good if you’re not title contenders and have less to lose. And it’s no bad thing to turn up at the first race of the season with the outright fastest car, as Red Bull have done.

Analysis: F1 field closes up as Mercedes lose two seconds in four months
Showing up with the second fastest car presents an immediate headache. That’s the situation Mercedes have found themselves in. And as team principal, Toto Wolff has the biggest headache.

Clearly, a significant part of Mercedes problem is how the few aerodynamic rules introduced for this season appear to have hit teams with ‘low rake’ design philosophies harder than those with ‘high rake’ cars. That much is evident from the lap times – only the under-developed Haas has made a big step backwards than Mercedes and their Aston Martin mimics over the off-season.

Yesterday Lewis Hamilton was quick to claim Mercedes had been targeted by the rules change. “It’s no secret that the changes, of course they have been done to peg us back,” he said.

Officially the changes, which targeted the cars’ rear floor, brake ducts and diffuser, were done to reduce car performance in general, decrease the phenomenal loads they place upon their tyres and prevent a repeat of the blow-outs seen at last year’s British Grand Prix. Two of those three failures occured on Mercedes cars, so it’s hardly a surprise that the remedial action taken to address the problem should affect them more than others.

Wolff agrees there’s “definitely there’s a pattern” in the performance differences between low and high-rake cars this year. “The low rake cars seem to have lost more than the high rake cars.

“That is the situation and if we would say ‘we were just penalised by the regulation, that’s it’, we wouldn’t be racers and we wouldn’t be fighters. We just need to get that car in its sweet spot so it can combat with our competitors.”

For this weekend, the team has tried to make its car as benign as possible for Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas during the race, sparing them the snappy handling balance they encountered in testing and ensuring they come away from the first race of the season with a decent haul of points.

Wolff acknowledged the possibility the Bahrain circuit – still the only venue all teams have conducted meaningful running at – simply doesn’t suit the car very well. But he isn’t prepared to accept that as an excuse.

“I think the car is just not in a happy place. Bahrain wasn’t particularly great last year either. This is a track layout and asphalt that Red Bull seems to master better than us.

“But this is not at all an explanation that is acceptable. It’s just we need to do what we’ve done in the last years and understand the car and the tyres and optimise in every detail and then we will be back in the fight.”

Nor is the problem limited to Mercedes’ aerodynamics. Red Bull’s Honda power unit looks increasingly a match for them, and Mercedes encountered problems with their M12 ‘de-rating’ as they weren’t always able to harvest enough energy.

“We’re losing a little bit on the engine side in terms of de-rates,” Wolff explained. “We are not yet in a happy place with our energy recovery. But it’s not one single point where we could say this is a big gap.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Bahrain International Circuit, 2021
Hamilton: F1’s new aero rules were intended to ‘peg us back’
Whatever progress Mercedes can make with their power unit will carry over to next year’s car. But the aerodynamic problem is more of a headache because next year’s car is a clean-sheet design.

Surprisingly, Mercedes problem has come about despite them curtailing development of last year’s car earlier than their rivals, in order to prepare themselves for this season.

“Imagine if we started the 2021 car later,” Wolff reflected, “it would have been even worse.”

Last year Mercedes had the luxury of a healthy points lead early in the championship which allowed them to make that call. Now Wolff is caught on the horns of a dilemma: How much of the team’s now restricted development capacity can be spent on winning this year’s championship at the expense of next year and beyond?

“This whole concept of ‘let’s switch off early in order to get out of the blocks faster the following year’ is a tricky call,” he said.

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“I think you just need to optimise every season, and particularly with next year’s regulatory change it’s difficult to balance because we don’t want to lose this year, but we don’t want to lose next year either. And starting late for next year means that you could potentially run around behind the leaders for quite a while and not only a year. So it’s not clear yet.”

However he is clear that cutting their losses and giving up on the W12 is not an option. “You can’t sacrifice 2021 in the hope of having a more competitive race car and power unit next year, that’s not how it works.

“I think everybody will be balancing their resource between the 2021 car and the 2022 car, including the power units and we are the same. I guess at the moment we need to give some emphasis into this project because we are behind.”

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Bahrain International Circuit, 2021
Mercedes have three weeks to sort their car before Imola
If there is an up-side to the present situation for Mercedes, it is that the opening rounds on the 2021 F1 calendar are much less tightly compressed than last year. The disrupted 2020 schedule began with nine races in 11 weeks; after today’s race there’s three weeks until the next and then another fortnight before round three.

“That is a benefit indeed,” said Wolff. “Three weeks to digest data, to optimise where it can be optimised and if needed, take some other development direction on the hardware.”

This isn’t the first time Mercedes have come out of the blocks at a disadvantage. Ferrari won the opening races of 2017 and 2018; in the latter campaign it took Mercedes until round four to win a race.

But the twin challenges of the budget cap and the new regulations for next year will make it harder for the team to produce the development leaps we have seen in recent seasons. That said, they are already encouraged by the progress they have made since pre-season testing ended just two weeks ago.

“It’s the first race of the season and Red Bull has a quicker car in qualifying in Bahrain than us,” Wolff summarised. “I am proud of how we recovered from a test that was sub-optimum. So, yeah, the fight is on.”

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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10 comments on “Wolff sees a 2022 development dilemma for Mercedes after off-season step backwards”

  1. I think a lot of teams will face the quandary of how much effort to put into 2021 rather than 2022. Teams don’t want to build a disadvantage into their their 2022 cars which may continue for several years.

    Mclaren started 2009 with a terrible car after the efforts of 2008 (their 2009 season was actually immensely impressive the car went from worst to best if I recall correctly)

    It will be interesting to see which teams refocus, if Mercedes switch to 2022 it could take the pressure off of Red Bull. But it’s the “best of the rest” brigade who have the trickiest decision to make when it seems it may be so close between them!

    Maybe Haas have the right idea by using this year as a long test session for their rookies and will be the team to beat next year!

    1. Summer break will be the turning point, I guess. If Verstappen is ahead by a comfortable margin ( let’s say 50 or more points), Mercedes may switch to Constructors mode trying to make 2nd and 3rd in every race to win WCC, leaving Verstappen and RBR with the driver’s title.
      Win-win situation for everyone, including F1, FIA, Ross Brawn and Liberty.
      Hamilton is the only looser in that scenario.

  2. I so feel for Merc, they are so at a disadvantage, only swept 7 titles.

    1. You do know all of that is in the past.

  3. I am completely convinced Mercedes are playing a mindgame, trying to get Red Bull to invest resources in this season and ignore 2022. They will appear “slow” until mid-season, and then they will suddenly take off and win the championship. Red Bull will invest in 2021 car instead, because “we are almost winning!” and then they will ruin their changes for 2022 onwards. Toto has made several comments that such mindgames are the crux of F1 motorsport.

    1. Totally agree. People seem to have short memories (including Sky Sports news who seem to think this is the first time a team has had a faster car than the Mercedes. Clearly they missed the 2017/18/19 seasons!!!)

      Mercedes didn’t start any of those seasons that fantastically. Without LeClerc having such bad luck here two years ago and Vettel simply still badly affected by how 2018 ended for him, Mercedes would have been significantly behind them, before Barcelona – which always seems to be the time, when they deal their devastating hand

      Hamilton’s ‘worse’ in some respects. Even a rudimentary glass at his first third or all of his seasons, shows a driver who ‘grumbles’ his way through the first few races. Easily the time when he does the most moaning!! Yes he’ll win where he can – but seems to wake up around Silverstone and then accelerates (bad pun!!) away. In 2018, in what for me was his finest racing craft year, he didn’t even win a race until Baku

  4. The ultimate merc underdog position. Toto will enjoy this..

  5. Yes (@come-on-kubica)
    28th March 2021, 13:32

    I’ll say it again. Shut up Toto. They’ve probably already got a 2022 car ready.

  6. Let me get my tiny violin out.

  7. Let’s not forget that this is not just a “development” dilemma, regardless of whether it’s Mercedes, or RBR or any other team (Alpine?).

    It’s also a budget dilemma, something these teams at the top have never had to worry about before. They have to now decide just how much of their budget they want to use/waste on their 2021 campaign at the expense of developing a brand new concept car for 2022.

    Going to be interesting to see just who does what this year and whether that ends up translating to some kind of impact on 2022.

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