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Mercedes’ Moment of Truth: Will Their Major Upgrade Deliver at Imola?



Mercedes Upgrade Imola 2023

The Mercedes Formula 1 team faces a critical juncture at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in Imola, where they plan to unveil a major upgrade package designed to transform their performance. Despite a difficult past year, the team’s principal Toto Wolff remains optimistic, asserting that these upgrades will set a “new normal” for the team. However, the question remains – will these upgrades deliver as expected?

The forthcoming Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola marks a significant milestone for the Mercedes Formula 1 squad, as they plan to debut a major upgrade package that, according to team principal Toto Wolff, will establish their “new normal”.

However, considering the difficulties they’ve faced in the previous year or so, is there any real certainty that it will perform as expected?

The team has announced plans for a modified front suspension, redesigned sidepods, and a new floor. The objective is to enhance car stability, bolster the mechanical foundation, and consequently maintain a lower stance consistently – thus generating more downforce. So, what are the implications of these modifications?

Mercedes Upgrade Imola 2023 F1

Earlier in the season, Mike Elliott, who was then serving as technical director, indicated that this upgrade would necessitate some changes beneath the car’s skin. There are also hints that Mercedes may adopt a more traditional design, but it will not entirely transition to a design akin to what other teams have. Not that Mercedes has to search far and wide for inspiration, given the proximity of Red Bull and Aston Martin.

Adding to the complexity, Elliott has now transitioned to the role of chief technical officer, with James Allison resuming his position as the technical director. This year has undoubtedly been a whirlwind of trials and transformations for Mercedes.

Engineering is a field focused on problem-solving, and multiple paths can lead to the same goal. Each person will want to forge their own path. If replication was straightforward and could guarantee exact detail, duplicating Red Bull’s design wouldn’t be a poor choice. However, constant imitation means you’re forever in a chase, hence the need to go beyond mere copying.


Success isn’t so much about the physical components; it’s more about the design philosophy and how it’s implemented. On a single-lap performance basis, Ferrari and Red Bull are neck and neck most weekends. Despite the stark visual differences in their cars, similar outcomes can be achieved with disparate concepts, as long as the underlying design philosophy is sound. This is crucial for extracting consistent performance from any package, especially over a race distance.

Mercedes’ new development path wasn’t initiated merely after the Bahrain race weekend. Indeed, Wolff called for a shift in direction after qualifying, but the groundwork had been laid well before that.

The emphasis on enhancing the mechanical platform is clear. Mercedes certainly aspires to operate the car lower like the Red Bull, but the real question is whether it can truly gain the control to achieve this. There isn’t much Mercedes can do about the rear suspension geometry given the current season’s homologation rules around gearbox design, and so far, there’s no discussion about changes in this area. This could potentially be a 2024 consideration.

What’s intriguing, or perhaps worrying, is that those at Mercedes repeatedly express their confusion over certain issues. They appear to be easily swayed by occasional good performance days, which is typical when the primary issue with a car is consistency.

To try to get a sense of where Mercedes stands, or where those at the helm believe it stands, let’s scrutinize Toto Wolff’s comments in Miami about the car’s issues and forthcoming alterations.

Toto Wolff : “The car is not a good car. I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the core problem; it’s the fundamental performance of the car, the lack of understanding of the car, it’s across all activities. The performance is simply really bad.”

It seems Toto may be borrowing from the motivational playbook of Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi. Nobody intentionally designs a flawed car, and this criticism may verge on being overly harsh.

Mercedes Upgrade Imola 2023 F1

Sometimes, it’s important to look beyond the current situation and understand the reasons behind it. Mercedes has enjoyed eight years of championship success, so it’s not accurate to suggest they don’t know how to construct a quality car. The W14 is far from a “really bad car”; it’s capable of leading races and securing podium finishes.

Mercedes needs to closely examine the tools it employs to endorse its development trajectory. These ground effect cars are quite different from their predecessors and demand a unique comprehension.

Another crucial point to bear in mind is that you often learn more when you’re trying to extricate yourself from difficulties than when you’re smoothly sailing with a two or three tenths of a second lead over your closest competition.

Toto Wolff : “What we’re aiming for with the upgrade is to establish a new baseline that removes doubts and variables from the equation, and say ‘this issue is now resolved given that we’ve moved to a different specification’. This applies, for example, to the front suspension.

“We’re also considering bodywork solutions that are more conventional than some. Naturally, this will alter the airflow, so for me, it’s almost like resetting to what would have been a good starting point a year ago, and then attempting to enhance the car’s performance. Currently, it’s simply a lack of comprehension.”

These ground effect cars derive more than half of their downforce from the underbody, leaving the front and rear wings to generate the remainder. It’s likely they do this more or less evenly, so in simple terms, 50% comes from the underbody, 25% from the rear wing, and 25% from the front wing.

The front wing’s performance may be slightly impacted by a lowered ride height, especially during braking.


The high-mounted rear wing is unaffected by ride height variations, but the underbody behaves entirely differently. The closer to the ground you can bring it, the more downforce it will produce. The more effectively you can seal the sides, the more downforce you’ll generate, so it’s easy to become overly excited about wind tunnel figures. However, in real-world conditions, it’s not feasible to run the car with the stiffness required to maintain such a low ride height.

Further complicating matters, I repeatedly hear that Mercedes wants to operate the car at a lower height. It’s not about how low you aim to run it, but rather how consistently you can maintain a low ride height. Reducing ride height variation without the need for an excessively stiff car is a step towards progress.

If I were involved, I would pay close attention to the centre of pressure of the underfloor. It wouldn’t astonish me if, in the pursuit of high downforce figures, the underfloor’s centre of pressure is too forward and shifts further forward with speed, which is precisely what you don’t want.

If that’s the case, the changing ground clearance of the underfloor with speed would result in the centre of pressure in that area moving unpredictably up and down the car, potentially creating a confusing and inconsistent experience for the driver.

This could also explain slower straight-line speed. Attempting to manage the forward shift of the centre of pressure at high speed means Mercedes may need to run more rear wing downforce to maintain rear-end stability at high velocities, and this extra downforce inevitably comes with additional drag.

Mercedes Upgrade Imola 2023 F1

This could also account for Mercedes employing a more flexible front wing flap assembly than any other team. While it evidently passes the FIA deflection tests, it’s frustrating given that the regulations explicitly forbid flexible bodywork, yet we can clearly see this flap retracting dramatically on TV.

In summary, you need the underfloor’s centre of pressure to remain as stable as possible throughout the car’s ride height range. Even a slight rearward shift of this centre of pressure with increased rake during braking can enhance rear-end stability.


If the underfloor’s centre of pressure moves forward with speed, that could explain why Mercedes has to run more rear wing downforce, and hence more drag, to instill confidence in the driver. This situation also necessitates dialing back the front wing to compensate. However, there’s nothing you can do to alter the drag level of the rear wing.

“The car should be making immediate progress. We know what we’ll deliver in terms of aerodynamic performance and hopefully also better behaviour of the car.” Toto Wolff

“Immediately” is a potent word; it takes time to optimize the car after incorporating enhancements.

What Mercedes demonstrated both last season and this season is that the capacity to simulate the performance of the base car and account for any changes in the aerodynamic platform’s characteristics doesn’t always correspond to what transpires on the track. Therefore, maximizing track running at Imola will be crucial.

“I don’t believe in miracles, but the car’s stability and predictability for the drivers is just sub-par. If we can address that and assist with a front suspension redesign, then that’s definitely a promising direction. This could unlock significantly more drivability and speed.” Toto Wolff

Any measures that can minimize the car’s motion with longitudinal load variations will improve the consistency of the underfloor and stabilize its centre of pressure shift.

Incorporating as much anti-dive as Red Bull has on the front suspension will dramatically alter the car’s characteristics under braking. Red Bull also employs a high proportion of anti-lift on its rear suspension. The two are interconnected.

If the rear continues to rise under braking, more load will transfer onto the front axle, and Mercedes will be attempting to counteract that with the anti-dive. It wouldn’t surprise me if at Imola we witness a Mercedes with smoke coming off the front tyres in the major braking zones.


Wolff: “Australian Grand Prix is a very front-limited track. On a good weekend with the current car in Melbourne, I wouldn’t find joy in a sixth-place finish if the car is still poor. It has such a narrow operating window that when it’s performing well, it can reach the podium, but if it’s performing poorly, it’s realistically P13 or P10 in terms of speed.”

The answer to some of the inconsistency lies in what Toto says. Australian Grand Prix is a front-limited track, and if the car has the characteristics I outlined earlier, it will perform better on front-limited tracks. It’s when rear stability is needed on corner entry that Mercedes encounters difficulties.

Wolff : “It’s worse than I ever thought it would be because we’re 12 months on from our last visit to Miami. The car is just marginally better; perhaps it’s not bouncing on the straight, but that’s the only improvement over last year. The car is not fast enough, and we don’t understand why. Our car has been P1/P2 in one session, then P6 and P13. This is simply not acceptable.

The signs have been apparent since its debut in 2022. Mercedes spent half a season in shock before realizing that the sweet spot simply wasn’t there. After accepting this, progress was made in the second half of the year, but some of that was likely due to technical directive 39, introduced for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa.

Then winter came. Mercedes didn’t make any real progress, and if anything, the problems got worse. Therefore, the tools used to approve developments are clearly not up to par for these ground effect cars’ ride-height characteristics.

One could easily blame windtunnel correlation, but given that Aston Martin uses the same windtunnel and its correlation seems fairly accurate, it wouldn’t be a legitimate excuse.

Toto Wolff : “We’re approaching this conservatively. We’re not trying to discover a miraculous solution that will instantly solve everything and make everyone happy. It will present challenges, there’s immediate performance available, but for me, the most important thing is that we’re eliminating variables.”


‘There is immediate performance available’. Where have I encountered that phrase before?

This claim needs to be substantiated over several weekends at various tracks. Progress isn’t like flipping a switch; it’s more akin to a dimmer that brightens each time you operate the car.

Mercedes evidently has faith in this change of course, but we should wait and see what Imola, Monaco, and Barcelona bring before making any judgments about the progress made.

After all, Mercedes has been confident before and been taken by surprise. Given the challenges of the past 15 months, the priority should be to demonstrate that the tools being used to guide development decision-making are now capable of determining the correct path for these ground effect cars.

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