The departure of Mike Elliott ahead of the 2023 Brazilian Grand Prix looked set to complete Mercedes‘ fall and rise from their post-2021 blues, but instead culminated in their “worst weekend in 13 years” according to team principal Toto Wolff.
After sending their best technical brain gallivanting on boats for the biggest regulation change in a generation, Mercedes have been in the wilderness for two seasons, but returned to the scene of their last F1 victory with high hopes having finished runner-up in the last two races.
Though Elliott doesn’t bear sole responsibility for Mercedes‘ downfall, the scale of the team’s slump in his reign as technical director has, if anything, been slightly diminished as many view Red Bull‘s rise to dominance as inevitable in retrospect.
It wasn’t meant to be like this – Mercedes were thought to have switched to development for 2022 earlier than Red Bull – but as the team looked to move on from the Elliott era, there was at least one more nasty surprise in store at Interlagos.
Wolff: Fundamental mechanical problem for Mercedes
Initially, things looked up for Mercedes in Brazil. George Russell was third in FP1 and even topped Q1, before Lewis Hamilton led a third-row lockout with plenty of reason to believe they could overhaul Aston Martin early on come race day.
But it turned out the dark skies in qualifying were just a taste of what was to come for the team, as their fortunes turned blacker than even the freakiest of storms come Sprint Saturday.
The team fell backwards in the sprint race with both drivers suffering paralytic tyre degradation, and Wolff was even asked post-grand prix whether Mercedes had considered switching to a pitlane start on Sunday in order to improve the setup.
“Yeah, we thought about that but we didn’t know fundamentally where we would’ve changed it because there’s a much bigger issue,” Wolff told the media. “When thinking about maximising points it was probably right to start like this.”
That’s arguably an even more damning indictment than the team’s solitary four-point haul from the grand prix – their joint-fifth-worst score since Hamilton joined the team in 2013 was the maximum they could’ve achieved.
Post-race, Hamilton and Russell both attributed some of their performance deficit to the high-drag setup gamble Mercedes took, but Wolff said the problem ran much deeper than that.
“We ran the car way too high, but that wasn’t the main reason for an absolute off weekend in terms of performance,” Wolff added. “There’s something fundamentally wrong mechanically, it’s not the rear wing and it’s not the car being slightly too high, that’s not the explanation for a total off-weekend.”
Where next for Mercedes?
There is light at the end of the tunnel though.
On paper, it looks like a massive fall from grace for Mercedes compared to 12 months ago, when Russell led a grand prix 1-2 in Sao Paolo and won the Sprint race.
However, Wolff found one very good reason to be cheerful. That Russell win in Interlagos cemented Mercedes‘ and Elliott‘s belief that their radical ‘zero sidepods’ concept could work.
They held that belief all through the winter and turned up to the season-opening 2023 Bahrain GP with an evolution of the W13, only to scrap the concept after qualifying and immediately consign another year to the waste bin.
But in stark contrast, last weekend at Interlagos has underlined why Mercedes must change for 2024, and Wolff is confident they can do just that.
“It’s a fundamentally different car next year and today proves that that is the right thing to do,” Wolff said. “It confirms that the trajectory of changing fundamentally is right.
“[Last year] we came out of an Interlagos weekend absolutely pumped, demolishing your competition Saturday and Sunday. And that was like, ‘are we doing the right thing by continuing with the chassis that we have’?
“And now it’s really clear, it’s been so horrible for the whole team and I wish we could start the new season and concentrate on the new car.”
It’s important to remember that two seasons shouldn’t define Elliott‘s career. He had a hand in all seven of Hamilton‘s championships and every Mercedes‘ success in the turbo-hybrid era, which still vastly outweighs their failures since 2022.
But while Interlagos wasn’t the full circle that Wolff hoped it’d be, it may have left one final gift from Elliott‘s doomed creation – the absolute certainty that only a total reset can get Mercedes back to fighting for championships.