Saturday, March 2, 2024

Upgrades Offer Mercedes Glimmer of Hope for Next Season

Mercedes may have lost its second place at last weekend’s United States Grand Prix due to excessive skid block wear on Lewis Hamilton’s car, but the race at Austin offered a glimmer of hope about its 2024 prospects.

Having seen Red Bull take a second successive constructors’ title with this season’s peerless RB19, Mercedes rolled out an upgrade that could inform the look of the W14’s successor.

It was encouraging, then, that Hamilton crossed the line within three seconds of race winner Max Verstappen and issued praise for the update package, despite being subsequently disqualified.

Mercedes put the DQ down to a combination of factors, but insisted the updates were not one of them. Technical director James Allison described the weekend as a ‘cast iron vote of confidence’ in the team’s aerodynamic direction, noting that the setup and track bumpiness impacted underfloor wear. This was exacerbated by Austin being a sprint race weekend which forced setup decisions to be locked in much earlier than during a normal Grand Prix.

Mercedes’ changes between Qatar and Austin were headlined by a redesigned floor. At surface level, this was observable in the shape of the floor’s leading edge. The outer flank of this frontal edge was higher than before, altering the airflow to the diffuser for greater downforce. Modifications to the edge wing architecture were measured using the analogue, but no less effective, method of attaching green woollen tufts.

Hamilton later said the upgrades increased his confidence behind the wheel of the W14, which is hugely important on a medium to high-downforce track like Austin.

In the first season of the current ground effect regulations, Mercedes worked on the W13 until the end of the 2022 season. This contributed to it sticking with its troublesome zero-sidepod philosophy for this year, until a major update at Monaco brought it closer in line with other designs on the grid.

Without the option of building a second car around a new chassis, it appears to have gradually morphed the W14 into a springboard for next year’s design. Mercedes’ experimentation of 2024 aero options with a handful of races to go means the team is positioning itself to be a competitive force from the outset, rather than playing catch up.

After the Austin race, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said: ‘This is a circuit where only a few races ago we wouldn’t have performed well because of the fast, sweeping corners.

‘The upgrade seems to have made the car happier in those areas and it is working well. Directionally, it’s a very good sign.’

Mercedes also expects to be strong at the next two races in Mexico and Brazil, while the new Las Vegas street circuit presents an unknown quantity.

‘We’ve got Mexico first – high altitude, thin air – where the asphalt is quite different to the ones we’ve just been at,’ said Allison.

‘As long as we can keep the car cool there in thin air, I think we’ll be pretty decent. [Brazil is] a track where all the things we’ve just plonked on the car should pay good dividends for us at the Interlagos track.

‘Vegas is going to be a bit of an adventure, something of a journey into the unknown. [It’s] a new track, so loads of opportunity to screw up there, but also opportunity to do well if you do your homework well and prepare nicely.

‘The particular challenge of Vegas is going to be temperature. It’s the desert, it’s a night-time race. The track and air temperature is going to be way colder than anything we’ve been used to running an F1 car at in recent seasons.’

With three races still to go, Mercedes has the chance to validate its upgrades in different conditions, giving an even better idea of the direction its 2024 underfloor could take.

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