Mercedes mystery: W15 third ground effect car to suffer failure

At Mercedes they planned a package of upgrades for Imola, but Toto Wolff is worried because the behavior of the single-seater changes suddenly even during the same weekend, so it is not easy to understand the problems that slow down its development.

After the first four races of the 2024 season, Mercedes’ W15 remains a mysterious object. Statements from the team, from the drivers to Toto Wolff, have alternated between moments of obvious concern and ones of cautious optimism, which has so far been belied by on-track judgments. It was the same in Suzuka, the weekend in which Lewis Hamilton made his debut after free practice talking about the best start of the season, only to find himself in a difficult position on Sunday in positions far from the podium. Mercedes returned from Japan with a disappointing performance (seventh and ninth place) and a total of only 34 points compared to 76 last year.
“We are now in our third season with this generation of single-seaters,” said Wolff. “And we have to admit that we have problems keeping up, we are still in the development phase.” The development, as Wolff understands, is not so much a technical upgrade (which will arrive at Imola), but a familiarization process with the single-seater, which is still open to construction.

At the four tracks where the W15 has been driven so far, the ratings have been mixed. It’s the worst possible scenario for the engineers: the car fell into a crisis in Saudi Arabia on the fast sections, and then confirmed itself in the Suzuki ‘esse’ on the same partials as Red Bull. But things change even during one race, in Suzuka after a memorable first stint, things gradually improved. “We need to understand why,” Wolff admitted. “There was a temperature difference of three degrees between the two stints, we don’t think that’s the reason.”

Racing boss Andrew Shovlin admitted that the difficulties in Suzuka were elsewhere: “We had problems in the slower corners, most of the gap in the race was in the chicane, and to date we do not have a full understanding of that problem, we hope to get answers in the coming couple of days.”

The moderate optimism that was seen on Hamilton’s face is related to the solution of one of the problems that bothered him the most in this early stage of the season. “The behavior of the car through this point of view was more constant. Between the rear and the front, the mechanical balance improved, which was good news for Lewis,” assured Wolff.

But even with the rear tires in correct working order, the lap times seen in the race were not as expected. This is where the correlation between what the engineers see in the wind tunnel and the track comes into play. Wolff talked about a major problem with downforce consistency, a problem that was already present last year but seems to have gotten stronger in W15.

“The weekend in Suzuka helped us understand that the car has a frame where it can be fast,” explained Shovlin. “But as soon as the wind or temperature changes, things change a lot.”

What Mercedes is doing is the job of getting to know the car that continues track after track, while the opponents at this point are clear about the advantages and disadvantages of their own design. There are also those who are convinced that if the pre-season tests had taken place in Barcelona (technical track), certain critical points would have appeared immediately that would have prevented the team from being taken by surprise.

The current situation also makes it difficult to know where the car’s development should be directed. Mercedes will present major upgrades during the race weekend in Imola, and the engineers hope to arrive at the first race in Europe with a better knowledge of the car. If not, the risk is to evaluate a new package in a confusing scenario.

“Forget about Max and Red Bull,” admitted Wolff. “Our goal now is to get back into the fight with McLaren and Ferrari. These are two teams that took a big step forward between the second half of 2023 and the start of this season. If I had to assess our situation from a purely sporting point of view, it is clear that we are not in a good position, but we have to go back to playing against our direct opponents, Ferrari and McLaren. I can guarantee that none of us will turn the page before 2026, we are and remain ambitious, I am ambitious as well as the whole team,” concluded Wolff.