A lot hangs on the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix weekend for Mercedes. Ever since preseason testing, the team has earmarked Imola as the date for a much-needed car upgrade and on Friday the revised W14 will roll out of the garage for the first time.
An upgrade package at the sixth round of the season was always intended to be part of the car's development plan, but gained added importance, and a new design direction, after the team's disappointing performance at the first race of the season in Bahrain. After finishing fifth and seventh in Sakhir, and over 50 seconds off race winner Max Verstappen, team boss Toto Wolff called for a "radical" rethink in the way the team pursues performance and the Imola upgrade is the first step in that new direction.
The upgraded parts are not expected to eliminate the gap to the front this weekend -- far from it -- but they should provide the foundations for future improvements that will chip away at Red Bull's advantage. The hope within Mercedes is that it will open up a new, more fruitful development direction that will ultimately allow the team to challenge for championships again in the coming years.
"If we go all the way back to the test and race in Bahrain, that was where we realised that we didn't have a package that was going to allow us to fight for a world championship," trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin explained. "If we continued on that same development direction, we wouldn't end up in a position where we felt we could challenge Red Bull.
"It was around that time that we took some decisions on how we develop the car, how the car works aerodynamically, and how we shape the characteristics of the car. In essence, how it is in terms of handling for the drivers to drive.
"What we are going to be bringing to the track in Imola is the first step of that work. This takes quite a long time to develop in the wind tunnel and you can't just do these things overnight.
"The Imola package represents the first steps in that direction. We are hoping to bring other updates later in the year.
"We do hope that it is quicker, we hope that it's better in terms of qualifying and race pace. The key thing though is that we are not just looking to bring a lap time update, we are looking to head off in a different development direction -- one that we think gives us a better chance in the long term of being able to challenge for race wins and world championships."
What's wrong with the W14?
Neither driver has been happy with the balance of the car this year and Wolff has often described the setup window as a "razor's edge". After qualifying in Miami, when Lewis Hamilton failed to make the cut for Q3, Wolff went even further with his criticism of the car's characteristics, calling it, among other things, "a nasty piece of work".
"I think that the car is not a nice car, not a good car, and I wouldn't even be able to point out where the issue is ... it's everywhere," he said. "The basis performance of the car, the lack of understanding of the car is through the whole span of activities. The performance is just really bad."
In Bahrain, Hamilton admitted he knew the team had problems from the moment he first drove the car during its shakedown at a soggy Silverstone in February. A lack of rear end stability in high-speed corners has been a common complaint from the drivers this year, which suggests the centre of aerodynamic pressure is too far forward. At the Australian Grand Prix, Hamilton went into further detail about the issues with the car's balance.
"We have generally a very strong front and not as good a rear as we'd hope to have," he said. "If you look at the Red Bulls, the places where they get on the power earlier and the speed they can carry through the corner is because they have a much stronger rear end.
"We have an aero characteristic that is just too far forwards. Rather than the rear being sat down as you begin to turn and come off the brakes and then moving forwards, we have one that is very forwards, very much on the nose early on and then shifts later on. So it's doing the opposite of what we want, and that's what we're trying to fix."
Hamilton also criticised the position of the cockpit on the W14, which is further forward than other cars thereby exacerbating the feeling of a lack of rear stability, but Mercedes is not able to address that issue without a completely new chassis, which will have to wait until 2024.
In Australia, the drivers briefly hit the sweet spot with the W14's setup, but that was on a track that suited the car and where setup compromises weren't necessary to protect the rear tyres. In Miami, on a track that required a strong rear end, the W14's weaknesses were exposed once more.
The aim of the Imola upgrade is not simply about adding performance but finding a better balance for the drivers and a more benign platform on which to add downforce where it is needed.
What's new on the car in Imola?
Speaking to the media in recent weeks, Wolff has been quite open about the planned changes for Imola, listing front suspension, bodywork (believed to be focused around the sidepods) and a new floor as the main upgrades.
The new sidepod design is expected to be the most visible change, with Mercedes likely to depart from its infamous zero-sidepod design to something more conventional. However, the team has stressed on numerous occasions that its unique sidepods, which were first introduced ahead of the 2022 season, are not the main reason for its underwhelming performance.
As early as preseason testing -- i.e. before the wake-up call at the first race -- Mike Elliott, who was then the technical director but has now been switched roles with James Allison to become chief technical officer, said changes to the sidepods were in the works.
"It won't be the same as other people's [sidepods] and it won't be the same as we've got, it'll be different," he said of the changes to the bodywork for Imola. "We have got a very different sidepod coming -- I say very different, a different sidepod that's coming."
However, the most important upgrades in Imola will likely be more subtle. In recent weeks Wolff has emphasised the importance of changes to the front suspension to improve the balance of the car and create a more stable platform to extract aerodynamic performance. If the new suspension, in tandem with changes to the floor, can allow Mercedes to run the car at a lower ride height with more predictable results, it has the potential to unlock significant performance.
"I don't believe in miracles, but I think the stability of the car and the predictability is just sub-par," Wolff said in Miami. "If you can sort that out helped by a front suspension redesign, then that is definitely a good avenue and can be more than the tenth or two of lap time the aerodynamic package brings. This is simply because we will have much more drivability and pace."
Wolff also stressed that the upgrade will be a learning process to allow the team to test some of its theories over why the car is lacking performance relative to Red Bull.
"I think what we are trying to do with the upgrade is to create a new baseline for us to take question marks and variables out of the equation and say this is not a problem now that we have come to a different spec, for example front suspension," Wolff said in Miami. "We are also looking at bodywork solutions that are more conventional than others, and that will create a different airflow.
"So for me, that is almost like a reset with what would have been a good start 12 months ago and then try to add performance. But at the moment the problem is just a lack of understanding."
However, the Imola upgrade should not be confused with an all new car. Aside from anything else, there is not the financial freedom under the budget cap to introduce a new chassis design before 2024, and Allison, who is now overseeing Mercedes' day-to-day recovery as technical director, says it is important to keep the good parts from the existing car.
"I don't think any of us would ever consider a wholesale revamp clean sheet, as a good or prosperous approach," he said in Baku. "If the rules change, then of course, you have to change with them. But engineering is about iteration. And in all likelihood, if you tear things up, you are going to... I'm going to mix metaphors horrifically here... but you are going to just throw away an awful lot of baby along with a small amount of bathwater.
"All of these cars, from the top to the bottom of the grid, are unbelievably good cars. It's merely a question of how competitive are you? Are you the best in the whole world? And necessarily, you are going to use the platform you have, and you're going to choose the paths forward that allow it to get better in the fastest possible way.
"And almost never -- in fact, never -- would you ever tear things up and say 'enough with that, let's change and do something completely different'."
What to expect from the upgrade
Mercedes is expecting a boost in performance in Imola, but Wolff has warned against expecting too much.
"Like I said already, we need to manage our own expectations, because we're bringing an update package that's going to consist of new suspension parts, and bodywork and some other things, but I have never in my 15 years in Formula One seen a silver bullet being introduced, where suddenly you unlock half a second of performance. So I very much doubt that this is going to happen here.
"What I'm looking forward to is that we take certain variables off the table where we believe we could have introduced something that we don't understand in the car. And to go more to, let's say, a stable platform. And then we should see where the baseline is and what we can do from there.
"It's going to help us set the direction, to understand the various areas that we believe could play a role in why the car is so poisonous to drive."
The car's setup also needs to be tailored around the new updates and it may take more than three (possibly wet) practice sessions at Imola to realise the potential of the new suspension, bodywork and floor. However, with three race weekends in a row coming up, including Monaco and Spain after Imola, the team will have plenty of track time to analyse its new parts.
"I think we know what we're doing to the car," Wolff added. "And really quickly we will see whether that correlates with the virtual world.
"I think it's good to have three races in a row to understand what's actually happening and then it gives us maybe a little bit of a buffer later on to filter that and then take next decisions of what to do in terms of updates.
"Monaco between the two is something that is a single lap issue and making sure you have a tyre that comes into life quickly. None of that we do well. So let's see where we are in Imola."
Finally, F1 is a relative game. If Red Bull, Ferrari and Aston Martin all make gains over the coming rounds, the fruit of Mercedes' labour may not be that obvious on track. Nevertheless, if it provides a future development direction with more potential than the previous one, it could still be a key turning point for Mercedes' fortunes under the current technical regulations.