A PR game or is it really on the back foot?

Its well-managed art of keeping a check on expectations means it has typically never been too bullish about its prospects, even when it has had by far the best car on the grid.

But the tone surrounding the launch of its new W14 seemed a departure from the past, as there was a greater sense of caution that seemed to solidify rumours its performance may not be as good as some of its fans may have hoped for.

There have been some whispers that Mercedes’ wind tunnel figures have not hit targets, and the fact that boss Toto Wolff admitted the W14’s unique sidepod solution was being changed early in the campaign suggested its launch-spec car was not where the team wanted it to be.

Adding to the sense that Mercedes could be set for a slow start to the season was Wolff’s language choice in its launch press release.

He was open that Mercedes was playing «catch-up», but it was his use of the word «eventually» in a sentence later on that stood out.

«I see so much effort, motivation, and energy in the organisation to launch a car that will eventually be competitive enough to fight at the very front of the grid,» he said.

That sounds almost like the team accepted it was not capable of fighting at the very front right now.

Cautious Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes

Photo by: Mercedes AMG

For all the bullishness that both Lewis Hamilton and George Russell showed about their own personal fitness and mental strength ahead of 2023, their chatter about car performance was especially toned down too.

In fact, Hamilton already appeared to be mindful of the ability of the team to recover.

«I wouldn’t say I’m bullish like I was last year,» he said about his thoughts for the season ahead. «I would say just more cautious. I know that whatever we’re faced with, we have the best team to deal with whatever we come across.

«Hopefully, we hit the ground running, but it’s not always the case. And I think we showed last year that, whatever we’re faced with, we can recover. So, that’s what we’ll try and do this year.»

Wolff was specifically asked about his use of the word «eventually», and whether there was genuine worry about not starting the season in as good a shape as possible.

He suggested that the word had been a subject of debate, but reckoned it fitted best the mindset of the squad after the disappointment of 2022.

«When we talked about the press release, on one side you want to say ‘we will be competitive’, but on the other side, you need to stay humble and realistic,» he said.

«So you could be saying, I ‘hope’ that we will be competitive. The midway is ‘we know’ we will competitive, we just don’t know when. And that is the ‘eventually.’

«I think we are on the slope that we wanted to be on in terms of our performance. But then you don’t know where the other ones are.

«I think humility is most important. We’ve always tried to be humble and, especially after last year, we need to remind ourselves, we were quite far off for a long time in the season.»

The mood within Mercedes is definitely different to 12 months ago, and Hamilton said his own feelings about the car are heavily influenced by what his engineers are saying.

«The conversations we’ve had, I think last year definitely… I was bullish because they were bullish,» he said. «We had big upgrades coming and I was like ‘right, we’re going to be coming to hit hard,’ but, obviously, it was a shock to all of us [what happened with the car].

«So, I think this year everyone is a lot more grounded. More of the approach of: ‘we perhaps won’t be the fastest out of the gate, but we have the potential to close’. Hopefully it will be close and hopefully [we] have the potential to close the gap early on in the season.»

Recovery plan

George Russell, Mercedes W14

George Russell, Mercedes W14

Photo by: Mercedes AMG

Autosport asked Russell about the rumours of not-too-positive windtunnel figures, and the early-season change of sidepod design pointing to some doubts about the launch spec car.

His response interestingly focused on the way that the spread-out start to the F1 season, with the massive gap between Australia and Baku, meant there was plenty of time to recover before the campaign got far into its stride.

«I think we’ve seen it in a number of seasons now at Mercedes, just how well the team develops a car throughout a season,» he said.

«I think, fortunately with how the calendar has panned out, it gives the teams chances to develop without a huge number of races in a certain time span. There are definitely improvements that we are sure are going to make the car faster.

«The car is going to be lighter than what we saw last year. That is definite lap time. We know that.

«We’ve worked really well and hard on reducing the drag because we saw how much we were losing to Red Bull, particularly last year. We believe we’ve achieved that, so we should be faster in a straight line as well. These are things that we know are guaranteed performance.

«But as soon as you brake for a corner, or go through the corner, the downforce needs to start working. We still truly don’t know how it’s going to perform. Ultimately, we don’t know how it’s going to tally up, mainly to Red Bull and Ferrari.»

A guessing game

George Russell, Mercedes W14

George Russell, Mercedes W14

Photo by: Mercedes AMG

Perhaps what Mercedes is ultimately facing is not alarm at where it is at, but instead a deep uncertainty about where it really stacks up.

Last year highlighted that good theoretical figures from a windtunnel do not always translate to the race track, as its test two upgrade package did not deliver the anticipated 1.5 seconds improvement and proved to be slower thanks to the porpoising effect.

Such uncertainty about the W14’s potential against the opposition was perhaps also further enhanced by the fact that its launch-day shakedown did not appear to go entirely to plan.

The squad, which has often been so bulletproof in the past, appeared to face some early niggles that left things being a bit stop-start, even in getting to the 15km limit of a demonstration run.

Not having a clue about where it stacks up right now would make it obvious why the team isn’t bigging up its launch spec.

And with memories of 2022 still strong, it would explain why perhaps its focus is more on being ready and prepared to react if things are not where they need to be.

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Hamilton did not rule out Mercedes having got it wrong again but was sure that, just like it did last year, making a strong recovery was well within its grasp.

«I hope when we get in [the W14], it has the characteristics that we’ve asked for,» he said. «But if not, then we’ll find a way. I think the job of the engineers and the designers is to come up with solutions. And so we’re prepared for what if.

«The difficult thing is don’t have a crystal ball. So you never know what is up ahead. But all you can do is prepare yourself and be present, and just work diligently towards solving whatever issue it is.»

Wherever Mercedes shakes out when the cars hit the track next week, the underlying message is it is ready to do all it can to get to the front.

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