Wolff accepts 'reality' that Mercedes F1 car is off the pace

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Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff accepts the “reality” that their Formula One car is not good enough to challenge their main rivals this season.

At least he knows where the W14's faults lie.

“We understand, crystal clear,” Wolff said on Friday at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. “There are no miracles in this sport . . . I don’t think we can beat the teams in front of us, that’s the reality."

Wolff's comments came a day after seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton said Mercedes was so far off the pace that he would need three teams to fall out of a race just for him to have a chance to win.

Red Bull dominated the season-opener in Bahrain two weeks ago with a 1-2 finish from two-time defending world champion Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez.

Fernando Alonso finished a surprising third for Aston Martin and Carlos Sainz Jr. was fourth for Ferrari.

Hamilton was 51 seconds behind Verstappen in fifth, and teammate George Russell was 56 seconds back in seventh. Both placings would have been worse had Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc’s engine not failed near the end of the race.

“We need to do a better job,” Wolff said. “We have to set ourselves strong targets internally, because we know where the deficit is. But I wouldn't want to talk publicly about it because it will just put (more) pressure (on).”

Hamilton was critical of Mercedes after Bahrain, telling a BBC podcast that Mercedes didn’t listen to him about the development of this year’s car.

Wolff understood his frustration.

“We know there are emotions at play. With him, with me, with many others in the team. We wear our hearts on our sleeve,” Wolff said. “We know that emotions can run high. We have tough love . . . and nobody's not ever going to not take it on the chin in the team.”

Wolff knows Mercedes made a mistake in car development after Russell earned their only race win last year. Mercedes struggled with the ground effect known as “porpoising” and Russell was fourth in the 2022 standings. Hamilton was sixth.

The 2023 W14 car has very narrow bodywork, known in F1 as a “zero-sidepod” concept, but Mercedes essentially produced a flawed car.

“We were proven wrong, very simply,” Wolff said about sticking with the same concept after misreading information. “The stopwatch never lies and we see on the data where we are missing and that needs to be corrected."

Although it is not possible to change the chassis because of budget caps, he thinks the aerodynamics can be improved.

"Overall we’re not happy about the amount of downforce, the mechanical balance," Wolff said. "We can shave off a lot of performance deficit because we know (the direction to go in)."

Hamilton said he’s still determined to negotiate a new contract and remains firm in his belief he can win again.

“I’m absolutely confident (he will stay)," Wolff said. “I don't think that Lewis will leave Mercedes. He's at the stage of the career where we trust each other, we have formed a great bond. We have no reason to doubt each other, even though this is a difficult step."

But Wolff accepts the 38-year-old Hamilton — who holds the F1 record with 103 wins — could eventually look elsewhere if he doesn't get a competitive car that can win races within the next couple of seasons.

“As a driver, nevertheless, if he wants to win another championship he has to make sure that he has the car,” Wolff said. “And if we cannot demonstrate that we're able to give him a car in the next couple of years, then he needs to look everywhere. I would have no grouch if that happens.”

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