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F1 2023 season review: Mercedes battered and bruised but still going

It was a first winless season since 2011 and the least podiums since 2012 but Mercedes is finally optimistic it might be on the verge of cracking ground effects.

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Around this time 12 months ago, Toto Wolff was firm in his belief that Mercedes had made a simple mistake with its 2022 car that had wrecked its season.

The zero sidepods concept had been looked at by rival teams, including even Red Bull, but in the end, it was only Mercedes who carried it throughout the year - but radical change was promised for the 2023 W14.

Except, that didn't really happen. The launch-spec car carried on with doomed concept, with Lewis Hamilton uncomfortable after changes he requested in the winter were not made, with Wolff publicly abandoning the concept after qualifying in Bahrain.

When the new sidepods did arrive, Mercedes found some pace from which to build, but by the end of the season, it was a team falling over the finish line, just about holding off a charging Ferrari to rescue second in the Constructors' - but its 409 points were not even half the 860 hauled by Red Bull.

Max Verstappen alone would have won the Constructors' by 166 points.

There is great change happening at Brackley, too, with key architects of the glory years no longer in post. James Vowles left for the top job at Williams, engine guru Andy Cowell left in 2020, James Allison stepped back at Technical Director, only to come back to replace Mike Elliott. Elliott himself has now left Mercedes after a short stint at Chief Technical Officer.

Mercedes is a team in transition. Key figures like Wolff, Hamilton, Ron Meadows and Andrew Shovlin all remain, but around them, Mercedes is changing and it will take time to bed this in.

What is vital though is that when the W15 hits the track early next year, it immediately solves the twin W14 problems of a lack of rear downforce and having a narrow operating window to perfect the set-up.

Do that, and Mercedes has a chance of grabbing race wins in 2024. Let us not forget, Red Bull is two years ahead with its understanding now. That isn't going to be eaten away in a single winter.

Lewis Hamilton and George Russell

This was a weird season for Hamilton and George Russell.

Hamilton was certainly back to somewhere near his best with the hangover of Abu Dhabi 2021 and the disappointment of a poor 2022 car flushed somewhat out of his system - but like all the great champions of sport, does he really relish a fight for fifth place and the odd podium?

Not when you've won more Grands Prix than any other driver in history and hold a record-joint seven titles. That extra, fine tenth that is in Hamilton's back-pocket will surely be dug out if he's in a position to next season - but there were also some clumsy mistakes.

In Italy, he squeezed Oscar Piastri under braking for the second chicane and in Qatar, attempted to win the race at Turn 1 by hanging it around the outside of Verstappen and Russell - colliding with his team-mate.

That wasn't the only time the two Mercedes almost came together - touching at high-speed in qualifying in Spain, robust defending in Japan, more near-misses in Belgium before the collision in Qatar.

These were mainly put down to team miscommunication - but is it a trend Mercedes would have had a few years ago?

As for Russell, this was something of a second-season syndrome year, where the lessons learnt will hold him well in the future.

He was unlucky to experience engine failure in Australia, but his mistake in slapping the wall in Canada was costly - but the biggest faux pas came on the final lap in Singapore.

Clouting the wall and costing himself a podium led to emotional media duties in which he tried to hold back the tears. The barest and the finest of margins matter at this level of elite sport.

He rounded the season off on a strong note with just a second podium of the year in Abu Dhabi - which is something to build on in an otherwise disappointing season, in which Hamilton placed third on 234 points, and Russell eighth on 175.

Toto Wolff

If this was football, and given what Wolff has achieved at Mercedes since 2014, it would be said that he "has some credit in the bank and deserves the chance to turn this around."

Even the great teams eventually get it wrong and no-one can keep winning forever. The Mercedes cycle has closed and it is currently Red Bull's peak, but one day, that will plateau and someone else will be there to replace it as the benchmark.

That is the nature of Grand Prix racing. It always has been, and always will be, with Mercedes' first chance at clawing its way back coming in Bahrain in February.

"The stopwatch never lies, and we will see next year in Bahrain," Wolff told select media including RacingNews365 - the full interview of which you can read here.

"[We will have] a different chassis, different aerodynamics, different characteristics, different suspension and everything that we can change, we [are going to] change.

"So far, the results in the virtual world are positive, but we need to be careful in terms of managing our expectations. We need such a step in order to catch up to fight for a championship, but obviously if you make a radical step, that means lots of new knowledge."

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