Written by Katie Jeromson, Edited by Meghana Sree
The 2023 season has been a year of a series of problems and head-scratching moments for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team. The W14 has been unpredictable with both drivers left to discover a new car week on week, then when the car appears to be on form, poor pit stops set Mercedes back by huge margins. When pit stops are such a fundamental part of the race weekend, how is an eight-time Constructors’ Champion getting it so wrong?
Pit stops require perfect harmony, it’s like an expertly synchronised dance. Each member of the pit crew as well as the driver must perform their own role perfectly — the driver stops the car precisely on its mark, the moment the car halts, it must be jacked up, wheel nuts should be swiftly removed, old tyres off, new tyres on, wheel nuts back on, car lowered, green signal given, and drive out.
Admittedly there is a lot to get done, but every member of the team should be laser-focused on their one job; which is why for each wheel there are three members of the pit crew on hand.
So how can McLaren break a world record with a pit stop of 1.8 seconds, then at the United States Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton suffered a pit stop that took twice as long? What is so different between the way each team is organising themselves?
Team Principal and CEO Toto Wolff has stated in the Team Principals’ Press Conference that this is simply something Mercedes have never tried to compete on. Speaking to the press he said: “Our mindset in the last 12 years, we don't need to be world champions in pit stops.”
This disregarding of a crucial element of the race reveals elements of arrogance from the team, perhaps based on their previous pedigree. More than this though, as an outside observer it seems baffling that a team that continuously talks about getting back to the top step would have such an oversight.
Before his disqualification at the USA Grand Prix, Hamilton finished approximately two seconds behind reigning World Champion Max Verstappen, with relatively poor pit stops of 3.8 and 3.4 seconds ridding him of a potential first place finish. Teammate George Russell fared slightly better, with a 2.8 second stop.
Wolff’s words also don’t ring quite true, as in the 2021 DHL Fastest Pit Stop Award standings, the team was second overall, and third in 2020. It wasn’t until the 2022 season that they dropped down to eighth, in line with the drop in car performance. So perhaps the drop in pit stop form is due to a fall in morale in the garage?
Nevertheless, it certainly remains true that Mercedes can perform some sensational pit stop choreography, and they are experts at the double-stack. Think the 2023 Singapore Grand Prix, where the action gave the drivers a chance to hunt for a win, or further back to the 2019 Grand Prix in China where the team secured a 1-2 finish.
Of course, pit stops are not the only oversight from the Mercedes garage in recent times. Hamilton’s disqualification at the USA Grand Prix, was a huge blow to not only the driver’s campaign for second in the Drivers’ Championship but also Mercedes’ hopes of holding on to second in the Constructors’.
Setting up the car too low after Free Practice 1 and being unable to make changes to the car during the Sprint weekend meant the Mercedes car when scrutinised post race was found to have excessive wear on the plank. In Mercedes’ post-race debrief, Technical Director James Allison reported: “Everybody is upset, embarrassed to a degree,” and I can understand why.
Whilst they can argue that it is likely more cars were also illegal, that the Sprint format affected their set-up, or that the circuit was extremely bumpy, the simple fact remains that other teams like McLaren (notably powered by the Mercedes engine) and Red Bull had the same track and did not fall foul.
Mercedes have proved time and time again that they are a powerhouse of a Formula 1 team, with eight Constructors' titles to their name. However, their lack of focus and precision regarding pit stops, one of the fundamentals of racing, is inhibiting their 2023 campaign. I highly doubt that during their multiple years of progressive success, there was quite such a blasé attitude to the basics as there is now.