Analysis: Mercedes start turn towards salvation
By Ian Parkes
Saturday 22nd April, 2023 - 6:00am
It takes a brave man to determine he is better suited elsewhere within an organisation than in the position he currently occupies.
That is the conclusion Mike Elliott came to after 20 months of serving as technical director with Mercedes, leading to him swapping roles with James Allison.
In fairness to Elliott, he was fully deserving of the TD position after Allison had decided to take a step back from day-to-day F1.
In the newly-created role of chief technical officer, the appointment afforded Allison the opportunity to keep a watchful eye on F1 but also apply his technical expertise to other areas. The America’s Cup was one such project.
In moving up into a more over-arching role within Mercedes’ technical structure, Allison at least knew that with Elliott he had a successor more than capable of filling his shoes.
Before joining Mercedes in 2012, Elliott had worked at McLaren and Renault/Lotus, heading up the aerodynamics programmes of both teams during what proved to be six-year tenures with the two outfits.
It was during the latter stint at Enstone that the two men worked closely together, with Allison initially joining the team in 2005, serving as deputy technical director and then technical director from 2009 before leaving in 2013, eventually rejoining Ferrari, a team he had previously worked with for five years.
By the time Allison and Elliott were reunited in 2017 at Mercedes, the latter had recently been promoted to technology director from head of aerodynamics.
Elliott faced with sink-or-swim scenario
As one of the foremost technical geniuses of modern F1, arguably second only to Adrian Newey, Allison joined Mercedes at a time when the team was in the ascendancy.
For a further five seasons, Allison kept Mercedes ahead of the chasing pack, with the team claiming a record-breaking eighth consecutive F1 constructors’ title by the time he took on his new CTO role in 2021.
A succession plan had long been put in place prior to then, with Elliott the man earmarked to step in and take up the technical director mantle.
Elliott, however, was forced to jump in at the deep end and oversee the biggest regulatory change in F1 for decades with regard to aerodynamics, and the new ground-effect cars. It was a case of sink or swim.
When Mercedes unveiled its W13, with its ‘zero-sidepod’ design that was in stark contrast to its rivals, it raised eyebrows and questions amongst its competitors as to whether they had missed a trick and adopted the wrong developmental route.
Once the car took to the track, however, it quickly became apparent it was Mercedes who had made the mistake.
The car was horrendously affected by the side-effect of porpoising that Mercedes managed to dial out over the course of the campaign, with George Russell going on to claim the team’s only win in the penultimate race in São Paulo.
Elliott and his team, perhaps surprisingly, opted to persist with the fundamental concept of the car with the W14 for this year, believing there was “a lot of goodness” within its predecessor, and stating the team had to “be careful not to throw it all away and start again”.
During pre-season, however, it quickly became apparent that Mercedes was again found wanting, even more so after qualifying for the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, perhaps over-emotionally, painted a bleak picture, insisting the package would never be competitive, and that his team would have to “decide what is the development direction that we want to pursue”.
When seven-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton chipped in and suggested the team had not listened to what he wanted from the car, you have to wonder at what stage Elliott started to consider his options.
Swap too late to save 2023
For Hamilton, in particular, the car lacks the rear downforce he requires to give him the confidence to attack and emerge from corners with the necessary power required to challenge the likes of Red Bull, and to a certain extent, Aston Martin.
It appears there was no undue pressure from inside Mercedes on Elliott other than that which he placed on himself, leading to an introspective analysis of his performance and a decision that Allison is better suited to be the TD.
As Wolff put it, “Mike has moved up to CTO, as he has a brilliant switched-on scientific mind”, with Elliott suggesting the “gladiator” in Allison would lead to the staff around him going “through the fire for him and with him”.
At least Mercedes has opted against making Elliott a fall guy for the car’s failings, as many teams would likely do.
In allowing the swap to take place, Wolff and the team quite clearly value Elliott’s ability, underlined by the fact Allison will now be reporting into him rather than the other way around.
Although Allison now returns to F1’s frontline, it is a decision that has likely come too late to save Mercedes’ season.
Not unless the raft of upgrades planned on the car from the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Imola in mid-May onwards suddenly provides Mercedes with its ‘silver bullet’ Wolff has long suggested does not exist in F1.
Mercedes is certainly hoping to at least be closer to Red Bull this season, so all Allison can realistically do is start to turn the ship in readiness for a more comprehensive comeback next year.
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