Ferrari and Mercedes are two of the oldest, grandest and most successful teams in Formula 1. In 2022, their hopes of more world championships were dashed by Max Verstappen and his Red Bull team. This year, things got even worse.
Where Ferrari won four times last season, in 2023 the Italian team won just a single race — the only time Red Bull lost all year, in September’s Singapore Grand Prix.
At Mercedes, the team that won eight championships in a row from 2014 to 2021 did not win any races. This was the first time Mercedes went winless since the 2011 season.
But both teams had come into 2023 believing their cars could challenge Red Bull’s RB19 machine. At Ferrari, the new team boss, Frédéric Vasseur, felt that hopes were “a bit too high.”
“We understood quickly the situation,” he said.
The situation was that Ferrari’s SF-23 car was very fast in qualifying and its drivers, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, could compete with Verstappen and his teammate, Sergio Pérez, over the single-lap efforts that set the race starting order.
But during races, the Ferrari’s tires were damaged too quickly, which meant the car rapidly fell behind Red Bull and usually ended up racing other, slower cars. The Ferrari also had early problems with engine electrics.
“We expected to come to this season and try and fight for the championship,” Leclerc said. “After the first race, we straightaway understood how difficult it will be, compared to the Red Bull that had done a huge step forward.”
At the same time — over the one-week period that covered Formula 1’s preseason test driving at the Bahrain circuit and the year’s first race at the same track — Mercedes was discovering it was in a similar position.
Lewis Hamilton, a seven-time Formula 1 world champion, felt Mercedes was in trouble when he drove his team’s new W14 car a few weeks earlier at its season debut.
“I knew immediately that it wasn’t a championship-winning car,” Hamilton said.
Mercedes presented a 2023 car that looked very similar to the one it used the previous year. This was a distinctive design that made the car very narrow around the cockpit area. But it was plagued by an aerodynamic problem called porpoising in 2022, in which cars oscillate or bounce — something that also happened to the Ferrari and to a much lesser extent the dominant Red Bull design.
But although both Mercedes and Ferrari had altered their designs to reduce this problem in 2023, for Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate, George Russell, other problems that made Mercedes slow in 2022 remained.
The W14 was unpredictable, suffering from a handling problem called oversteer, where the rear end swings around faster than the front as a result of the aerodynamic effects of the overall design. The W14 also struggled to reach its top speed as fast as other cars because its wing designs created additional drag.
Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, explained that his team had ended up in this situation because it had been successful late in the 2022 season. Russell won that year’s penultimate race, and Mercedes thought its old design had some merit after all.
“We believed that we can fix this,” Wolff said. “Stick to the concept of the car and get better out of the blocks in 2023.
“But already in testing, we could see that that didn’t happen.”
Mercedes and Ferrari employed very different public strategies in how they would then improve their 2023 cars. Ferrari was also running a design that looked very similar to the one it used the previous season. Other teams, such as Aston Martin and McLaren, had already changed their cars to look more like Red Bull’s successful 2022 design.
After Hamilton and Russell finished just fifth and seventh in the first race, Mercedes committed to making major changes to its car design just days later. It then made a surprise move in restoring its former technical director — the engineer in charge of car design — James Allison to that position in place of Mike Elliott, who had led the design on the W13 and W14 cars. Elliott became chief technical officer in Allison’s place, before leaving Mercedes in October.
Mercedes unveiled a big design change for the W14 car at the Monaco race in late May. This incorporated several features of Red Bull’s aerodynamic design that made its car so successful. Mercedes then went on to score second- and third-place results in six of the remaining 16 races, as it made some lap-time gains, but not enough to win races. Hamilton’s second place in the Australian race was Mercedes’s only podium result of the first six events.
Hamilton did come close to winning the United States Grand Prix late in the year, another race where Mercedes made considerable changes to its car design, before being disqualified for a technical infringement.
Along the way in 2023, Hamilton and Russell signed new contracts to drive for Mercedes until the end of 2025. Hamilton said this “showed my commitment to the team.” He said he believed the team can catch Red Bull in 2024.
Ferrari initially ruled out making big changes to its 2023 car design. It was therefore a surprise when it, too, made alterations to the SF-23 that made it look much more like Red Bull’s leading car at June’s Barcelona race. Like Mercedes, Ferrari saw improved results — its podium tally went from two in the opening 11 rounds to seven in the final 11.
Ferrari also made a big commitment to try to win specific races. It produced a special aerodynamic design that could only really be used at the Italian and Las Vegas courses that have long straightaways. Although Verstappen and Pérez beat the Ferrari driver Sainz in Italy, Leclerc might have won the Vegas race but for a crash that allowed the Red Bull drivers to catch up.
Drivers for Mercedes and Ferrari made mistakes that cost their teams lots of points in 2023. Leclerc and Russell had a series of accidents, while Hamilton and Sainz had big accidents in Qatar and Abu Dhabi, respectively, that destroyed their chances in those events. Sainz, at least, had a successful run after the midseason August break that led to his victory in Singapore.
In the end, Mercedes beat Ferrari by three points to finish second behind Red Bull in the constructors’ championship. Through the year’s early rounds, they trailed behind Aston Martin in third and fourth.
As the 2023 season concluded, both teams were looking to the future. They are expected to make more changes to their designs for 2024 that will make their cars look and operate even more like Red Bull’s RB19 car that won 21 races this year.
They have taken inspiration from the British team McLaren, which did so and made its car so much faster that it went from being one of the slowest early in 2023 to regularly challenging Verstappen.
McLaren “unlocked a second in lap time” doing this, Wolff said.
Vasseur, the Ferrari principal, said Ferrari was going to “improve on aero, on engine — on every single topic” in its quest to be as fast and successful as Red Bull in 2024.
But both teams are under no illusions about the challenges they face.
“There’s a Mount Everest to climb, in order to catch up with Red Bull,” Wolff said. “We must leave no stone unturned.”