The German car manufacturer has had a difficult start to the year, with its 2023 challenger proving to be much further off the pace of front-runners Red Bull than expected.
That has triggered a deep analysis of what has gone wrong and prompted the squad to edge towards a change of concept in a bid to close the deficit to the opposition.
But while Mercedes is under no illusions about the amount of time that it will take for it to haul itself back to the form needed to challenge for the championship, its hopes for 2023 have not been totally dismissed.
Vowles, who worked for Mercedes until the start of this year before stepping across to Williams, sees no reason to believe that Red Bull is going to have things completely its own way this year.
“Do I think Red Bull will dominate all the way through the season? No, I doubt it,” explained Vowles about the potential form of this season.
“I think you’ll see Ferrari will be a lot closer here, and there will be tracks like Silverstone, Barcelona, where Mercedes will be mighty as a result of what I know of their package.
“However, on balance across the season, do I think that they [Red Bull] are the fastest? Yes.”
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes F1 W14
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
While the extent of Red Bull’s dominance of the season opener in Bahrain has prompted many to suggest it is in a league of its own, Vowles believes the situation can change quickly.
He reckons that one factor that should not be underestimated is the aero development penalty that Red Bull has been handed for its cost cap breach last year.
The Milton Keynes-outfit faces a 10% reduction on its allocation this season, which is something that will bite not only for this year’s car but also its 2024 challenger.
“They still have a wind tunnel deficit,” added Vowles. “It’s not as big as I think it necessarily should be to balance things out, but it’s still there. And it still will mean across the season that you’ll see other people moving towards them.
“Plus, with the rules carrying over to next year, you have to keep developing this car, so things will close up. I don’t think it will be this absolute dominance, and that would be boring. I think you’ll get ups and downs throughout the year.”
Vowles also reckons that the very nature of F1’s competitiveness means that amid rules stability, the prospect of other teams being able to close the gap increases.
“If you look at dominance across eras, it’s across regulation change and the reason why is: A) you can’t invest in it properly, and B) instead of having a few decisions, you have many decisions, and you can screw them up. Simple as that.
“The next bit is that when you’re fast, you don’t want to change. And if you get caught into that, I promise you, your rivals will be changing all the time: what they did yesterday is not good enough tomorrow.
“As a result of that, you can stand still and be caught up very quickly. It is very difficult to stay at that level for as long as Mercedes appeared [to do in recent years].
“Red Bull are there, and, if they keep going it will be an incredible achievement to do it, which is also why I think people catch them up.”
While Mercedes and Ferrari are facing up to the prospect of a much more difficult campaign than anticipated, Vowles says there is no evidence that either team has given up on the year.
And he also played down any talk either squad was being defeatist in messaging to fans, which included a letter Mercedes wrote to its followers last weekend.
“I have no doubt that Mercedes and Ferrari last week would have worked every single hour that was available to them to move forward,” he said.
“Giving up for me, it’s more that you’ve stopped that, and I think it’s the other way around. They’ve dug deep last week.
“The external messaging is more one of actually trying to unload themselves and by saying we’re in the same pain you are, but we’re going to come back. It’s a fighting talk. As I see it, it’s more motivational than giving up.”
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