What's next for Mercedes after its Bahrain wake-up call?

It took just one qualifying session of the 2023 season for Toto Wolff's worst fears about Mercedes' new Formula One car to be confirmed. George Russell's best lap time was 0.632s off Max Verstappen's pole position lap time -- a huge gap as big as the one that it faced after the first qualifying session last year, and one that only got bigger the following day over the 57 laps of the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Worse still, over a single lap in qualifying and during Sunday's race both Mercedes cars were beaten by the Aston Martin of Fernando Alonso, which features a Mercedes engine, a Mercedes gearbox and Mercedes rear suspension. By the end of the weekend, Wolff conceded his team would only be truly competitive again if it made radical changes to its car concept.

While Wolff's comments seemed somewhat dramatic after just one session of qualifying, in truth there were concerns about the W14 around the time of its launch in mid-February. The car only completed 15km on its track debut at a soaking wet Silverstone due to gremlins in its hydraulics system, and even when it returned to the track for a further 100km the next day, the feedback from the drivers was overwhelmingly negative. There were some positives in that the design office had hit its downforce targets over the winter and the porpoising issues that had plagued the start of the 2022 season had been resolved, but the upcoming Bahrain preseason test offered a rude awakening on both fronts.

Not only had all teams solved the porpoising issue, Mercedes' downforce targets now appeared to be woefully inadequate. Even by the most optimistic reading of the lap times from preseason testing, Mercedes' main rivals Red Bull had a healthy margin over the W14 and, what's more, the unwanted handling traits from the shakedown were proving difficult to iron out.

Hamilton says Mercedes didn't listen to his concerns about 2023 car

Some progress was made with the car over testing, but fast forward one week later to the disappointment of a fifth and seventh place finish at the opening race -- with Lewis Hamilton finishing over 50 seconds off race winner Verstappen -- and Wolff delivered a brutal assessment of Mercedes' position.

"If you look at where we were at the end of last season, I think we have almost doubled, if not tripled, the gap to Red Bull, and this is what we need to look at," he said.

"Everything in between, Ferrari or Aston, that's just a sideshow. With us, everything is bad.

"Maybe the single lap pace was still good, but in the race we saw the consequences and, to put it bluntly, we were lacking downforce and when you are lacking downforce you are sliding the tyres, and when you are sliding the tyres you are going backwards."

What happened?

Mercedes has stood alone with its car concept since F1 overhauled the sport's technical regulations last year. You don't have to be an aerodynamicist to spot the differences between the W14 and its rivals, with its slim-line bodywork, tiny side pods and swathes of exposed floor standing out from the crowd.

While the vast majority of downforce created by a modern F1 car comes from the unseen shapes of the underside of the car, it's clear that Mercedes' approach to creating that downforce is different to every other team on the grid, including pacesetters Red Bull.

The W14 is relatively competitive in slow-speed corners and on the straights -- the latter being a big focus over the winter -- but in high-speed corners where downforce counts the most the Mercedes is lacking a significant amount performance to the fastest cars on the grid. While Red Bull's development curve has only steepened over the winter, in part thanks to a series of weight-saving measures, Mercedes' appears to have plateaued in comparison. So what next?

In F1, as in life, imitation is sometimes the sincerest form of flattery, and it's no coincidence that Aston Martin has found big gains since switching to Red Bull-style bodywork at last year's Spanish Grand Prix. What's more, the hiring of technical director Dan Fallows from Red Bull last April positioned someone at the very top of Aston Martin's technical structure who not only had a full understanding of Red Bull's concept but came with ideas of how to develop it beyond what was possible to see from the outside.

Given the Aston Martin's drivetrain and rear suspension is identical to Mercedes' and that it shares the use of Mercedes' wind tunnel, the progress of the green cars has not been lost on those at the former champions.

"We've just got to add downforce to the car, we're lacking a lot of downforce," Hamilton said after Sunday's race. "That's really where the time will come -- as soon as we put more load on the rear and the front we'll pick up that pace.

"But big congrats to Fernando today, he did a really great job. It's really amazing to see. All the Aston Martin team, they did such an amazing job.

"We've got work to do as half their car is ours! They build their car in our wind tunnel... do their aero in our wind tunnel, so we've got work to do."

To be fair to Mercedes, it has experimented with alternative car concepts in its computational fluid dynamics (CFD) research in the past year. On the Friday before the Bahrain Grand Prix, technical director Mike Elliott insisted the team had "done a lot of work looking at other types of solutions", but throughout its research kept being drawn back to its existing concept as the one with the most potential.

Now it seems Wolff's patience with that approach has worn thin, and within the space of 24 hours between Elliott's comments on Friday and the disappointing performance of the W14 in qualifying the team's position on its car concept turned almost 180 degrees.

"I don't think this package is going to be competitive eventually," he said. "We gave it our best go over the winter and now we need to regroup, sit down with the engineers, who are totally not dogmatic about anything -- there are no holy cows -- and decide what the best development direction is in order to be competitive enough to win races.

"It is not like last year when you score many podiums and eventually you get there. I'm sure that we can win races this season, but it's the mid- and long-term that we need to look at and which decisions we need to make."

After the race on Sunday, he added: "We've looked at a couple of ideas and haven't stood still. That is not only since two weeks when we saw that we haven't been able to close the gap, but we have done it since a while just to be open minded.

"This was still with an emphasis on making this [concept] work, obviously, but we have already looked at different concepts."

What next?

Mercedes has an upgrade planned for the sixth round of the season at Imola, which sounds as though it will be a step away from its current design.

"We've got different bodywork coming," Elliott confirmed before the Bahrain race weekend. "It won't be the same as other people's and it won't be the same as what we've got. But it'll be different."

However, the upgrade was designed before the Bahrain wake-up call and Wolff played down the chances of it making a big difference to the team's chances of fighting for the title this year.

"This is not a matter of finding 0.3s and polishing the car up, this is a matter of serious performance that we need to find in order to put us back in a situation to fight for race wins and championships," he said.

Despite the clear disappointment in the car's performance at the start of the year, Wolff said he would not go down the path of blaming individuals for the wrong turns taken over the past year.

"In this team we blame the problem and not the person, and at the end I have responsibilities and I'd need to fire myself if I wanted to do something [about the performance]," he said. "We had all the ingredients to be successful with the people and infrastructure that won eight championships in a row.

"We got it wrong last year, we thought we could fix it by sticking to this concept of car and it didn't work out. We need to switch our focus on to what we believe can be the right direction, what it is that we are missing and therefore the data points this weekend are very important.

"We have seen on the GPS where we are lacking performance and we have seen where we are good, and we just need to sort out what that is and whether that is sticking bigger sidepods on the car or really subtle things that bring performance is a different question.

"Definitely within the group we will embark on untrodden paths."

In order to do that, Mercedes must first gain a better understanding of alternative car concepts. Limited resources such as time in the wind tunnel, data for CFD and money under the budget cap must be spent wisely to ensure the new path the team takes has the long-term potential Wolff is talking about.

"I think it is pretty clear where we should be going, we just need to make the data work," he added. "I think the most important is re-establishing a solid baseline, to say this is where we are, there are no surprises and then go in this direction.

"As a matter of fact the gap is very big and in order to catch up we need to make big steps, not conventional the ones by adding a few points each week, because everyone is going to do that.

"It's extremely difficult to catch such an advantage, but it's what we need to do and we have no choice. I'm not sure the budget cap gives you constraints in the position we are in because we just need to decide which direction we are going and put all the resource behind it.

"We are still developing one car, the question is which car."

The timeline for championship success still looks long in F1 terms and it seems highly unlikely that Mercedes will end up fighting for this year's title. It's true that Bahrain was just one type of circuit among the 23 different venues F1 will visit this year, and there's every chance the characteristics of one or two other ones could result in a chance victory.

But that's not enough for Mercedes. It needs something special to happen over the next 12 months in order to fight for the title again next year, perhaps something akin to the 12 months its engine partner Aston Martin has just achieved.

"We have lost a year in development and in order to develop the car you just need to take these decisions," Wolff admitted on Sunday. "Aston Martin took the decision [to change concept] and they came back strong.

"So if we start from our base maybe we can come back strong and chase the Red Bulls. That's the ambition."