One of Formula 1’s most talented technical minds has been recalled to the coalface at Mercedes, with James Allison moving back into the Technical Director role he vacated 20 months ago and Mike Elliott swapping places into the Chief Technical Officer role. It’s the latest step in the eight-time world champion team’s bid to course-correct after a difficult 16 months.
How did we get here?
Mercedes got it wrong with their 2022 car – built to sweeping new technical regulations – and as they spent much of last year trying to understand why, Red Bull ran away with both drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
The Silver Arrows won the penultimate race of the season in Brazil through George Russell’s maiden F1 victory, as the team emerged as the second quickest having spent the early part of the year mired in the midfield. That bounce back triggered a decision to stick with their unique design approach.
But the 2023 season hadn’t even begun when Mercedes realised their new W14, an evolution of last year’s model, was too slow. They had rid the car of the horrible bouncing, but they had been too conservative, and the ultimate potential just wasn’t good enough to make them title contenders again.
Those fears were realised in the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix and it was decided a switch in philosophy, most likely towards the Red Bull-style design that Aston Martin have pursued this year and brought them early success, was needed.
That kind of shift, especially when working under a cost cap that means you can’t spend your way out of trouble, is not the work of a moment. It means that while gains can still be made this year, and ideas tried out for next year, the team will realistically have to wait another year to get back in the mix.
Why change technical leadership now?
Technical Director Mike Elliott is a very talented engineer who played a key role in Mercedes’ success as they dominated the start of the turbo hybrid era. But he had realised that in stepping up from leading aerodynamics and then technology to Technical Director, he was now in a role that was not suited to his skillset.
So he began talking to James Allison to find a solution. Allison joined Mercedes in 2017 from Ferrari and along with Red Bull technical genius Adrian Newey is one of the two best tech leads of the last 30 years.
He moved away from the day-to-day running of the technical department in 2021, leaving the TD role for the CTO role. This allowed him to drop down to three days a week for a better work life balance.
He took a more strategic and long-term approach to Mercedes’ F1 plans, while also dabbling in an America’s Cup sailing project linked to one of the Silver Arrows’ shareholder Ineos. He had oversight of the 2022 design, but he was not in overall control.
Allison had not been looking to move back into his old job, but when Elliott came to him to discuss the struggles, the idea of swapping roles emerged. Allison did not need asking twice so they took it to boss Toto Wolff and the move was signed off a few weeks ago with immediate effect but only came to light when Autosport broke the story on Friday.
In allowing the move to happen, it shows Mercedes’ continued approach to support its staff and avoid a blame culture. It also confirms the last technical reshuffle had failed and needed a recalibration if Mercedes were to return to winning ways.
Who does what now?
Elliott will now take the more strategic view on Mercedes’ plans going forward, including F1’s next rules change in 2026 centred around a revised engine formula and the introduction of 100% sustainable fuels.
He will tackle the role full-time, rather than across three days as Allison did, and will continue to travel to races – although his schedule will reduce slightly – and that means Mercedes are now bolstered in that area.
Allison will ramp back up to working five days a week and be fully focused – and have overall control of the car design – with Elliott taking on some extra duties previously run by that role to give Allison more headspace. Mercedes now have a proven technical lead laser-focused on the car.
The change of direction for this year’s car is already under way, with a new sidepod concept among the changes expected, so it’s likely that while Allison will work on refining what is already in the works, the bulk of his workload will be on trying to get 2024 right.
The switch in roles has happened early enough in the year to mean he should have enough time to lead the design and divert the resources in the right way to hit the ground running next year if the direction is right.
Allison had been attending a handful of races but that schedule will ramp up to ensure he’s got a good balance between being trackside and in the thick of it and knuckling down back at Brackley with the design and engineering office.
Meanwhile John Owen’s role of Director of Car Design will be split, with Owen continuing to lead on car design.
His deputy Giacomo Tortora will take on the new role of Engineering Director, absorbing extra duties created when the cost cap was introduced from Owen.