SAKHIR, Bahrain -- Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has told his engineers to go back to the drawing board after conceding the team's car concept is not good enough to fight for the title this year.
George Russell and Lewis Hamilton qualified sixth and seventh for the opening race of the 2023 season in Bahrain, with Russell 0.632s off Max Verstappen's pole position time.
Although Saturday's qualifying session is just the first of 23 this year, the size of the gap indicates the team has made a step backwards relative to its main rivals over the winter.
Since new technical regulations were introduced last year, Mercedes has pursued a unique car concept, featuring distinctive narrow sidepods that no other team on the grid has copied.
After defending the concept throughout 2022 and opting to stick with it at the start of this season, Wolff admits a change will be necessary for the team to consistently fight for victories long term.
"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 is the development direction that we want to pursue in order to be competitive 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."
Mercedes has plans to modify its bodywork with a major upgrade later in the season, but Wolff said it was unlikely to be enough to close the gap to the front and challenge for the title this year.
"I don't know what is going to happen this year, we may find a silver bullet next week and unlock five-tenths in the car, but I haven't seen any silver bullets before," he added.
"You never know, but definitely mid-term and long-term, we just need to have a car that is able to make us fight for an eighth championship."
GPS data shows the new Mercedes is a match for the fastest cars in low-speed corners but is losing performance in high-speed corners.
Wolff said the team had hit its internal performance targets over the winter but still fell short of its rivals, leading to his belief that the car concept needs to change.
"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 [to react]," he said. "So, we have all the ingredients to be successful -- 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 those data points from 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."