Mercedes begin the season as the overwhelming favourite to defend the titles won so stylishly in 2014. The sport’s dominant team is unlikely to allow complacency to set in after just one successful year, its technical advantage is likely to be maintained and there is continuity at driver and senior management level. An unparalleled first test session in which the team’s all-new W06 car completed 157 laps straight out of the box, stunning rivals in the process, did little to alter the sense that the 2015 championship will be contested between world champion Lewis Hamilton and his team-mate Nico Rosberg. Put simply, it would be a massive surprise if Mercedes have not retained both titles at the end of November.
“Long before the end of last season, development work on our 2015 car became the main priority,” said Toto Wolff, Mercedes-Benz’s motorsport chief, as the W06 was unveiled in a low-key Jerez pit-lane launch on the first day of winter testing in February. “The winter months are the most intense, with everybody at Brackley and Brixworth working around the clock to prepare for the season ahead. Their dedication is inspiring. It would be so dangerous to rest on our laurels after 2014 – but none of us have any sense that things will be easier now.”
The W06 is an evolution of the all-conquering W05, thanks in no small part to the relatively minor technical regulation changes for 2015. “Expectations are now high and a lot of assumptions are being made about our potential this season,” explained Paddy Lowe, the team’s technical executive director. “Internally, however, we are fully aware that you can never afford to stand still in any sport – particularly Formula One.”
Lowe added: “Some changes will be more visually obvious, of course, but the devil is in the detail. Beneath the covers there have been a raft of developments from both a chassis and power unit perspective – all aimed at creating a car that is safer, more efficient, more reliable and ultimately faster.”
Despite its dominance, the Mercedes was not bullet-proof in 2014, and the team has spent much of the winter working to iron out any creases from a package which, in pure speed terms, looks set to be the class of the field.
While the chassis is clearly excellent, much of Mercedes’ advantage continues to be a result of the superiority of its power unit, developed, built and tweaked by the Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains unit in Brixworth. “Where last year was a case of ‘can we do it?’ we are now faced with a different challenge – how do we improve it?,” said Andy Cowell, the managing director of a division which is also supplying Mercedes power units to Williams, Force India and, for the first time, Lotus, on a customer basis.
Through a token system, power unit manufacturers are permitted to make changes this season, a much-debated rule clarification which at a stroke offers Renault and Ferrari the chance to close the gap, but gives Mercedes an opportunity to make fresh gains. At the same time, the strain on power units has increased: a driver may use only four throughout the season, a reduction on the five allowed in 2014. Combined with one more race than in 2014, it presents Cowell and his fellow engine chiefs with a considerable challenge.
If the championship does distil once again into a head-to-head battle between Mercedes’ drivers, the team knows what to expect. Hamilton and Rosberg enjoy a healthy rivalry and share a mutual respect but the white heat of a world championship battle changes the dynamics and the intensity is likely to rise once more as the season wears on. Hamilton, as he proved in the latter part of 2014, is the quicker man, but Rosberg’s ability to raise his game when faced with a challenging opponent has been a been a theme of recent years: he is not far away from a world title, but it will be some effort to stop Hamilton over a 20-race championship.
In terms of managing the rivalry, while there were some sticky moments at times in 2014 the management triumvirate of Wolff, Lowe and non-executive chairman Niki Lauda appear well-placed to keep order. During the early part of the season, they will also be working hard to tie Hamilton down to a new long-term contract which will keep him at Mercedes beyond 2015.
Despite the inevitable overtures from other teams, Mercedes has done well to keep its core group of technical and engineering leaders together over the winter. Only Jock Clear, Hamilton’s performance engineer, has left the fold, although he is being retained in a factory role before taking a senior position at Ferrari.
On the commercial front, Mercedes’s finances have been bolstered over the winter not only by the lion’s share of Formula One’s prize money, courtesy of its 2014 results, but also several new and renewed partnerships. Chief amongst them are a multi-year deal with Epson, whose logos feature on the rear wing of the W06, and a new partnership with wireless technology specialist Qualcomm. Smaller supply agreements have also been reached with luxury luggage provider Tumi and logistics provider DB Schenker, which will transport and set-up the team’s motorhomes and engineering offices throughout the European season. Hugo Boss, prised from McLaren, is another new partner from the start of 2015. As ever, Petronas, the team’s long-term title sponsor, has the most prominent logos on the car, followed by Blackberry.
Above average resources, potential technical dominance and a powerful driver line-up: Mercedes tick virtually all the boxes heading into the 2015 world championship. Nothing, though, will be taken for granted, says the ever-impressive Wolff: “A lot of things have been put in place – not by one individual but by many individuals working as a team,” he said pre-season. “And this has been about taking the right decisions at the right time, trying to avoid mistakes and, if they do happen, quickly analysing why. Even if, on paper, things are looking good, we will not fall into the trap of being overly optimistic or trying to make crystal ball predictions because this is not how the sport works.”
Mercedes-Benz returned to the summit of Formula One in style, taking both 2014 world championships, breaking records and dominating the season. Indeed, it was domination the like of which Formula One has not seen for some time: 16 wins in 19, 18 of 19 pole positions and 11 one-two finishes was way beyond anything Red Bull Racing achieved during their supreme championship run between 2010 and 2013.
Such was the superiority of the W05 chassis and the magnificent new power unit developed by Mercedes-Benz High Performance Engines, used to great effect by the works team and its customers, Williams, Force India and McLaren, the constructors' championship was wrapped up in Russia with three races to go and the drivers' championship distilled into a dramatic, intense and sometimes controversial battle between team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. It was the rivalry that made the season, given added spice by Mercedes’ willingness to let their men race it out. That led to a few rocky moments, but, in general, the team should be widely praised for its approach.
It took until the final race, although thankfully without the dreadful double points rule playing a part, for the drivers' world champion to be crowned. Hamilton, deservedly, took the honours, a second title to cement his place amongst the greats of his sport. However, Rosberg, who won five races compared to Hamilton's 11, had nothing to be ashamed about: he drove superbly all year, up against a supreme opponent.
The seeds of the 2014 harvest were sewn at least two years ago, when Mercedes sensed that the wide-ranging regulatory changes coming into effect in 2014 offered the best possibility of breaking Red Bull's stranglehold on the sport. The Mercedes board and team principal Ross Brawn diverted resources immediately into the 2014 car, while the engine division, led by Andy Cowell, set to work on developing the PU106A Hybrid. As critically, processes were swiftly put in place to ensure the work the chassis team was doing dovetailed with the engine department.
In 2013, a new executive team was formed around Brawn, ultimately leading to the Englishman’s departure at the end of the year. If much of Mercedes’ success is owed to Brawn’s groundwork, the new management triumvirate comprised of non-executive chairman Nike Lauda, head of Mercedes motorsport Toto Wolff and technical executive director Paddy Lowe proved formidable, despite one or two tricky moments at the height of the championship fight. The dynamics worked: Lauda was the voice of experience, Lowe the technical brain and Wolff, whose influence in Formula One continues to grow, the manager and frontman. Left to run the team by the paymasters in Stuttgart, the Brackley-based team flourished.
The first inkling that Hamilton versus Rosberg might turn into a classic rivalry came in Bahrain, scene of a thrilling wheel-to-wheel battle under the floodlights. Hamilton emerged victorious, the third in a run of four successive victories early in the year. The stakes were raised in Monaco when Rosberg ran into an escape road, then reversed out, during the final moments of qualifying, leaving Hamilton unable to improve his time. There was plenty of suspicion, although no proof, it had been a deliberate act. Rosberg won the Monaco Grand Prix the following day. A home victory for Hamilton at Silverstone was followed by a Rosberg victory in Germany.
Then came Hungary, where Hamilton ignored a team order to let Rosberg, on a different strategy, pass. Mercedes, however, backed the Englishman, later admitting it was an order that should never have been sent. Rosberg stewed over the summer break. On lap two of the Belgium Grand Prix, he clipped Hamilton’s car, causing the Englishman the puncture which wrecked his race, a move which led to a furious reaction from his team, a chorus of boos on the podium and an internal fine. A furious Wolff did not hold back, telling television viewers immediately after the race the incident was “unacceptable”. Rosberg was stung by the public and private reaction.
A good-natured rivalry had become a bitter war within a matter of months; the pressure only eased when the titles had been won in Abu Dhabi, Rosberg admitting that over the year he had been beaten by the better man. By the final race, Hamilton had turned a 29-point deficit into a 67-point advantage, courtesy of a brilliant run of five successive victories in Italy, Singapore, Japan, Russia and the USA.
Reliability was also a factor. Although stunningly quick, the W05 was fragile. Hamilton dropped out of the opening race of the year in Melbourne and suffered major problems during qualifying in Germany and Hungary, while Rosberg was scuppered at Silverstone, in Singapore and suffered gremlins at the finale in Abu Dhabi. Both cars were stricken in Canada, suffering from battery problems, although Rosberg quite brilliantly salvaged second place after adapting his driving style.
To the surprise of many, it was Rosberg who edged the qualifying battle – indeed, the German’s qualifying performance over the 19 races was so impressive that his average grid position was 1.68. The final race in Abu Dhabi, however, rather summed up the season: Rosberg brilliantly took pole only for Hamilton, courtesy of a start he described as the best of his life, to lead into the first corner. He never looked back.
Though Mercedes would never admit it publicly, from a marketing perspective Hamilton, one of perhaps only three genuinely global superstars in Formula One, probably makes a better champion. An indication of his appeal came prior to November’s US Grand Prix when he appeared, albeit briefly, as a guest on NBC’s Today show in New York. He may divide opinion, but commercially Hamilton is worth his weight in gold.
During a season in which Petronas, which should be credited for assisting in the development of the Mercedes power unit through its fuel mixtures, extended its title sponsorship for an unspecified number of years, a slew of renewed commercial agreements, with the likes of Starwood Hotels and IWC Schaffhausen, and the acquisition of Hugo Boss for 2015 suggested the team’s commercial department was striking while the iron was hot. All the indications from 2014 are that Mercedes’ partners will be in for a successful ride over the coming seasons.
8 May 2017Luca Del Buono
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