How factors beyond Mercedes’ control made them even more dominant than Ferrari · RaceFans

by Nov 11, 20200 comments


Claiming a seventh consecutive constructors championship with effectively a quarter of the season remaining is a doubly momentous achievement, one of which the entire Mercedes Formula 1 staff complement operating out of its two facilities – the race base in Brackley and power unit operation in Brixworth – can be massively proud.

In so doing Mercedes has surpassed Ferrari’s spree of six titles, which Renault and Fernando Alonso ended in 2005 after the FIA introduced swingeing rule changes which demanded that drivers qualify and complete an entire race on a single set of tyres. This proved advantageous to Michelin tyre users and Ferrari, the only major team shod by Bridgestone that year, won a single race, the farcical United States Grand Prix.

At the time folk in the paddock suggested that these changes were aimed squarely at ending the Scuderia’s hegemony; at truncating a period of dominance which saw Michael Schumacher and the Jean Todt-managed squad rewrite virtually every record in the book.

There have been other periods of similar supremacy over rivals – think the McLaren-Honda period or the Williams active suspension years. However, none had been as sustained or as overwhelmingly dominant as Ferrari’s 1999-2004 campaign under Todt, when everything gelled for six straight years. Until, that is, Toto Wolff’s Mercedes squad strung seven titles together – and all pointers are that the team will continue its momentum into next year.

Ferrari set a record with six consecutive constructors’ titles

Saliently, between the inception of the constructors championship in 1958 and 1975 the longest straight ‘run’ had been three, achieved by Ferrari from 1975. McLaren raised that to four 12 years later, with Ferrari taking it to six from 1999 and Mercedes going one further last week at Imola.

The two men came to lead their respective teams to record-setting heights from opposite directions: Todt, a dyed-in-the-wool petrolhead whose early career was spent in co-driver seats alongside rally legends, moved into motorsport management with Peugeot, leading the French marque to world glory in rally, cross-country and sports cars and Monte Carlo, Dakar and Le Mans victories.

In 1993 a down-and-out Ferrari came calling, the contact massaged by then-F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone. The Scuderia needed a root-and-branch overhaul: out went V12 engines and stylish but unsuccessful chassis and so-so drivers; in came V10s, sleek cars designed by Rory Byrne and operated by Ross Brawn, wielded by the immense skills of Michael Schumacher. It took six years before the first title arrived; thereafter they rolled in.

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Wolff, an entrepreneur and amateur racer, had it comparatively easy: he invested in Williams ahead of its initial public offering, then became executive director when CEO Adam Parr departed during disagreements with Ecclestone. Wolff was on the pit wall when Williams won its last grand prix – that unlikely 2012 victory in Spain scored by Pastor Maldonado – which brought Toto to the attention of Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche.

Wolff arrived at Mercedes in 2013

At the end of 2009 Mercedes had acquired reigning double champions Brawn GP, previously the lavishly equipped Honda F1 team, and tasked Brawn with further upgrading the facility. Concurrently Mercedes gave its (separate) F1 engine division the green light to spend what it took create winning hybrid power units, ready for 2014. Lewis Hamilton was persuaded to jump ship from McLaren by the team’s consultant, three-times champion Niki Lauda.

Thus, when Zetsche in early 2013 recruited Wolff as managing partner for the F1 team (excluding the engine facility, run by Andy Cowell), all ingredients for the team’s ascension were in place: Hamilton alongside Nico Rosberg, gold standard engines, state-of-art facilities and promises from Ecclestone to pay Ferrari-esque bonuses should Mercedes win double constructor titles. Plus Wolff enjoyed Brawn’s mentorship for a year.

Todt went on to become FIA president, and is now nearing the end of his third and final term – FIA statutes limit the number of terms – while, in a final twist, Wolff, who lost out to Stefano Domenicali in the race to succeed Chase Carey as F1 CEO, is now thought to be eyeing motoring’s top job.

“Having achieved everything with Mercedes, Toto now wants to put something back into the sport,” a Wolff associate recently told me. “That means the top FIA office…”

The two may well continue to vie for legacies. That said, in matters statistics all is not what they appear at first glance, for various internal factors and external circumstances invariably skew comparisons one way or the other. Even the most cursory comparison between two record-breaking teams highlights fundamental differences that make it impossible to directly compare the respective achievements of the two operations.

Mercedes has dominated F1 since the hybrid era began

For starters, at the turn of the century F1 went out of its way to attract motor manufacturers, all of whom threw gazillions at chasing glory. During that era there were no fewer than five – BMW, Mercedes, Ford (Jaguar), Honda and Toyota, some partnering multiple teams – hounding Maranello’s red cars. BMW (commercial and technical partner to Williams) and McLaren (Mercedes) came agonisingly close before Renault finally trounced Ferrari.

By contrast, until Honda rejoined the sport in 2015 Mercedes had just two rival engine suppliers – Ferrari and Renault – to beat, with the former being the only other ‘works’ team on the grid given that the latter supplied Red Bull. Of the rest, Mercedes supplied (a declining) Williams and Force India, neither of which was geared up to beat its supplier.

Thus, Mercedes needed only to concern itself with Ferrari, plus a Red Bull duo powered by (anaemic) Renault engines and nowhere else to go, with fiscally challenged teams such as Sauber, Marussia and Caterham making up grid numbers.

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Schumacher and Todt delivered title after title

The standard of competition contrasts with the Todt/Ferrari years. In 2003 four teams won grands prix; from the beginning of the V6 hybrid turbo era in 2014 only three teams won a race at all until Pierre Gasly grabbed a fortuitous victory for AlphaTauri at Monza!

Of course it is not, the fault of Mercedes that Red Bull (with first Renault, then Honda power), Ferrari and McLaren (Mercedes, Honda and Renault) failed to get their collective acts together for whatever reasons. But it is surely easier to beat depleted fields than a variety of strong competitors, each with differing strengths. In the 134 races since the start of the hybrid era, Mercedes scored 54 one-twos, a hit rate of 41%.

During its six-year reign, encompassing 101 races, Todt’s Ferrari scored 24 one-twos, a little over 20%, indicating how much stronger was the overall competition back then. Indeed, Ferrari scored five consecutive world titles with only Schumacher during this period, while both Lewis Hamilton (five titles to date) and Nico Rosberg (one) claimed Mercedes’ hybrid world championships, underscoring the dearth of strong competition.

*Season in progress

Renault eventually ended Ferrari’s dominance

The reasons for this are many, but primarily boil down to F1’s revenue and governance structures since 2013, with the former greatly benefitting three teams – Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull – with McLaren earning a bit-part and Williams even less. The rules-defining Strategy Group governance comprised FIA, F1 and said five teams plus Force India. That said, Williams and Force India usually pandered to their power unit supplier.

Therefore the Mercedes-powered teams had three votes, while Ferrari, Renault (Red Bull) and Honda (McLaren) one each. Again, don’t blame Mercedes for this political advantage, but it points to a voting superiority denied the others. During Ferrari’s heyday there was but one Ferrari customer team – Sauber – but then there was no Strategy Group and all teams had equal votes via the F1 Commission.

The same imbalance applied to revenues: During the noughties all teams were on the same performance payment structure, except Ferrari, who creamed 5% off the top as reward for its heritage.

Thus, of its nine grid peers Mercedes effectively needed to see off just two teams, and then seldom in the same year: Red Bull and Ferrari. Tellingly, outside of this trio only one other team has featured in the top three throughout the past seven seasons, namely Williams placing third to Red Bull, and then only during the first two seasons under the hybrid formula.

This underscores just how seriously Ferrari has underperformed since 2014, in turn illustrating how much easier is the task for Mercedes than it had been for Ferrari under Todt. As its streak of success began Ferrari fought off a concerted effort from Williams and McLaren for four straight years, during which time the fight thrice went to the final round, once with four points separating winner from loser and once with three teams in contention.

In analysing the outside factors that contributed to Mercedes’s superiority, one statistic says it all: in the six seasons since the hybrid era sparked Mercedes’s domination, Ferrari has had no fewer than four team bosses, whose pedigrees including cars sales (Marco Mattiacci) and tobacco marketing (Maurizio Arrivabene). Add in three corporate CEOs and Mercedes surely benefitted (if only indirectly) from Ferrari’s instability.

Top drivers and bosses have come and gone at Ferrari

Indeed, over the past six years every team bar Mercedes and the two Red Bull teams – main team and (renamed) AlphaTauri – have undergone changes at the top, with half the grid changing hands. By contrast, during the 2000s stability reigned supreme and the primary opponents faced by Ferrari included the battle-hardened Frank Williams, the extremely astute Ron Dennis and super shrewd Flavio Briatore.

Ferrari’s driver turnover, too, has helped Mercedes: three former champions have been and gone (or are about to go). Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen have seven titles between them but, tellingly, only one of those was won in a red car.

Mercedes deserves full credit for making but a single driver change in six years and then only due to Rosberg’s unexpected retirement. Back then Ferrari, too, made a single change in six years, signing Rubens Barrichello as replacement for Eddie Irvine.

Although management stability has been one of Red Bull’s strengths – executive consultant Helmut Marko, team boss Christian Horner and chief technical officer Adrian Newey have functioned as a tight-knit group since 2006 – the same cannot be said of another equally crucial component: power units.

Having acrimoniously fallen out with engine supplier Renault, with whom Red Bull won four double titles on the bounce between 2010 and 2013, its status was reduced from ‘works’ partner to customer after the two fell out and the French company returned in 2016 as team owner after reacquiring the (run-down) Enstone operation it had sold to Genii Capital six years earlier. Rebuilding Enstone has taken five years so far.

Fingers can be pointed in many directions for the Red Bull-Renault split, but the bottom line is that Red Bull was forced into the (unreliable) clutches of Honda. Now the Japanese company has given notice of its departure at the end of 2021 – ostensibly on environmental grounds – both Red Bull teams face further instability and political skirmishing throughout next year.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Imola, 2020
Mercedes have won 100 of the 134 races since 2014

Again, Mercedes bears no blame for any of this – save, maybe, for (understandably) refusing to supply engines to a major competitor – but these issues certainly did not hinder the Three Points Star’s title quests. Red Bull’s yo-yo approach to drivers and failure to retain Daniel Ricciardo’s services, too, contributed to Mercedes’s run. Vacillation over Red Bull’s second cockpit seems set to aid the Brackley team going forward.

None of the foregoing is aimed at denigrating Mercedes’s magnificent achievement, nor at belittling its record-setting run. Rather it is intended to illustrate that F1 records that are trotted out almost on a weekly basis are meaningless without direct comparisons – which do not exist in this sport. 100 metre sprint records can be directly compared: 100 metres is 100 metres; whether in 1950 or 2000; whether in Baku or Timbuktu. True, progress has been made with running ‘spikes’ and turf and weather conditions are variable, but the activity has remained fundamentally the same.

Nor does the strength of the opposition matter in those activities – records set over specific distances or height over bars are valid, all other factors being equal regardless of whether the runner-up placed a split second in arrears or 50 paces; whether the second-placed jumper is an inch or yard shy.

In such sports direct comparisons are possible; in F1 they are not, whether for lap records, outright wins, points tallies or titles claimed. F1’s rules, regulations and formats are a continuous work-in-progress, making comparisons absolutely meaningless. Enjoy F1’s records by all means, but place no lasting store by them, is the moral.

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Mercedes celebrate their seventh constructors' championship, Imola, 2020
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