Weekend Sport | Motorsport

Why the Silver Arrows are now the gold standard

Just six races into this Formula One season, Mercedes is already in pole position for a sixth straight drivers’ and constructors’ double. What makes the team one of the most successful outfits in the sport’s history?

At the beginning of this Formula One season, the Mercedes juggernaut looked like it could finally be halted. A close-fought 2018 was followed by pre-season testing in Barcelona where Ferrari was genuinely quick. The talk around the paddock and among fans was that the Prancing Horse had a definite spring in its stride.

Instead, ahead of the season’s seventh race in Canada this weekend, which rounds out the first third of the calendar, any hopes of a battle for the title appear dead. A record five one-two finishes in a row and one one-three finish have put Mercedes in a position to continue what it has done with unerring regularity since 2014.

Blast from the past

Indeed, this season is eerily starting to mirror 2014, which kicked off the period of the current regulations. Then, too, Mercedes won the first six races. Even the split is similar: Lewis Hamilton 4, Nico Rosberg 2 then; Hamilton 4, Valtteri Bottas 2 now.

2019 is the penultimate year of the current regulations, which started with hybrid engines five years back and featured significant aero changes in 2017 and minor ones this year. There was optimism among the others that, this late in the regulatory cycle, Mercedes could be caught — typically, leaders only make marginal gains during this period; teams tend to bunch together.

Yet, the defending champion has managed again to steal a march over its rivals. The German marquee team is on course for a sixth straight constructors’ title, which will equal what Ferrari achieved between 1999 and 2004. And Mercedes could go one better if it also seals the drivers’ championship. Ferrari had won five.

So what makes this one of the most successful outfits to have ever raced?

When Mercedes bought a 75.1% stake in Brawn GP — the team that stunned the world in 2009, winning the championship after nearly closing down when Honda pulled the plug the year before — it had a challenge on its hands.

Tough start

Despite Michael Schumacher being at the helm, the Silver Arrows’ first three seasons (2010-2012) were disappointing — just a win and a handful of podiums at a time when Red Bull Racing was dominating the sport like Mercedes is now.

But off the track, the team made the right moves. It knew it needed the right structures and people in place, and Ross Brawn recruited some of the sport’s top technical directors — Bob Bell (previously Renault), Aldo Costa (from Ferrari) and Geoff Willis (previously at Red Bull and HRT). In short, Mercedes hired the galacticos of the technical side, even if at that time it looked like one too many cooks.

Most importantly, the team realised that the new engine regulations in 2014, with the hybrid turbo power units, would offer the opportunity for a quantum leap. Under Andy Cowell, the team managed just that. Ferrari and Renault dropped the ball.

Power play

Mercedes came up with an innovative solution to its power unit — the turbocharger and the compressor were placed at either end of the internal combustion engine, offering the team several benefits in packaging and producing the highest power output of all the teams. This gave Mercedes three titles virtually uncontested.

Karun Chandhok, who has watched the team from close quarters, first as an F1 driver and now as an expert commentator, says, “In the first three years of this era, their power unit was the key ingredient to success, but I think that in 2017 and 2018, Ferrari first equalled and then overtook them in the power game.

“In parallel, however, the chassis side of things just got better and better. Once they built up this momentum and had a good group of people who all knew each other and worked well together, they were able to just churn out good cars year after year.”

While Brawn left at the end of 2013 and was not around to enjoy the success, his efforts had helped Mercedes grow. That year, it had the second-fastest car and was only stymied by the fragile Pirelli tyres from winning more than the three races it did. Vitally, the structures he had put in place were robust: Mercedes has weathered the departures of Paddy Lowe (technical boss from 2014-2017) and Bob Bell, with James Allison taking over in 2018.

The signing of Lewis Hamilton, to replace Schumacher who was past his prime, was a game-changer. It needed a persuasive voice to convince Hamilton to leave McLaren where he was challenging for titles and join a Mercedes team offering the promise of a post-2014 world. Three-time champion Niki Lauda did the trick.

Between 2014 and 2016, the team had such a fast car that any able driver would have won in it. But it’s over the last two years that Hamilton’s value has shone through. When asked whether the team would have been as successful without the Briton, Chandhok says, “I don’t think so, because in the last two years, particularly 2018, Lewis was the difference. He was the one who relentlessly racked up the points and won the races that shouldn’t have been won, such as Germany and Monza last year.”

After 2018, when Ferrari and Mercedes were on par, the German team looks to have opened up a gap again, getting the better of its rival in handling the minor changes that were introduced this season.

No weakness

“It’s quite clear that the thinner gauge tyres and the changes to the front wing regulations have helped them relative to Ferrari and Red Bull,” says Chandhok. “Worryingly for everyone watching, it’s hard to spot a chink in their armour. The car is good in the fast and slow corners, they’re able to warm the tyres up well for qualifying and make them last in the race, and they have good reliability and plenty of power.”

The only competitive interest remaining, it would appear, is to see whether Bottas, who has raised his game, can give Hamilton a run for his money. Whatever happens there, Mercedes looks set to add to its burgeoning trophy cabinet.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 4:22:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/motorsport/why-the-silver-arrows-are-now-the-gold-standard/article27690322.ece

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