Since the start of 2014, Mercedes has won 75 percent of the grands prix it has entered. It has secured five constructors’ championships, five drivers’ championships and, since the start of the 2019 season, five one-two victories from five races. If it isn’t the greatest F1 team of all time, it’s quickly becoming the starting point of the conversation.
Only Ferrari has dominated the sport for a similar length of time when it secured six constructors’ championships between 1999 and 2004. But, as Ferrari found in the following years, all good things must come to an end and the next F1 dynasty is usually just one major regulation change away.
Of course, the key to any team is the people. From the drivers to the mechanics, it’s the people that ultimately determine its success. Mercedes has lost very few of its key people since 2014, and when technical boss Paddy Lowe left at the end of 2016, current technical director James Allison was drafted in and the championships kept rolling in.
But even after the most successful start to a season of any team in F1 history, there are still rumours surrounding the long-term future of key members and the team itself. Toto Wolff has been linked to the top job at Formula One after 2020 and the question of whether Lewis Hamilton will leave Mercedes to finish his career at Ferrari continues to follow the five-time champion from season to season. What’s more, Mercedes itself is in the process of negotiating a new contract with F1 for after 2020 and, as it prepares for a full-scale entry into Formula E, there are questions over how much more the German car brand really has to benefit from being in F1.
Nothing left to prove
When Mercedes decided to leave F1 at the end of 1955, it did so because it felt it had nothing left to prove at the top level of motorsport. Contrary to popular belief, the decision was made before the Le Mans disaster in 1955, in which 83 spectators died when the Mercedes of Pierre Levegh crashed into a crowd, and based on a company-wide decision to divert resources, and the company’s sharpest minds, back into the road car business.
Times are very different now — F1 engineers are very much specialists in their field and the F1 team exists as its own company outside of parent company Daimler — but the cost of racing is still eye-wateringly expensive. If another two titles follow in 2019 and 2020, Mercedes could leave the sport on a high with the longest winning streak in F1’s history. What else would it have to prove?
Changes at the top of Daimler are also afoot, with CEO Dieter Zetsche set to retire at the end of this month and be replaced by Ola Kallenius. In his current role as the head of research and Mercedes-Benz car development, Kallenius has been an advocate of electric and plug-in hybrid technology, leading to suggestions he might not see much benefit in F1. But Kallenius is a big motorsport fan, arguably bigger than Zetsche, and he worked for McLaren’s F1 team between 2003 and 2005 before becoming the head of Mercedes High Performance Engines (now HPP, the company that produces Mercedes’ F1 engines) in Brixworth from 2005 to 2009.
— Mercedes-AMG F1 (@MercedesAMGF1) May 12, 2019
So in the short term it’s very hard to imagine Kallenius pulling the plug on the brand’s F1 involvement. Formula E only offers a fraction of the global exposure F1 can provide and, with hybrid technology still a key part of Mercedes’ vision for the future, the current F1 power units can still be marketed to tick the right boxes.
“As it stands at the moment Mercedes is getting a lot of benefit from F1 with these two platforms,” Wolff said last weekend. “Formula E is like a start-up, an exciting start-up, and interesting to watch how it grows. On the other side, the global platform of F1, it just really covers what we expect from our motor racing properties.
“F1 is in a good space, we had more than half a billion unique viewers last year and the numbers are up, even though we are facing the same problems like any other sport. Honestly where I am I feel in a good place. Mercedes hasn’t given any indication that we are going to stop the programme, on the contrary, we are having really open-minded discussions about what the benefits are.
“But then what can you say? In 10 years the whole auto industry might be different and fully electric and in a different place, so I don’t want to give any comment on where we might be in 10 years but I can say in the short-to-mid-term, F1 makes a lot of sense for Mercedes.”
Wolff as F1 CEO?
But just because Mercedes is involved doesn’t guarantee Wolff will be. The Austrian holds a 30 percent shareholding in Mercedes Grand Prix Ltd., with Niki Lauda holding ten percent and Daimler owning the remaining 60 percent. Wolff has always talked about the importance of having “skin in the game” but could he be tempted to F1’s top job if Chase Carey decides to stand aside in 2021 once F1’s new commercial contracts are in place?
“I am a shareholder in the team, I love to be with the people and the relationship matters to me,” Wolff said. “I am in a happy place and motivated every single day to do this. There are some more years on my current contract, and I think with all the other discussions you are having — with drivers for example — I think you need to be 100 percent with your head in your role, and this is what I am. I haven’t contemplated any change beyond 2020.“
What’s more, it’s hard to imagine a number of people accepting Wolff as F1 CEO. Red Bull’s Christian Horner has never seen eye-to-eye with his opposite number at Mercedes and there’s no reason that would change if he took the top job. It would also create an awkward situation at F1, with Ross Brawn — the man Wolff replaced at Mercedes in 2014 as team boss — unlikely to be happy about Wolff joining F1 as his senior. Lose Brawn and F1 loses its mastermind for the sport post 2021.
Lewis to Ferrari?
So if we assume Wolff and Mercedes stay put through the next major rule change in 2021, the most fragile element of the super team becomes its star driver Lewis Hamilton. In Hamilton, Mercedes has the best driver of a generation and in Mercedes, Hamilton has the best team of the era. The mutual benefits of sticking together seems too good to ignore, but at the end of 2020 Hamilton’s contract runs out and he will have to make a decision.
At that point he will be 35 going on 36 and, even for a driver of his talent, the next contract he signs is likely to be his last in F1. By then he could quite conceivably be a seven-time world champion, equalling Michael Schumacher’s tally, and may have outstripped the German’s 91 race wins (Hamilton is currently on 76). If that’s the case, he too will face the question of what else there is to achieve in F1 and he may decide to pursue some of the many interests he holds outside of the sport.
Or, he may be lured to biggest and most historic name in the sport: Ferrari. It may seem unlikely right now, but Wolff admitted recently that the subject of a Ferrari move came up during his last contract negotiations with Hamilton.
“You have to acknowledge that probably it’s in every driver’s head to drive at Ferrari one day,” Wolff said. “It’s the most iconic Formula One brand, the most historic Formula One brand out there, and I totally respect if a driver has the desire to drive at Ferrari. Even within the team, we have discussed it, and with Lewis, we have discussed it, and we have agreed on the topic. We had the discussion when we negotiated the last contract.
“I think that you just have to be open-minded and understand that drivers will explore opportunities that exist and benchmark themselves. And what I’ve seen strong between Lewis and us is that we’ve always been very transparent with each other in those discussions. At the moment, everything is great.
“I think we are providing him with a car that is capable of achieving his objectives. If we continue to have a car that is performing on that level, I think there is no reason to go, and we would really love him to stay. If one day, ways part, it will be very positive and then each of us will try to achieve success with a different setup. No drama.” But would Hamilton’s departure really derail Mercedes?
This year Valtteri Bottas has emerged as a threat to the five-time world champion in the opening five round and Mercedes still have Esteban Ocon and Williams driver George Russell under contract. None of those names has the global appeal of Hamilton, which in turn brings in big money from sponsors, but in terms of getting the job done they all have the hallmarks of world champions given the right machinery.
Of course, Mercedes would also have its pick of the driver market, opening up a number of opportunities with the likes of Max Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo. But while Hamilton acknowledges Ferrari as a potential option, right now Mercedes is still likely to be his first point of call when it comes to negotiating a contract beyond 2020.
“I don’t really remember what he’s referring to,” Hamilton said of Wolff’s comments “I think when you’re in negotiations you always have to drop in the Ferrari name. You come out better!
“No, naturally in negotiations… Toto’s a very intelligent man so we have great negotiations and great conversations and naturally I’ve been with Mercedes since I was 13, so it’s very difficult to see myself anywhere else. I have never made it a secret that I’ve been a Ferrari fan, particularly Ferrari cars, and that’s no secret.
“Do I plan on going elsewhere? I haven’t made any plans for my future. At the moment I’m just enjoying driving with this team. I’m enjoying continuous growing with this team and, I mean, it’s incredible what we’re achieving together, what we have achieved in these six years, seven years or whatever it is, and I plan on working with this team to help it become the most successful team of all time. That’s my current goal and my sole focus.”
The biggest threat to Mercedes
Arguably the biggest threat to Mercedes’ position at the top of the sport is the 2021 regulations. One of the key objectives of the rule changes is to level the playing field by restricting the resources of the biggest teams and standardising some of the areas where performance gains can be found.
Regulation changes brought an end to the last two periods of dominance in F1, with Ferrari struggling to recover from a change to the tyres in 2005 and Red Bull struggling to adapt to the introduction of the current engine formula in 2014. Yet Mercedes bucked that trend in 2017 and again this year, by riding significant rule changes without losing momentum.
Both changes were on the aero side and both came at times of change in Brackley that could have exposed weaknesses in the team. In 2017 almost every element of the car was impacted by a change in aero regulations over the winter, which coincided with Lowe leaving and Allison coming in. And this year the changes to front wing to improve overtaking came at a time when engineering director Aldo Costa was stepping back to a consultancy role and performance director Mark Ellis left for a sabbatical. However, if anything the team emerged stronger from both changes, underlining the strength and depth at Brackley that goes way deeper than the well-known names steering the ship from the most senior positions.
Even though the 2021 regulations are set to turn F1 car design on its head once more, you’d be brave not to bet on the team that has a proven track record of coming out the other side as world champions. The hope for everyone else in the sport is that Mercedes rivals can start to operate at the same level and mount a challenge. But in the meantime, it’s worth standing back to appreciate a team operating at its peak. After all, nothing lasts forever.