In 2014, we saw the Mercedes release the W05 upon us. Its V6 turbo power unit smashed the competition and its chassis was a whirlwind of downforce. One of the greatest displays of superiority came in Bahrain 2014, after the safety car came into the pits. Normally the Mercedes cars ran their engine conservatively so as to preserve their longevity, but due to the stiff competition between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, combined with an unauthorised use of the maximum engine modes, the Silver Arrows catapulted themselves ahead of the field in just a few corners. They were 7 seconds ahead of the next nearest car after just two laps.
Today the Mercedes advantage is still large but is mostly held in their qualifying performance rather than their race pace. Gone are the days that a Mercedes powered car was faster on the straight than a Renault or Ferrari with DRS. But the Mercedes advantage in qualifying still exceeds the advantage that Sebastian Vettel had with Red Bull in 2013, largely regarded as their most dominant season.
Why can nobody reel in Mercedes?
The V6 turbo era is still relatively young as we reach the summer break of its third season. There are still no signs that we have hit a development ceiling. A large part of this is that the difference in performance between engines is much bigger than the V8 era. The time taken to bring an engine upgrade to the race track is much longer than any aerodynamic update. The token system, originally intended to limit costs, has also made engine suppliers think long and hard about which upgrades to bring to the engine. Not only does this limit the number of engine upgrades but also causes delays, as the teams carefully deliberate on whether or not they wish to commit to a certain development path. In addition, these engines are complicated and are using a lot of new technology that hasn’t matured yet.
This leaves the most likely challengers with a severe handicap. McLaren’s ambitious partnership with Honda has struggled to play catch up since starting a year late, whereas Renault has struggled since the start and is only now showing signs that they can get back on par with the upgrade initially introduced in Monaco. This deficit could perhaps be overcome by exploiting other weaknesses in the Mercedes package but it’s so well rounded, with their comprehensive strategy and first class technical staff, that this seems like a lost cause.
Ferrari’s false dawn
The exception to this is Ferrari. We should always take horsepower numbers quoted for each engine with a pinch of salt, but the consensus is that Ferrari’s power unit is close or even on par with Mercedes. This certainly seems to be the case as the gap from the pole sitter to the next Ferrari tends to shrink when the F1 circus arrives at a power hungry track such as Montreal. But after a season full of good feeling and optimism in 2015, they seem to be exhibiting old behaviours. Their sluggish in season development and internal politics are not helping Ferrari’s bid to steal the championship, or even a win from Mercedes. Now they have announced they will be focusing on the 2017 car, it seems any last shred of hope that Ferrari would threaten again this year has been consigned to the dustbin.
Hope on the horizon
But all is not lost, the 2017 sees a large overhaul in the aerodynamic regulation. Lower and wider rear wings with wider tyres in a bid to push the cars back to breaking track records.
Normally the FIA like to intervene and regulate the leading team’s advantage away. This has been difficult to do with Mercedes as there is no one device that explains their speed. That doesn’t mean the FIA haven’t tried, they banned FRIC, enforced more manual starting procedures and got stricter on tyre pressures. But Mercedes either were relatively unaffected by the changes, or were able to circumvent them reasonably quickly.
However, the more observant fans will have noticed that formula 1’s CEO and puppet master, Bernie Ecclestone, performed a deft sleight of hand by introducing a bizarre and massively unpopular qualifying system, only to revoke it two races later. When we turned around, we found that the engine token system had magically disappeared for 2017 and beyond. It is a mystery to me how he managed it given how fiercely Mercedes fought to keep the token system previously, although his continued threats to bring in an independent customer engine last year did not go unnoticed.
Victims of their own success
Perhaps it was the growing feeling of frustration that drivers, teams and fans were harboring towards Mercedes that caused them to relent. The problem with winning everything is that it turns people against you. As a result we have seen executive director of Mercedes, Toto Wolff, gush with generous praise for his rivals. The Mercedes rhetoric frequently insisted that Ferrari were a real threat and the competition was close. And when they could no longer sustain this charade, Toto Wolff went as far as to lament that Ferrari were not competing with them and most recently saying that Ferrari were even failing Mercedes’ expectations.
Will Mercedes falter in 2017?
The lack of token restrictions combined with new aerodynamic regulations creates a new roll of the dice for the teams. But we shouldn’t forget that many of the people who created the success of Mercedes in 2014 are still there today, with one large exception, Ross Brawn. Hopefully, Red Bull’s resurgence will continue into 2017, with the helping hand of one of the most valuable assets in the paddock, Adrian Newey. And whilst Ferrari look to be in bad shape, an early commitment to 2017 might give them the time and space they need to finally produce the title winning car they’ve promised us for so long.
But no big teams seems to be throwing themselves heart and soul at these new 2017 regulations in the same way Mercedes did for 2014. Renault’s plan is much longer term, McLaren Honda are still fighting for credibility in their current season and Red Bull must be tempted to steal another race win before the end of 2016. This may be because the regulations are forming slowly, with important decisions such as the halo device being left to the last minute.
There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to predicting just how teams are splitting resources between the current season and the next, but for those who think the end is near for Mercedes’ domination, I would caution that it is by no means guaranteed.