Has Mercedes created a problem for itself?

Forgive me if I start with a footballing analogy.

A few years ago Swansea City were promoted to the English Premier League. Like just about any side in that situation the focus as far as most were concerned was on whether they could retain their place in the esteemed division. Unusually though for a side in that situation – arguably unusually for an English football side (as in playing in the English league, I know Swansea is in Wales) at all at that point – they were committed to a possession-based, attractive brand of play, rather than something more safety first and run of the mill.  

Such an approach had the potential to bring considerable rewards. But it also had its equally considerable risks, and the main one among them was shown pitilessly in one of their first matches at the top table, against none other than (then) standard-bearers Manchester United. Early on one of Swansea’s defenders, Angel Rangel, picked up the ball not far from his own goal, with opponents nearby. Ordinarily one in that situation employing the ‘traditional’ and low risk approach would have whacked the ball away aimlessly, but Rangel in accordance with his side’s philosophy sought to keep possession and play a pass to a team mate.  But a Man United player intercepted it and within seconds his team had taken full advantage by scoring a goal. It proved decisive as Swansea lost the game 1-0. And sure enough afterwards the vultures in the media and elsewhere swooped, decrying both Rangel and Swansea’s decision to play passing football in defensive areas, declaring it naive and self-defeating; clinging to an impractical ideal. 

But the response of the Swansea manager Brendan Rodgers was resolute: ‘I take 100% blame for that’ he said, ‘it was nothing to do with Angel. I ask him to play that way, and he was doing what I asked, playing with courage.’ 

You may be shrieking at this point ‘what on earth has this got to do with F1?’ (assuming you’re still awake). Well, it serves as a reminder that every decision you make, every approach you frame, will have some downside almost inevitably. Indeed perhaps the most beneficial approaches also have the most conspicuous downsides – you know the one about risk and reward. But Rodgers knew that abandoning a chosen long-term approach simply because on an isolated occasion you’d encountered its foreseeable, and perhaps unavoidable, drawback would be foolish. 

He stuck by it, and got his rewards. Swansea did not get relegated, indeed the team became and remain fixtures in the haughty and lucrative Premier League, all the while standing by the style that has served them so well. While Rodgers himself got his big break in getting the job as manager of Liverpool, where he’s continued to impress.

And similar thoughts occurred to me after – yes – Spa, Nico, Lewis, collisions and all that. We know that Mercedes has had an explicit approach of letting its drivers get on with it on track this year. We should be grateful for it too, as the absence of team orders, particularly the absence of the more extreme variety, has been the season’s saving grace. Perhaps about the only thing separating this campaign with one such as 2002, with soporific races, results that can be predicted reasonably in advance and a sport in crisis. Instead we’ve somehow got a fine season boasting many thrilling Sundays and a gripping championship battle.

But all of this seemed under threat post Spa as, just as Swansea did against Man United, Mercedes in Belgium encountered the most foreseeable downside of its chosen approach, and it was shown rather luridly. Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton came into contact on lap 2 of that race, compromising both of their afternoons in what should have been a straightforward one-two for the Brackley team. Merc boss Toto Wolff in his words afterwards hinted subtly at a change of approach in future. And in addition and again just as was the case with Swansea a few oh-so knowing tribal elders trashed the Merc strategy. Eddie Jordan for one on TV declared that – in a statement that gave scant regard to the fact that the drivers are the ones in the cockpits controlling the cars – ‘the team have to look at themselves first, it’s wrong. What happened here could have been avoided, so easy, by a clear instruction from the team and tell them not to pass each other, don’t cause any problem, until the race settles down. This for me is a boardroom decision, it should never have happened. Don’t blame the drivers.’

His former colleague Gary Anderson while applauding the Mercedes approach as well as describing the clash as racing incident, nevertheless added: ‘But looking back at the season as a whole, I would unhesitatingly blame the Mercedes top brass for a complete failure of management. Would it have been like this if Ross Brawn was still at the helm rather than having left the team at the end of last year? Definitely not. The rules of engagement would have been firmly put in place before the season started, and they would have been enforced decisively.’

Therefore I was rather pleased with the Mercedes team’s eventual official response to it all made at the end of last week. Indeed to some extent it was masterful, achieving about as much as could have been reasonably in the circumstances. Both drivers said words that took a lot of the froth out of the situation while neither really lost face. OK, Nico took responsibility for the contact but anyone with a pair of eyes could see that the culpability – in clumsiness if nothing else – mainly was his. He also got some undefined ‘suitable disciplinary measures’ but again that seemed fair enough as Wolff confirmed, and it was uncontested by Rosberg, that he had made a conscious decision not to yield space as he was fed up doing it before and wanted to ‘prove a point’ (echoes of Alain Prost in Suzuka in 1989). Not deliberately crashing but also not smart in apparently admitting to wilfully not avoiding one.

And the team delivered the icing on the cake that the drivers ‘remain free to race for the 2014 FIA Formula One World Championship’. I was rather cock-a-hoop.

But there was a potential sting in the tail, which you’d have been forgiven for missing. I did initially anyway. This was in the words also present in the Merc statement: ‘It has been made clear that another such incident will not be tolerated.’

Upon first reading there seemed nothing to see. As after all it’s the oldest rule in F1, one that you won’t find a single team boss disputing, that you don’t collide with your team mate. It appeared mere reaffirmation of something that goes without saying anyway. As Niki Lauda said just after Spa’s chequered flag: ‘So far I thought they were clever enough to know that (not to collide with each other).’

But even with this was it the smartest thing to say? Might it cause problems still? 

For the remainder of this season it seems to in effect rule out mistakes from either driver when battling the other – and every single one of us makes mistakes. It also seems to rule out racing incidents. The bottom line is that for a long as cars race each other near at hand they sometimes will come into contact, and apportioning blame isn’t necessarily easy. Mercedes could very easily find itself hoist on its own petard.

And if another collision does happen then what exactly can Merc do? Will the team not presumably be in exactly the same bind as it has been since Spa? As intimated the Merc response reflected the art of the possible; it was largely framed by necessity. It was difficult to see what more could have been done realistically. Demonstrating as much one website outlined the possible Merc options in response to the Spa clash, disciplinary and otherwise, and concluded that each and every one was likely to be either ineffective, counter-productive, or a gross overreaction (or a combination of some of the three). Eddie Jordan’s solution and those that are similar wouldn’t really solve any problems either, more condense them into a shorter period of time, perhaps creating alternative problems in so doing. Some fans called for Rosberg to be stood down for a race by the team, but that never seemed a goer given it fell into the territory of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

If the two silver cars manage to make contact again this year the calls for serious action will be intense – given the team has in effect promised it. But it’ll be double trouble as it’s difficult to see what the team can do.

And was it necessary to say this? To bring us back to the risk and reward balance, the reward of Mercedes sticking by its established approach of letting the drivers race remains considerable. To reiterate, we have an exciting and dramatic championship with a lot of exterior interest which Mercedes benefits from, and the team and company also benefit from the reflected kudos of going racing as nature intended.  While with team orders – in whatever form – Mercedes would have to take a resulting PR hit, and the drivers’ title destination maybe even would be undermined in the public eye. As noted with a Jean Todt at Ferrari-style lockdown perhaps the sport as a whole would most likely have been plunged into crisis and recrimination. As also noted other less ‘extreme’ solutions wouldn’t necessarily be effective.

As for the risk for the Mercs from its prevailing approach, surely that only lays in the loss of either championship. But is this risk significant? You’ll struggle to find anyone who thinks that this year’s constructors’ crown destination will be anywhere other than Brackley, and for all of the excited chatter about Daniel Ricciardo’s chances of pinching the drivers’ title while Nico and Lewis squabble and for all that the Australian has been brilliant this year given the deficit that remains both in points and – probably more importantly – in pace his chances of so doing remain in the realms of fantasy. It’ll likely take another couple of intra-Merc collisions at least to give him a chance, and history suggests that’s not at all likely. Team mates – even highly quarrelsome ones – don’t collide that often. It’s just that we tend to remember it when they do. Whatever is the case, the risk doesn’t seem nearly big enough to justify a change of approach.

It was left to veteran commentator Murray Walker to spell out the situation: ‘I think the whole thing is a gigantic storm in a teacup’ he said. 

‘They’re racing each other for heaven’s sake, they’re in very close proximity and yes the slightest mistake and the slightest deviation from the racing line can result in disaster of some kind or another and that’s exactly what happened in this case and it’ll happen again.

‘You can’t say “there will be no more comings-together”, if Rosberg and Hamilton are wheel-to-wheel there is a danger that they will collide.’

It’s of course part of human nature to seek to seize control, and to reassert it if it appears to have been lost. The desire to do so is probably particularly acute if you are one in authority. Possibly such feelings concentrated the Merc management’s minds; that they felt the need to say something in that regard. But it might not have led them to the best conclusion. 

Far the better one would have been to take their cue from what Brendan Rodgers did in a similar situation and stick to your guns.

Just imagine if Merc’s response to all of this – perhaps in addition to whatever knuckle-rap it was for Rosberg for his ‘point proving’ – had been: we let our drivers race. With this they might collide occasionally. So nothing changes.

It’s hard to see how anyone could credibly have argued.