Progress not panic – paying homage to five-times constructors’ champion Mercedes
Last week something remarkable happened. Though I’ll forgive if you didn’t dwell much on it. Mercedes took its fifth F1 constructors’ title in a row. A feat only ever matched by F1’s most towering force of Ferrari with Schumacher, Todt, Brawn et al, which took six in a row from 1999 to 2004.
The confirmation of Mercedes’s achievement was, outside of the squad itself at any stretch, rather a footnote in the Brazil race's proceedings. No doubt it’s explained partially by Max Verstappen-gate. But it wasn’t just that. Try to think back and pinpoint when in the previous four campaigns Merc taped up the constructors’ crown without looking it up. It ain’t easy.
On some level it reflects the general relative external profile of the constructors’ championship versus the drivers’, that has always existed. Equally our attention, and not just in F1, goes institnctively towards the new. It’s much tougher to acknowledge something that never changes – and that includes relentless winning.
But again perhaps more is going on. If you feel desensitised to a team’s crushing run of championships then it’s forgivable, as these days they’re not exactly unusual. F1 now is in the age of the dynasty. Increasingly so – Merc’s five-title run follows on directly from Red Bull’s four in in a row, which in turn wasn’t that far on from Ferrari’s six-year run mentioned. Go back a little further and you have Williams taking five from six, and right before that McLaren took four on the spin.
It goes deeper. Since the start of the 1980s only three constructors’ titles have not been won as part of a multiple run: Benetton’s in 1995, and that almost certainly would have been part of a pair without Schumacher’s various disqualifications and race bans in ’94; McLaren’s in ‘98, and it rather threw away the following year’s title, and Brawn’s in that extreme outlying interregnum of 2009.
It wasn’t always this way either. Prior to 1980, Ferrari in the mid-‘70s was the only team to get so many as three titles in a row and otherwise two in a row happened only three times. Time was we spoke of retaining a title as the Holy Grail, as teams would tend to – at the tiniest of micro levels – rest on their laurels enough to let others usurp them.
“Undoubtedly there is an infectious disease which afflicts every World Champion and his team, and it’s been going on for years,” Jackie Stewart said in 1986. “It’s not right to say that the guy who’s champion loses his edge, or that the designer relaxes, the mechanics lose interest or whatever. But somewhere along the line these occur – I’m talking decimal points but they all add up.”
If you feel desensitised to a team’s crushing run of championships then it’s forgivable. F1 now is in the age of the dynasty. Since the start of the 1980s only three constructors’ titles have not been won as part of a multiple run.
Not now. And we can hypothesise why. These days a top F1 team’s staff numbers in the hundreds rather than can be seated in a mini-bus. Building a championship-winning squad is a slow and delicate process and by extension the team stays at its winning pitch for longer once there. Restrictive regulations make leaping to the front with a single eureka moment near-impossible.
Possibly the difficulty in acknowledging Mercedes’s achievement reflects the detail as well. That its dominance is peculiar to the hybrid formula age. Mercedes started the era way ahead having given more time, resource and attention to the new regulations and for years previously – it all came together to send its cars into the most virtuous of circles. And it’s stayed ahead ever since.
The sport’s financial skew – manifested in the notorious Class A and Class B – further means that Mercedes has had in effect only two rivals. One of which has been hamstrung from the start by poor engines. The other is, well, Ferrari. Which remains adept at finding ways to defeat itself.
But having all this as your conclusion would be harsh. The Mercedes of modern times is deserving of its run of success, and by extension of inclusion in the conversation of F1’s most formidable squads ever. It at least deserves to detain us for a few paragraphs.
We often hear about how Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton made a difference in ensuring his top spot this year, particularly at the season’s crucial phase, and it’s true. But almost exactly the same can be said about his team. Team, like driver, made the very best of a favourable hand. Crucially so to beat its main rival.
Mercedes’s team operation was smooth – barely a beat was missed. This is in stark contrast to its wayward direct opponent Ferrari. And it is another thing that wasn’t always this way. At the start of Mercedes’s run of titles, up until fairly recently indeed, the consensus view was that it was relying heavily on its car advantage. That operationally it could be made to crack under pressure. No one says that now.
And it’s true what they say, that it’s in adversity that we see the true character. This was so with Mercedes in 2018, in a couple of moments in particular.
Mercedes’s team operation was smooth, in stark contrast to its wayward direct opponent Ferrari. At the start of Mercedes’s run of titles the consensus view was that operationally it could be made to crack under pressure. No one says that now.
Take Austria’s race wherein Mercedes made a rare error. It lost a likely win for Hamilton via not pitting him under a Virtual Safety Car. And Mercedes’s chief strategist James Vowles apologised personally to Hamilton during the race via team radio.
It wasn’t a no-brainer for him to do so either – Red Bull boss Christian Horner for one called the move “unfair” on Vowles while some went further and accused the team of throwing Vowles ‘under the bus’. But instead it reflected a healthy environment in which people take ownership and learn from mistakes, and crucially can do so without recrimination. Something again in contrast with Ferrari which has long been notorious for heads on plates when things go wrong. Compare it also with Scuderia boss Maurizio Arrivabene in Japan trashing his team publically after a qualifying mis-step.
“In this particular instance it was James showing an extremely broad pair of shoulders, standing up and saying ‘that’s my mistake, Lewis, and I’m very sorry for it’,” Mercedes technical director James Allison said of what happened in Austria.
“I think that’s characteristic of James but also a measure of how this team operates, where people will hold up a hand when they have made a mistake knowing that the team’s attitude to mistakes is that they are things that they learn from rather than throw blame around for or cause great polemics within the team.”
Boss Toto Wolff confirms that this is absolutely, deliberately, the case. “What we’ve tried to establish is a safe environment which is easier said than done,” he noted. “There is a lot of pressure, but we are trying to channel it in a positive way.”
Wolff seeks to empower his staff and not interfere in the hands-on decision-making. That he, in a rarity of among F1 team bosses, stays away from the pitwall during on-track running is a visual manifestation.
It's a measure of how this team operates, where people will hold up a hand when they have made a mistake knowing that the team’s attitude to mistakes is that they are things that they learn from rather than throw blame around - James Allison
In Japan Wolff as an illustration cited a 2010 plane crash in Russia that killed the Polish president and 95 other people. “It was two very, very experienced fighter pilots that were flying the plane,” Wolff said. “They aborted two of the landing attempts because the fog was too thick and there wasn’t an automatic landing system at the airport.
“The head of the air force came into the cockpit and says ‘we are landing’. They landed, executing his order, and killed almost 100 people.
“So when our plane flies in qualifying and in the race, James [Vowles] flies the airplane and all I can do is comment and give him feedback and input. But ultimately, it’s his decision what to do. He’s in command at that moment, even though from my ranking I’m higher up I will not interfere.”
This season was hardly a walk in the park for Mercedes either. Ferrari for the measure of the campaign had the better car, and as late as the Belgian round at Spa there looked no way for Mercedes to prevail. The silver car’s traction and performance in the slow stuff was poor, in turn blistering its tyres. Worst of all it was a mile behind in the engine power game and had no upgrades left (or at least none without having to take grid penalties).
“He came sailing past me like it was nothing,” Hamilton said of Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari right after the Belgian race. “We made a big step coming into this weekend; they made an even bigger step...”
Just what exactly happened to Ferrari’s prodigious grunt subsequently remains a matter of speculation, but again it was in adversity that we saw the best of Mercedes. As it is doubtless that it made its own vast improvement at the same time.
“As a team we have used the difficult moments to progress rather than panic,” Wolff explained. “[We] use mistakes to improve as a collective.
“Success is a lousy teacher; you scrutinise yourself much more if you lost. At Spa we came back [home] and we felt the pain. It was really bad because we had the upgrade and it didn’t work out as we wanted; Ferrari seemed to be very strong.
As a team we have used the difficult moments to progress rather than panic. Success is a lousy teacher - Toto Wolff
“But on the Monday I felt a buzz in the two factories that I haven’t felt before. It was almost like ‘OK we have a proper fight on our hands now and now we just have to come together as a team and enjoy this’. Because what would you rather do? Embrace the huge opportunity that you have, but equally push yourself to the very limit
“What I’ve seen is that everybody is so motivated; everybody wants to do a better job than his opposite person in the other team. And that kept us pushing and kept us on a constant development slope.”
It’s not clear where it all ends either. A big regulation change usually is associated with a competitive reset, indeed such a thing ended Ferrari’s and Red Bull’s championship runs mentioned. But the next big change isn’t due until 2021. Let’s not forget either that Mercedes’s imperious sweep has survived one vast reg shift already.
There’s little sign of relent either. “We’ve been already discussing why we were blistering the tyres again [in Brazil] and how we need to improve to come back strong next year,” Wolff noted in his championship afterglow.
“I promise you tomorrow back in the factory everybody in the debriefing room is going to talk about things that went wrong and that need to be improved for next year!”