Feature: Where does it end for Mercedes?

“Undoubtedly there is an infectious disease which afflicts every world champion and team, and it’s been going on for years. It’s not right to say that the guy who’s champion loses his edge, or that the designer relaxes, the mechanics lose interest of whatever. But somewhere along the line, these things occur – I’m talking about decimal points but they add up.”

You may recognise these as the words of Jackie Stewart. Though it’s forgivable if you don’t. He said them back in 1986, just after Alain Prost had clinched the world drivers’ championship against the odds. And there was a reason Stewart said what he said. Prost’s title was his second in a row, and this, at the time, was exceedingly rare. The Formula 1 world championship had existed for 36 years and Prost was only the fourth ever to win a back-to-back drivers’ title, as well as the first to do so since Jack Brabham in 1959-60. Even back-to-back titles for a team were at that point rare by modern standards.

But they emphatically are not rare now. JYS wasn’t to know it, but when he said those words he stood on the cusp of F1’s historical turning point. Since 1986, by stark contrast, only two world championships have not been as part of a multiple run for either the driver or team (or both) – those being Jenson Button and Brawn’s grand outlier triumph in 2009, and Lewis Hamilton’s 2008 title with McLaren. And given what happened in 2007 the latter likely should have formed part of a double.

Looking at a chronological list of champions asserts the point that we live in the age of the F1 dynasty. From 1988 McLaren started four championship doubles on the bounce. From 1992 Williams immediately picked up the baton, taking nine of the next 12 available championships. There then was a brief spell of McLaren success before Ferrari and Michael Schumacher shifted the Overton window further, taking all five title doubles from 2000 to 2004.

Renault and Fernando Alonso then took back-to-back doubles of their own, prior to a brief spell of unusual flux before the new normal reasserted itself. From 2010 Red Bull took four drivers’ and constructors’ doubles uninterrupted, then from 2014 Mercedes immediately did the same…except going one better with five – and counting – clean sweeps on the spin.

A sobering thought is that Mercedes may not even be stopped via the relative micro level of whether Ferrari can at last make good on its car. Based on the lessons of the past, it will likely take something big

It’s tempting to ask also where it will end. It has to end of course, as that is the way not only of F1 but of the world. Right now though there aren’t obvious clues as to what will end it; the team is looking more imperious than ever in claiming five 1-2 finishes from five rounds so far this year. Some even now are beginning to whisper about Merc in 2019 doing what McLaren famously didn’t in 1988…

And a sobering thought is that Mercedes may not even be stopped via the relative micro level of whether Ferrari can, at last, make good on its car. Rather, based on the lessons of the past, it will likely take something big, on the macro level, to stop the juggernaut.

The first thing history tells us is that, at least as often as opponents defeat a dominant team, the dominant team – on some level – in the end, defeats itself.

Sooner or later, key people have to be replaced. Drivers and engineers move on or get old. Sometimes the success even encourages such nomadism – people seek fresh tasks and motivation; they perceive that they’ve done everything they’re likely to do where they are. “After 10 years of doing the same thing, I need a new challenge,” said Ross Brawn about leaving Ferrari at the end of 2006, after a spell of extraordinary dominance.

In some cases, they just get bored or frustrated with the whole goddamned business more widely. Plenty of design geniuses start to find F1 and its ways just too restraining. Gordon Murray thought so; there were elements of it with Adrian Newey partially stepping aside from the F1 frontline at Red Bull to work on other projects. Plenty reckon Colin Chapman got distracted by extra-curricular activities – such as aeroplanes and John DeLorean – towards the end.

Rumours abound that boss Toto Wolff considering his next step. He has been linked with succeeding Chase Carey as F1 Group CEO. Then there is his star driver, Lewis Hamilton...

And if you’re unlucky lots of people leave at roughly the same time, such as with McLaren in the early-nineties, Benetton in the mid-nineties and the all-conquering Ferrari in the mid-noughties. Succession is never an easy task.

The phenomena could apply to Mercedes in the imminent future. Rumours abound that its boss Toto Wolff, whose contract expires at the end of 2020, is considering his next step. He has been linked with succeeding Chase Carey as F1 Group CEO. Then there is his star driver, Lewis Hamilton. His contract also is thought to extend only to the end of next season; Wolff has helpfully just linked him with Ferrari. We know too that Hamilton has plenty of interests outside of F1.

But then again, Mercedes even during its current run of success has had a senior figure change, with James Allison replacing Paddy Lowe and its technical head. And it scarcely missed a beat. Plus if it retains its competitive edge then surely it won’t have problems attracting drivers.

Maybe even the organisation itself seeks new challenges and loses some sense of what made it successful in the first place. Plenty trace the end of McLaren’s late eighties/early nineties preponderance to its decision to start building road cars, spreading itself too thinly as a result.

When Ferrari sought to rebuild after its mid-noughties exodus mentioned, Ferrari president Luca Montezemolo had an explicit desire to ‘Italianise’ the team, by putting Italians into key senior positions and shifting away from the previous more international line-up. The wisdom of this can be questioned; it may have cost the team the redoubtable Ross Brawn who, as his own next step demonstrated, fancied a team principal role.

And for one such as Mercedes, there’s a tangible threat, repeated throughout history. That racing is not the company’s raison d’etre as it is, say, with Williams, and even arguably with McLaren and Ferrari. The Mercedes board may perceive of the law of diminishing returns from the F1 investment, especially as time goes on, and scratch the F1 effort at the stroke of a pen. Even success on the track doesn’t entirely guard against this.

Racing is not the company’s raison d’etre as it is, say, with Williams. The Mercedes board may perceive of law of diminishing returns from the F1 investment

In the here and now, Mercedes is poised to enter a Formula E works team, with electric mobility appearing the immediate future for manufacturers. All at Merc insist in public though it won’t impact the F1 programme. But they wouldn’t be the first to say such a thing and it to turn out not to be the case.

Another matter that can scupper a dominant team is what the UK Prime Minister of yesteryear Harold Macmillan coined as “events dear boy, events”. In F1, events have been tragic, such as Francois Cevert’s death at Watkins Glen in 1973 undermining Tyrrell’s succession plan for Stewart’s retirement, or dramatic, such as Niki Lauda’s fiery accident at the Nurburgring in 1976, and its associated political fallout at Maranello, deflating the strength of mid-seventies’ Ferrari. And yes, there’s Mercedes, albeit first time around, ending its dominant F1 spell and its motorsport involvement more widely at the end of 1955 because of that year’s Le Mans Disaster.

A eureka moment by another team can leave you floundering too, such as the ground effect in the late 1970s diluting Ferrari and McLaren’s strength, or Williams ending McLaren’s run of titles with its advances in electronic mod cons in the early 1990s. There was Brawn – and others – with the double diffuser in 2009. It’ll provide comfort to Mercedes that, in the modern F1 landscape with its ultra-restrictive rules, such things are rarer than they’ve ever been.

Yet by far, the most common point of departure is a big technical rule change. It forces everyone back to base camp, and others either by good luck or good engineering can get it right more quickly. Most recently the hybrid formula brought in for 2014 well and truly scuppered the previously-imposing Red Bull – or more to the point scuppered its engine supplier Renault. The introduction of the 1.5-litre formula for 1961 sent Cooper from dominance to the midfield at a stroke. The 3-litre formula in 1966 scuppered Lotus briefly; BRM terminally. The technical changes for 2009 put the previously-imperious McLaren and Ferrari onto the back foot overnight, as the previous pretenders recognised and exploited the regs’ potential more quickly.

As well as changing the cars Liberty clearly is minded to bring in a more even financial playing field. A more level landscape will give Merc new things to think about

For Williams and its decline from 1997 a few things came together at the same time, both its genius designer Newey and its engine supplier Renault left in quick order, and just too when there was a big chassis rule change meaning it couldn’t rely on tweaking its existing successful car. Plus Adam Parr for one reckons the new Concorde Agreement signed at that time was unfavourable to the team (or, more to the point, favourable to Ferrari).

And, for Mercedes, a much-lauded technical shift in F1 awaits, for the 2021 season. But then again, this modern imperious Mercedes squad has already passed this kind of test. It faced the grand change in chassis regulations for 2017; its title bagging continued unabated. A flip-side to the above considerations is that the better-resourced teams, of which Mercedes is one, have the higher probability of being able to work out how to get the new regulations right, as they can throw more resource at the problem.

But on that subject, there’s something else that might change for 2021. The teams’ contracts are up and new deals have to be agreed. And as well as changing the cars Liberty clearly is minded to bring in a more even financial playing field, be it through revenue redistribution, a cost cap, or a combination of the two.

Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull currently get massive bonuses just for existing, with Wolff able to sell Mercedes’ F1 involvement to the board on the grounds that it largely pays for itself. Of course, it would be churlish to say Mercedes’ success has been all about money, and it remains to be seen what Liberty can actually bring in. But a more level landscape will give Merc new things to think about.

And currently, it seems the most tangible threat to Mercedes’ dominance. Which is saying something.