Are media outlets giving Mercedes a free pass for its underachievement in Formula 1? This was a question put to us for The Race’s Miami Grand Prix race review episode, and initially it seemed an odd one.
After all, since the problems Mercedes was battling first became apparent in pre-season testing last year the coverage has largely been one of ongoing struggles. There have been occasional upturns, but none sustained, and Mercedes is now pinning its hopes on what team principal Toto Wolff calls its “new baseline” with the upgrade to be introduced at Imola.
The Race has produced countless stories about the shortcomings of Mercedes and its unsuccessful attempts to get back on terms with Red Bull, as well as many hours of podcast and video coverage. The same is true of Ferrari, and the essential truth that the question posed points to is the fundamental difference in the way the two teams confront failure. For one is much more open to admitting its shortcomings in public, the other less so.
The question was put to us by Jeremy Hustead via The Race Members’ Club, which we take questions from in each of our race review podcasts episodes. In full, the question read: “Are many media outlets giving Mercedes too much of a pass despite their continual struggles? It seems that if Ferrari or Red Bull had repeatedly failed at grasping these regulations there would be much more outrage. Instead, it’s largely been continual excuse-making not just from the Mercedes team but also many in the media.”
The answer given by Mark Hughes on the podcast focused on why there would need to be “outrage” at all.
“I don’t think we’re here to judge really, I think we’re here to report and analyse,” said Hughes. “So I don’t think I would be outraged if Red Bull had messed up the car, just as I’m not outraged Mercedes has but I wouldn’t shy away from describing the shortcomings.
“That’s the function of the media, it’s not to be part of the fanbase of cheering for your team and booing for the other team or booing when your own team is not as good as you want it to be. It’s just not a perspective from which I’ve ever followed the sport and I don’t think for many of us in the media approach it.
“So it’s not a case of being critical or excessively praising, it’s just a case of describing and analysing.”
One of the most frustrating disconnects between the more vocal aspects of the fanbase and the media (which, it should be noted, is a disparate group of varying opinions rather than some monolithic entity) is that, certainly for those of us at The Race, who wins or loses is not really the focus. Far more interesting is the why and how.
‘Outrage’ therefore isn’t really on the radar. F1 is a profoundly challenging enterprise and a team producing a car that’s losing tenths of a second over a lap of between two and 4.5 miles is hardly incompetent.
There is also an interesting point in that we have generally been more critical of Ferrari than Mercedes for what, in the broadest of brush-strokes, amounts to a similar thing. This year, both are underachieving and the same was true last year, although Ferrari by a far smaller margin. But what dictates the response is the team’s own approach.
In the case of Mercedes, it has been publicly self-critical to the point of self-flagellation. If the facts say a team is underachieving and the team itself is very open about what it has got wrong then there’s very little to challenge. Some complain about the tendency for self-flagellation at Mercedes, but it’s clear it takes its own shortcomings seriously.
As for ‘excuses’, explaining the reasons for Mercedes underachieving is hardly excusing it. There are reasons for getting something wrong, and there’s never been any suggestion its struggles in the new ground effect era come from anywhere other than within. If your simulation tools are misleading you, they are still your tools so it’s down to you to make them better.
Short of doing our best to understand and explain why Mercedes has got things wrong, there’s little more to say about it. It’s a team that should be fighting at the front and its failure this year has contributed to this season’s underwhelming narrative at the sharp end. The appropriate response from my perspective is disappointment, but not outrage.
Then we come to Ferrari. There has been more obvious criticism of Ferrari for a lesser form of underachievement, but it is entirely in response to the way the team publicly presents its problems. Last year, team principal Mattia Binotto continually downplayed strategic errors regardless of the frequency of such mistakes. Contrast that to the Mercedes approach to such failings, which occasionally included over-the-radio apologies to Lewis Hamilton in the past, and there’s a clear difference.
There’s not much point in pointing out a team that’s failing, that continually admits its failing, and that tries to explain why is failing, is failing. But a team that downplays it endlessly does merit such scrutiny.
Ferrari’s tone has changed slightly this year, but it has not been transformed. There’s a fine line between not throwing your team to the wolves with criticism and denying the extent of the problem and Ferrari still leans more towards the latter. Perhaps it encapsulates part of the long-term problem at Ferrari.
Elite sport is a ruthless business. Being simply ‘good’ as Mercedes and Ferrari both are to a greater or lesser extent, is not good enough because there will likely be another entity, in this case Red Bull, that is doing an outstanding job.
For both, there’s a need to recognise the problems, understand them and tackle them. That’s not making excuses, it’s diagnosing and fixing. How long that takes and when – or should that be if – it’s successful is what matters. And as a media organisation, The Race will continue to report on their progress and the reasons why what happens happens. After all, if coverage was limited to praising the winners and condemning the losers, that would be dull.
This is also a recognition of the value of such questions, which nurture a deeper understanding of the perspective both inside and outside of F1. That’s what made what seemed initially a strange question into an insightful one.
While the premise of ‘outrage’ and ‘excuses’ didn’t chime with what we do, it did lead down a train of thought towards the heart of the perception of why this might be the case, and a key difference between the two F1 teams that should be up there to make it a thrilling six-car battle.
The only thing close to requiring outrage is the fact their collective failure has made this season less thrilling than it could have been.