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Formula 1

Is the 2020 Mercedes its best version yet?

by Edd Straw
7 min read

Mercedes has won all three races, taken all three pole positions, occupied five out of a maximum of six podium positions and scored 91.6% of the maximum potential points in 2020 so far. Without Lewis Hamilton’s penalty in the Austrian Grand Prix and Valtteri Bottas’s bad start in Hungary, those numbers might be even closer to perfection.

Its dominance has led to the question of whether it might achieve be able to sweep the season, an idea that seems premature after just three races but that isn’t ridiculous to ask given its supremacy. It would be a unique achievement in world championship history, although both Alfa Romeo (1950) and Ferrari (1952) effectively pulled it off in the days when the Indianapolis 500 was a points race in name only.

The Mercedes pace advantage over the rest (disregarding the Styrian Grand Prix weekend given the lack of fair data) has been a massive 1.365% – larger by some margin than its average over the previous six years of domination and the biggest of its advantages over the first three races in that period.

This is a very limited data set and you cannot draw anything other than the most tentative conclusions from it, especially as Red Bull struggled so badly on single-lap pace at the Hunagoring. But all the signs are that Mercedes will prevail again this season and, based on the inadequate sample provided by two circuits and three weekends, that this is not only its best car yet in terms of power, downforce and handling but also the one with the biggest advantage.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Race Day Budapest, Hungary

We shouldn’t be surprised. Since the start of the 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014 it has won every world championship going and 96 out of 124 races. To put that into context, that’s a 77% win rate compared to the 67% achieved by Ferrari when it swept 2000-2004. No constructor has ever had this level of sustained success.

Such supremacy is not achieved by accident and is far more difficult to achieve than it seems. On the surface all looks largely serene, but underwater it requires frantic but controlled kicking to keep afloat at this rarefied level with nine other teams all trying to drag you down.

It’s important not to lose sight of how extraordinarily difficult it is to stay on top. It might seem boring, but that doesn’t mean it is easy and when asked if this straightforward domination was bad for the world championship fight ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend, Mercedes technical director James Allison was quick to stress how tough it is.

“In the question is an assumption that this is just an easy cakewalk and I can just say it doesn’t feel like that sitting in our shoes,” said Allison.

“We’re expecting this year to be a fight. We’re expecting to have to develop strongly because if we blink we’ll be swallowed up. If you want evidence of that, take a look at Friday of the second Austria where we went from looking pretty good in the first Austria to looking worse than average.

“We were beaten handsomely in free practice on Friday because we weren’t paying enough attention and if we don’t pay enough attention, either to how we approach each race weekend or how we develop the car through the year, we’ll get overrun very, very quickly.”

Allison was speaking before Mercedes did appear to have something of a cakewalk at the Hungarian Grand Prix, although even then it ‘only’ came away with first and third place split by Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. It is unlikely to have many weekends with such a clear margin.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Hungarian Grand Prix Race Day Budapest, Hungary

It’s easy to shrug off the achievements of Mercedes. It has a big budget, great facilities and high-quality staff. But resources, be they financial or human, are only a prerequisite of success, not a guarantee. Over the years, we’ve seen so many teams with vast potential fall short of even achieving a fraction of the success Mercedes has, so by definition it can’t be as easy as the critics believe.

What makes Mercedes so effective is the culture within the team. Granted, it’s easy to talk about a robust culture in the good times as success can paper over the cracks, but the fact that this success has been sustained – uniquely through a major car regulation change in 2017 – confirms that when cracks appear they are quickly repaired.

“I guess we’re lucky,” said Allison. “We’ve been a well-funded team, we’ve been a stable team, we’ve had strong support from our parent company and consistent leadership.

“But I think one of the best things about the place is that it has a good culture. And the culture is one of not resting on its laurels, never feeling entitled to the performance we’ve enjoyed and being willing to pass the challenge of finding improvement in the car down from the top of the team through the layers in the team so that everyone feels a part of making the car stronger.

“Racing the car more strongly, providing us with the environment in which we can make that strong car – all parts of the many-cogged machine that is an F1 team play their part in producing what you see. It is down to a team with a good culture in it.“

Perhaps the key phrase there is “never feeling entitled”. Just because you won yesterday doesn’t mean you will win tomorrow is perhaps another way of looking at this. To maximise your chances of success you must push constantly while being brutally honest about your weaknesses. Mercedes appears to have achieved this balance, while adhering to the position of blaming the problem rather than the person to ensure that there’s no nervousness about an individual sticking their hand up and admitting to a problem. This culture appears to prevail both on the chassis and engine side.

It wasn’t always this way at Brackley. Remember, this team had some difficult times after being created as BAR in 1999 out of the acquisition of Tyrrell. Those who worked there talk of a very different culture, where it was all about departments ensure the ‘blame’ was found to be elsewhere. This kind of politicised environment can rise very easily, especially given the tendency of some individuals to try and cover their own inadequacies by playing politics, but it gets you nowhere.

Formel 1 Grand Prix Von England

This honesty and determination to push on even when on top is particularly essential in F1 today. The ebbs and flows of performance – all of which are defined by relative rather than absolute pace – take time to happen.

That’s why it’s essential neither to ease off nor to drop your standards. If you do the former, you will get swallowed up by someone else’s progress but if you do the latter, you risk lazily committing to a development direction that might lead to your downfall a few months down the line. And it would be wrong to assume that a team like Red Bull is not going to fix its problems and make a car that has been erratic into the serious threat that those at Milton Keynes believe it should be.

We also must not ignore the impact of this approach on the rest, as any rival aiming to close the gap must not only match but eclipse the rate of Mercedes development. Exerting that sort of pressure to reach for big gains can also undermine rivals and perhaps has even played a part in Red Bull tripping itself up aerodynamically this season.

The car and therefore the race results – especially with drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas firmly integrated into this culture – are the sole arbiter of whether this is working. And so far, for Mercedes, they have shown it to be unbeatable in this era of F1.

Every empire crumbles and Mercedes won’t be on top forever, but by staying true to these values it is possible to fight against gravity for that bit longer. And there is a tantalising carrot to grasp for beyond the possibility of the hope of a perfect season.

If Mercedes were to achieve that – and history tells us that even if it retains a performance advantage there are myriad banana skins waiting to trip it up that require a combination of skill and luck to avoid – then it would be by definition its most dominant car yet. If it is to achieve that status in terms of average performance advantage, it must eclipse the 0.881% average advantage it had over the second-fastest car in 2014. In this quickfire season, it’s not impossible even though it’s hard to image Red Bull not sorting out its problems.

Alex Albon Lewis Hamilton Red Bull Mercedes F1 Austria 2020

If we assume Mercedes prevails this year and in 2021, which is currently a fair prediction based on the available evidence of its form and the effectiveness of its way of working, that will give it eight consecutive back-to-back titles. That will extend its own record for the most sustained team success, and will likely mean Hamilton breaks Michael Schumacher’s records for world titles and victories.

But the following year come the new regulations. If Mercedes can negotiate the tripwire of these new regulations, which include not only cost-capping but tighter technical rules that will make it harder to find performance advantages, it will have done something incredible.

If that happens, many will shrug their shoulders and call it boring. But in sport there’s nothing boring about excellence and, even if you don’t like it, the scale of the achievement would be wondrous and worthy of appreciation.

If we’re still talking about the domination of Mercedes in 2022, then we might just be talking about the greatest grand prix team of all time – with perhaps only Ferrari’s longevity to rival it.

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