Staying ahead of the game
February 22, 2018 by Joe Saward
The Mercedes F1 team has achieved remarkable success in recent years, not just by building fast racing cars, but also by holding together and not getting caught up in politics that can fragment even the best teams. Success is great “glue” to hold things together, but ego is still ego and ambitious people tend to get into self-created messes over who is responsible for success. Toto Wolff must be given a great deal of credit for creating an atmosphere in which friction is kept to a minimum.
And while it may all look like a swan, gliding along with ease and grace, under the water there is a lot of effort going on at Mercedes – and there are definitely things that create friction. Last year, for example, one can argue that the Mercedes was not the best chassis. The engine was strong and reliable, but at times the car was not as good as the Ferrari or the Red Bull, and one can even argue the case that the McLaren was probably a better chassis. So the main thrust of improvement this winter will have been at Brackley, while Brixworth will have continued on its way, driving engine development forwards, while making sure that the power units stay reliable.
The word from inside the empire is that the various parties are much happier with the results coming out of the simulation tests and so they are confident that the car will be competitive again and nothing seen so far at the other launches has raised any concerns.
Of course, they are waiting to see what Ferrari comes up with and one has to say that things have been very quiet down Maranello way, with little in the way of leaks and the focus looking inwards, getting the job done. There was a little gossip a week or so ago about plans for a major change in the engine in the midseason, with work that has been going on for more than a year now deemed to be reliable enough to be used. So watch out for a jump forward in the middle of the year.
Having said that, Ferrari’s chief engineer of its power units Lorenzo Sassi left the team last summer and will soon join Mercedes and his input can only help the folk at Brixworth find new solutions, knowing what Ferrari knows and integrating that into its engines in the months ahead. The Mercedes folk are also keen to see how Red Bull and McLaren do this year, as there is a lot of respect for both organisations, which is sensible given their histories.
In the meantime, the team continues to work on securing Lewis Hamilton beyond the end of 2017. There is believed to be a three-year deal on the table and there are no signs that Lewis has any desire to go elsewhere, despite press reports. The key issue is how long Lewis wants to go on racing at this level and this will largely be about performance. At this stage of his career Hamilton does not really want to go into another cycle of building up to success with a new team and as he clearly has other ambitions outside F1, it is really about how he feels about the car. Thus if the new car is competitive, I expect Lewis will sign a new deal.
The team needs his commitment but a three year deal is still a lo for him to accept. In the interim the team needs to be suitably prepared from the future and it has Valtteri Bottas, of course, and Esteban Ocon waiting in the wings. It also probably has access to Daniel Ricciardo, as he cannot want to stay on at Red Bull forever as Max Verstappen has his feet firmly under the desk at Milton Keynes. Daniel is almost a match for Max in most situations and so would be a good bet for Mercedes in the future if it needs another driver.
The same, however, can be said for Ferrari which cannot forever hang on to Kimi Raikkonen. If the team’s financial advantages are to be reduced (which looks likely) Ferrari needs to get more more from the prize money and mounting a proper two-car attack on Mercedes is the way to do it. Raikkonen is the weak link and so one can imagine that Ricciardo will be the Italian shopping list as well. Charles Leclerc is currently the man surrounded by Ferrari hype but in a few months that may have reduced a little depending on how things go with Sauber. Marcus Ericsson is no slouch but Leclerc needs to be beating him all the time if he is to avoid the fate of Pascal Wehrlein, a talented guy who is out of F1 when perhaps he should not be…