Sure, anything can happen in Formula 1. It’s never over until it’s over but there is also common sense and historic precedent that tends to betray whatever narrative the F1 press or teams wish you to believe.
Mercedes has won both driver and constructor championships since they lobbied/threatened F1 to move toward a hybrid engine in 2014. That engine was a strong development technology the manufacturer was heavily invested in and as such, they’ve had a baked-in advantage since 2014 in terms of power, performance modes and engine mapping with their MGU-H and MGU-K systems.
Mercedes has kept a 0.5-1.0s advantage over its competition for quite some time now and this weekend’s Australian Gran Prix qualifying sessions suggests that they still do. Race pace can be something else, of course, and anything can happen in a race but on the balance of it, on this track, Mercedes appear to have a clear advantage.
I’m not taking anything away from Mercedes and their ability to build a car. It is the same rules for everyone but within those rules, Mercedes knew what they were doing when, then boss Ross Brawn, advocated for the hybrid. The team then moved to Toto Wolff’s office to run and they’ve built a terrific operation with some of the sport’s best minds. You can’t take that away from them in the lest.
That level of success had a negative impact on the sport back in 2,000 to 2,005 when Ferrari enjoyed a run. It got crusty when Red Bull had their run in 2010 through 2013. Five and four titles respectively. The sport’s fans got tired of seeing Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel winning everything.
F1 is a British sport and perhaps the same boredom has not quite set in with fans when watching Lewis Hamilton win title after title in a car that is in another performance category just as the Ferrari and Red Bull were. Perhaps for fans, these are the salad days when a British driver is unbeatable and on the cusp of rewriting the history books. I’m not British but I can understand why they’d be perfectly fine with the domination of the sport.
Ferrari have reshuffled their management yet again this season and unless they have a superior race pace on Sunday’s, they’ll have yet another very large hill to climb to beat Mercedes in 2019. Could the management changes see Ferrari out-develop Mercedes in 2019? Last year, it was quite opposite. Mercedes pummeled the entire field with their level of development.
Mercedes is able to do this because they are improving the car each year. It is an evolution of a car with a baked-in advantage. It is exactly where you’d hope to be as a constructor. It is where Ferrari were in 2004 and where Red Bull were in 2013.
The knock-on effect
I believe we are getting to a point where non-British fans and fans who don’t call Lewis Hamilton their favorite driver are growing weary of yet another Mercedes domination of F1. In the past, the former owners of F1 would change the regulations to hobble Ferrari or Red Bull and balance the grid by removing elements that were key to the successful team’s performance.
This year they’ve made changes but they are changes that, quite honestly, the big teams were able to get on top of because they are quicker this year than last year. They weren’t changes that would bring Mercedes back into the clutches of the main field but they may be changes that have tightened the midfield teams up even more. Time will tell.
The reason I believe the Mercedes domination is beginning to sour some of the sport’s fans is because of the rhetoric coming out of Mercedes and Toto Wolff.
In testing, Mercedes were sandbagging and Wolff made comments to the effect that the changes could see anyone challenge them…even Williams. That was laughable given the resources of those two teams. The notion of Mercedes “being in trouble” is equally laughable.
Lewis Hamilton said they were in trouble and 0.5s off the pace of Ferrari. That was nonsense and even Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc called them on it. What was even worse is that the press, carrying water for F1 which is their livelihood, were saying Ferrari had the edge over Mercedes and this season was going to be a real cracker of a season.
It still may be if Ferrari can out-develop Mercedes or if they have better race pace dude to a chassis that is better on tires etc. Sure, anything can happen. From my vantage point, the domination is even worse than I may be anticipating or sensing as a raft of stories after Saturday’s qualifying came out in the press.
Headlines like: “Why even Mercedes were shocked by Australian GP qualifying” or “Mercedes still unsure if it’s fast as Melbourne qualifying suggests” or “Mercedes blown away by shock Australian GP qualifying advantage” or “Mercedes says speed trace shows Honda’s huge 2019 F1 step forward” or “Mercedes not sure where qualifying pace came from”.
For me, all of this is bulls***. Mercedes is trying to play their domination down, bigging up other teams in an effort to suggest they are really being harried by fierce competitors and offering false humility statements about their being unsure if they really are quick and how surprised they are by their pace. BS!
They know damn well where they are and where they have been. They are evolving a car that had over 1.5s advantage from their nearest competitor in 2014 and with their resources, they’ve managed to keep that advantage around .5s throughout the past five seasons.
I didn’t have an issue when Ferrari won everything from 2000 to 2005 (why would I? I’m a Ferrari fan) nor did it bother me when Red Bull won everything from 2010 to 2013 because I’m all for teams doing great. When the FIA changed the regulations to hobble Ferrari, it was McLaren’s Ron Dennis who said it was a BS move and that it is incumbent upon the other teams to catch them.
I agreed with Ron and for the first couple or three championships, I agreed with that sentiment with Mercedes but after five and this year looking like it could be a sixth, I have serious concerns for the health of F1. These regulations have been here too long, the hybrid too complicated and expensive and the balance of competitiveness askew for too long.
The issue? These regulations aren’t set to change until the 2021 season so we’re going to possibly hand Mercedes an opportunity to win seven (7) titles in a row and no one in F1 or the FIA find an issue with this?
In the past, the FIA either changed regulations to level the playing field a bit or other teams caught up with the top team. Ferrari had its knees capped in 2005 through regulations and Red Bull did with the hybrid engine regulation changes in 2014. Mercedes, on the other hand, have had clear sailing for what will be seven years until the changes and those changes, at this time, are supposed to include the current engine formula which is a serious issue on a host of fronts. Cost, complexity and Mercedes’ baked-in advantage chief among them.
Look, I’m not saying that Ferrari are doomed after a single qualifying. We all know that some cars do better than others on particular tracks and to be fair, Ferrari did have a spate of success last year and capitalized on struggles Mercedes were having in 2018. It’s just that Mercedes doubled down and pummeled Ferrari through development during the season and Ferrari were stunned and made mistakes. Maybe the new leader can change that in 2019.
This could still turn into a great season. Ferrari could immediately bounce back. Mercedes could have a long-game issue during races with this year’s tires etc. Sure, anything can happen in F1 but I find myself really hoping that “anything” will happen because another season of Mercedes domination is becoming difficult to get excited about if I’m honest.
I am elated for Mercedes and their employees and for the success they’ve had and I’m all for the other teams needing to get themselves sorted and catch up but when manufacturers the size of Renault, Ferrari and Honda can’t make a dent in the hybrid performance advantage over five (5) years, and now possibly six (6), there I something wrong with the regulation set.
In the past, the longer a regulation set stayed in place, eventually the other teams would catch up and the top team would be caught. You could argue that didn’t happen in 2005 or in 2013. 2005 was a regulation change and in 2013, Red Bull were very dominant. However, the V8 engine was on par across the paddock, what Red Bull enjoyed was a superior chassis and aerodynamicist in Adrian Newey. In 2014, a regulation change to hybrids bean moving Red Bull off their consistent place on the top step of the podium.
I’ve been saying that there is an issue with these current regulations since 2015 so watching this domination and reading these false narratives from Mercedes for two more years is not a very savory thought. Let’s hope the “anything” begins to happen in 2019 and that Ferrari, Red Bull or Renault can somehow make progress and claw back the .7s delta between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton in Australia.
In the end, one qualifying session does not make a season. Toto believes it will be a close season and the press are happy to agree and the narratives will be much the same from F1 and the journalists that follow the sport. They need it be because it is their occupation, of course, and I can appreciate that for all the right reasons.
If Ferrari are close and able to fight, I think Mercedes will be very difficult to beat in the development war and while Toto says last year was an equally fought championship, that’s not how I saw it from the Belgian GP onward, Lewis won 11 races, Toto, that’s not a very challenging season in my book. Mercedes had 655 constructor points…that’s called domination where I come from.