There is no doubt that the current Mercedes team has an edge over their rivals, since the introduction of the new regulation in 2014 they have only failed to win seven Grands Prix, while Lewis Hamilton has won two world championships and is leading the title at this point in the season. Many in the media (certainly in the UK) are celebrating this period of dominance for a British driver and heaping praise upon him for his performance over the past two and a half seasons. I don’t think I am alone in finding a bias in the reporting in this coverage that is getting a little over the top. I have no problem in stating that Lewis Hamilton is a deserving world champion, and that he shows some outstanding race craft and has done for at least twenty years since he won the McLaren Mercedes Champions of the Future cadet karting series in 1996. However I do feel that the constant praise he gets in the media undermines just how good Nico Rosberg is, and how mentally strong he has had to be to provide such a challenge to Hamilton for so long. Looking at the points scored by the two Mercedes drivers over the past two and a half years:
We can see that Rosberg was ahead for much of the year in 2014, and the large points difference come the end of the year was due to his troubles in the double points race at the end of the season. In 2015 although Hamilton was ahead all year, Rosberg was close until mid-season, and then fell away with a couple of retirements (engine at Monza and a throttle issue in Russia). This season Rosberg has been leading for the first ten rounds after Hamilton had a series of poor starts at the beginning of the year and a couple of Power Unit issues that meant he started lower down the grid than would be expected for the dominant car. In recent races the tables have turned, with Rosberg suffering brake issues in Austria, Gearbox problems in Britain, and after losing out to a better starting Hamilton in Hungary he has been passed for the lead in the points race. It is still however very close, and there are still ten races to go.
Under the last set of regulations it was the aerodynamic advantage of the Red Bull that proved decisive, rather than the power of the Mercedes. Unlike now where other teams can buy an identical Mercedes power unit, no-one was able to buy a Red Bull chassis. In the four years that Sebastian Vettel won consecutive world titles however the competition did get closer.
In 2010 although Vettel started out ahead of Mark Webber (his team-mate) he didn’t actually lead the championship until after the final round when he was crowned champion and although Webber finished only fourteen points behind he was in third place in the title hunt. In fact 3rd was Webber’s best finish in the title chase, even when the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel was most dominant (2011 and 2013). Over the four years of Vettel’s hold on the championship Webber only stood on the top step of the podium seven times, compared to Vettel’s 34. 2013 was the first year that Hamilton joined Rosberg at Mercedes, and although Hamilton finished ahead (fourth compared to sixth) Rosberg did win more often (two against Hamilton’s single victory for his new team) and the pair of them were far closer to Webber than he was to Vettel (who had nearly double Webber’s points).
The previous driver pairing who were in a dominant car for several years was Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello at Ferrari. Schumacher won five consecutive titles and the team being especially dominant in 2002 and 2004.
Only in the dominant years (2002 and 2004) did Barrichello finish second in the championship and even in 2002 he only scored just over half Schumacher’s points (77 compared to 144). Although he could be said to be improving against his team-mate (ending 2004 with over three quarters of Schumacher’s points total – 114 vs 148) he was never ahead in the title race. This was no doubt influenced by the team’s heavy handed use of team orders that meant that the chosen driver would always finish ahead until the title was sealed, not matter how early in the season it was.
Moving then to the driver pairing that probably more closely resembles the intra team battle we see at the moment, if only due to the lack of team orders. Looking at the two years Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna were team-mates at McLaren, the pair were very close on points.
In their first year as team-mates the car was even more dominant than the Mercedes of today, with the team only failing to win one race, at Monza when Senna was collected by a backmarker (stand in for Nigel Mansell at Williams – Jean-Louis Schlesser) when lapping him after Prost had already retired. With dropped scores still applying at this time (the best eleven results from the sixteen races counting), it was Senna’s eight wins to Prost’s seven than saw the Brazilian take his first title by just three points. The following year Prost had his revenge, although again he won fewer races (four compared to Senna’s six), greater consistency in his remaining races enabled him to take the title by sixteen points.
Looking at all these graphs it seems it is rare to find two closely matched drivers in a winning car. This may be (as in the case of Ferrari) that in order to ensure the team has the drivers as well as the constructors championship, the team imposes team orders. It may also be that many drivers cannot maintain driving at such a high level for many years if they are constantly being beaten by their team-mate (both Barrichello and Massa regained form after moving away from Ferrari). Either way, it appears to me that Rosberg is doing far more to put Hamilton under pressure than any other team-mate has to the world champion for the last twenty years. In my opinion he probably deserves more credit than he gets from the UK media for his performances. What do you think, how are the relative performance of the Mercedes drivers reported around the world? Let us know in the comments below.