Mercedes’ domination: Equivalent or different from Red Bull’s?

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There’s been a fascinating element I’ve found from the first four Grands Prix of the 2014 season.

We once again have a dominant team, that seems virtually unassailable at least until the first round of major upgrades for the European season, when the pecking order can change.

But it’s the Germans, the Brackley-based Mercedes team, that is at the front of the field by a substantial margin. It is not the Austrians, Red Bull, who have stamped their authority on the field these past four years.

Is there a greater level of acceptance for this amount of domination that we perhaps didn’t see last year, or 2011, when Red Bull won more than a dozen races each year?

Consider the past for a reference point. Mercedes, in its past guise and single season as Brawn GP in 2009, was able to get a jump on the next year’s regulations as a sweeping round of changes came to Formula One car designed.

The Brawn – which would have been the 2009 Honda had the Japanese manufacturer not pulled out of the sport – then took on a Mercedes power plant. Jenson Button, then known as one of the stars of the sport who hadn’t reached his full potential, won six of the first seven Grands Prix en route to building an unassailable lead in the standings.

Because it was an underdog story, a team that barely survived a troubled winter only to be saved by a last-minute management takeover, with a driver who had never been at the front of the field, it was a series of popular victories. It was also a major surprise.

Red Bull caught up in the second half and won more events, but were too far behind to eventually catch up the championship gaps.

In 2014, we may have a case of history repeating itself.

Yes, Mercedes now is in a different leadership state, with Ross Brawn having since left the team over the winter and Mercedes now under the leadership of Toto Wolff (business) and Paddy Lowe (technical). Its drivers are Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, into their second season as teammates.

But the DNA of the team – which traces its origins to Tyrrell first, then BAR, Honda and Brawn before becoming the Mercedes factory team in 2010 – is similar. And the way in which they’ve reacted to the 2014 changes is nearly identical to that of the 2009 season.

They had a good car in 2013, but were far enough back in the championship to where they could focus substantially on the 2014 car and design during the second half of the season.

There was an astute point made during Sunday’s NBCSN broadcast from analyst Steve Matchett, in that Mercedes’ sporting director Ron Meadows, who accepted the winning Constructor’s trophy on the podium, has been there through it all.

Meadows will have seen the rise, fall, and rise again of a great brand and great team – and one which has regained the upper hand in the F1 pecking order at the moment.

Mercedes has not gotten the same level of criticism or scorn as Red Bull thus far for a couple reasons. For one, they have a pair of drivers determined to A. race each other and B. beat each other, without any repercussions or team orders.

And two, they aren’t Red Bull. Red Bull’s and Sebastian Vettel’s success was eventually praised by many but still had its few detractors. The few races he didn’t dominate from the outset, he still found a way to win. There were boos from fans who didn’t appreciate the level of dominance, or didn’t respect the way Vettel and Red Bull went about their business. Still, it got old, and it got stale.

Someone was going to get the new regulations for 2014 first, and thus far, that’s Mercedes. The team is the first to nail the new regulations, it’s allowed its drivers to race freely, and it’s clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the field.

Compared to Red Bull, somehow it feels different. It feels that because it’s two very, very good drivers in the best car, it’s got the potential of blossoming into a 1988 or 1989-style McLaren level of dominance season – and one where Hamilton and Rosberg play the respective Senna-Prost roles as they’re on the precipice of an internal war as they seek the upper hand within the team. And that could be fun to watch.

This is where Mercedes needs to stay the course. The domination is fine so long as there’s two drivers going for it, not just one driver going away from the field.

We’ll see if the level of domination continues, and if this Mercedes smackdown eventually runs the same tired course as Red Bull’s did over the last couple years.

Ferrari’s F1 pre-season pace hard to find in Australian GP practice

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Following one of the most impressive pre-season performances in recent times, Ferrari headed into the new Formula 1 season facing the expectation and anticipation of a title challenge against Mercedes, the sport’s incumbent team to beat.

Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel finished as the two fastest drivers in Barcelona earlier this month, with the SF70H appearing to have locked in well to the new technical regulations for 2017.

For the first time since – one may argue – 2008, Ferrari entered the season looking like a serious title threat; perhaps even the fastest team.

Yet you would not have thought so judging by its Friday form in Australia as F1 got its official running underway for 2017.

FP1 saw both Vettel and Raikkonen lose track time due to some minor problems with their cars, the pair only getting in a couple of quick laps to leave them P5 and P6 overall.

Most expected a clearer picture to emerge in FP2 when both qualifying and race simulations would be completed by Mercedes and Ferrari, with Vettel and Raikkonen getting a chance to impress on low fuel and the ultra-soft tire compound.

But once again, they could not match the pace of three-time champion Lewis Hamilton, who led Mercedes’ charge. Vettel finished the session second and beat Valtteri Bottas in the second W08 – but it was the half a second gap to Hamilton that sparked concern. Perhaps Ferrari testing form wasn’t all that it seemed.

Vettel downplayed the importance of Ferrari’s Friday display after the session, telling reporters that it would be Saturday in qualifying when its battle with Mercedes would play out in full.

“Today is not really that important. It’s very important but not if you look at the final standings and one lap only,” Vettel said.

“I think overall it’s been OK. We had some small trouble this morning that cost us some track time, so it took us a bit longer to get into the groove.

“Overall I think we can still improve. The car does not yet feel as good as it should and as it can, so I’m confident we can do something.”

Raikkonen – fourth-fastest in FP2 – echoed his teammate’s sentiments.

“I didn’t really expect anything because it’s like in testing, we had no idea what others were doing, we only know what we are doing,” Raikkonen said.

“For sure we cold have done slightly more straightforward running today and small things here and there, but I think overall we have to be happy and we go forward tomorrow.”

The true difference between Ferrari and Mercedes will become clear in qualifying – but until then, it is feasible that the game of bluffs that played out through testing may just be continuing.

Hamilton boosted by ’99 per cent perfect’ F1 practice in Australia

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Lewis Hamilton was given a boost ahead of the first round of the 2017 Formula 1 season in Australia on Sunday by enjoying a near-perfect day of practice at Albert Park.

Hamilton endured a difficult end to pre-season testing in Barcelona two weeks ago as Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel surged clear in the timesheets.

Ferrari’s pace was such that Hamilton said it was the favorite for victory this weekend in Melbourne, with the SF70H car produced by the Italian manufacturer appearing to have adjusted best to the new regulations for 2017.

Hamilton offered a plot twist in practice on Friday, though, heading up a Mercedes one-two in FP1 before leading once again in FP2, finishing half a second clear of the pack.

“It’s great to be back in Australia and I’m super happy to be back in the car, particularly after a first day like that. It was 99 per cent perfect,” Hamilton said.

“After struggling with some issues in Barcelona, we didn’t know if we’d have the same thing here. What’s really encouraging is that we’ve arrived at the track just a week later and the car is exactly where it should be. It’s feeling great out there and the guys have done a fantastic job.

“We’ve shown good form so far on both the long and short runs and we got every lap done that we wanted to. The tires performed really well today too.”

Hamilton refused to read too much into Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari in practice, believing the true difference between the two teams will only become clear in qualifying on Saturday.

“Coming into today, we really didn’t know where we’d be,” Hamilton said. “We knew from FP1 that the Ferrari’s weren’t at their maximum. Of course, in FP2 all of a sudden they were quick. We’ll see tomorrow how it really stands.

“I feel very much at home in Melbourne. There’s always a great buzz here and a lot of support. I’m just really happy to see everyone and receive their positive energy. I’ll be pushing as hard as I can to win this race.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

Williams’ Massa, Stroll prep for new phases of their careers (VIDEO)

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In the video linked above, Williams Martini Racing’s Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll look ahead to what should be an intriguing 2017 Formula 1 season given their respective stages of their careers.

Massa, 35, returns to the Mercedes-powered team after what was meant to be a retirement following last season’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. But the subsequent retirement of Nico Rosberg at Mercedes AMG Petronas opened the door for Massa to come back once Valtteri Bottas left to replace Rosberg there, and has given Massa a second ‘farewell tour.’

Stroll, meanwhile, is just 18 – born a year and three days (October 29, 1998) after Williams won its last World Championship in 1997 with Stroll’s Canadian countryman Jacques Villeneuve. Having blitzed the junior categories, particularly the FIA European F3 Championship last year, Stroll’s arrival to F1 comes with some fanfare and some question marks as he’s been fortunate to have significant family support.

The two of them make up Williams’ team this season and along with deputy team principal Claire Williams, they look ahead to what is to come in 2017.

You can see this pair and the rest of the F1 grid as part of NBCSN’s coverage from Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix. All times are linked here.

Lewis Hamilton completes Friday F1 practice double in Australia

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Lewis Hamilton continued his march at the top of the timesheets in practice for the Formula 1 season-opener in Australia on Friday afternoon, leading the way once again for Mercedes.

Hamilton entered the weekend unsure about his chances after an impressive display from Ferrari through pre-season testing, prompting the Briton to pick the Italian team as the favorite for victory in Melbourne.

Hamilton set the pace through first practice at Albert Park as the new-style F1 cars got their first official running, heading up a one-two finish for Mercedes with Valtteri Bottas in tow.

FP2 was expected to offer more insight into Ferrari’s true pace after it opted to limit its running through first practice, but it was Hamilton who led the way once again.

Running on the ultra-soft tire, Hamilton produced a stunning lap of 1:23.620 to finish half a second clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, the German driver unable to respond to his rival’s pace.

Bottas continued his impressive start to life with Mercedes, finishing the session third-quickest, while Kimi Raikkonen rounded out a Mercedes-Ferrari top-four lock-out in the second SF70H car.

Despite Ferrari’s inability to challenge Mercedes, it was Red Bull that came away from FP2 as the biggest disappointment after Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen had scruffy sessions en route to P5 and P6 respectively. Verstappen had been on a quick lap and due to improve his time, only to run wide at Turn 12 and narrowly avoid losing control.

Carlos Sainz Jr. finished a solid seventh for Toro Rosso ahead of Haas driver Romain Grosjean, who was fortunate to keep his car out of the wall as the American team’s brake issues arose once again. Nico Hulkenberg was ninth for Renault, with Daniil Kvyat rounding out the top 10.

FP2 was red flagged early on following a big shunt for Jolyon Palmer at the final corner. The Briton lost the rear-end of his car coming through the right-hander, causing him to slide into the wall and suffer a large amount of damage to his car. Felipe Massa was another driver to hit trouble, with his Williams FW40 grinding to a halt midway through the session, forcing the Brazilian to end his day early, while Marcus Ericsson spun off with five minutes to go, beaching his Sauber.