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.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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