The Mercedes Formula: What has powered the Silver Arrows’ success in 2014?

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“The King is dead. Long live the King.” Sebastian Vettel’s reign at the top of the Formula 1 world has come to an end in 2014, and we’re not even halfway through the season.

Instead, Mercedes is the new king pin, having won all but one of the races so far. So just why has the German marque surged ahead and left the rest of the field trailing in its wake?

One of the biggest advantages to the Mercedes team was the seismic change in the technical regulations that took place for this season. Essentially, each time there is a big change such as this, the reset button is pressed. The team that found the perfect formula for the last set of regs – in this case, Red Bull – may not get it right with the new set.

In fact, Red Bull was, in a way, the Mercedes of the post-2009 regulation change. In the final two years under the previous regulations, the sport was dominated by Ferrari and McLaren. For 2009, a number of changes were made, and both teams fell down the pecking order, winning just three races between them in 2009. The dominant team that year was Brawn GP – previously Honda, then to become Mercedes – with Jenson Button winning his solitary world title. However, Red Bull ran the team close, and has remained top dog ever since. In a way, the changes made in 2009 set the tone for the next four years of racing.

So will the same be true of this new era? Will Mercedes dominate F1 for the foreseeable future? Of course, things do change. When the German marque took over Brawn, it did not dominate as the phoenix of Honda had in 2009. Instead, it battled for podium finishes at best, with wins coming in 2012 and 2013. All the while, Red Bull was still the team to beat simply because it got everything so right with the regulations.

And that is why Mercedes is dominating F1 as it currently is. 2014 wasn’t a hastily planned season; it has been years in the making. The new regulations have been exposed perfectly by the engineers at Brackley, making the W05 Hybrid car – for want of a better word – beastly. Lewis Hamilton led McLaren’s charge during 2007 and 2008 with arguably the quickest car on the grid, yet he still says that his 2014 challenger is the best car he has ever driven. That is quite the compliment from one of the sport’s finest talents.

Lewis is not only in the form of his life, but he is also in a good place mentally. Speaking to the media in Austria, he said: “I’m great, excited. Couldn’t be in a better place really.” He is clearly reveling in the prospect of a second world title.

The big advantage that Mercedes has over the other teams in F1 lies with its engine (or, to be more precise, the ‘power unit’). Only two teams on the grid make both their own car and their own engine: Mercedes and Ferrari. Given that 2014 was meant to be the year where this was the key battleground, many expected the two works teams to be forging ahead. Mercedes has done exactly that, but Ferrari is still struggling to find its feet in 2014.

The cohesion between Mercedes’ team base in Brackley and its power plant in Brixworth is stunning. The power unit has been put together in an inventive way, designed to reduce turbo lag, and has been simply devastating this year. That doesn’t just go for the Mercedes works team: Williams and Force India are also customers, and have both flourished.

McLaren, on the other hand, is having a tougher time of it despite using the Mercedes power unit. Before the German marque had a works team, McLaren was its primary focus for development. The engines were designed to work with the British team’s fuel supplier, Mobil 1. Now though, they work best with Petronas fuel – Mercedes’ title sponsor. Force India and Williams also use Petronas, and are therefore at an advantage. The British team will obviously be ensuring that Honda’s engines in 2015 are made with Mobil 1 in mind.

2014 is the year where fuel and engines are the two main battlegrounds, unlike the focus on aerodynamics that we have seen in recent years. For this reason, Mercedes is ruling the roost.

Just as Mercedes has got the best engine, its advantage has been increased because Red Bull has the worst: Renault. The French marque admitted that it had problems during the off-season, and its power units have been lagging behind the rest of the field ever since. Regular promises to bring the engines back to up to speed have been made, but as of yet there is a definite pace disadvantage. If you were to run equal cars in a straight line, one with a Mercedes engine, one with a Ferrari, one with a Renault, it would most probably end in that order.

The move away from aerodynamic battle has harmed Red Bull. Technical guru Adrian Newey masterminded the team’s domination of the sport, but no matter how good the car is in terms of setup, without the right engine, it will always lag behind. Many in the paddock believe that the RB10 car is better than Mercedes’ W05 aerodynamically, but simply cannot compete with a dud engine.

We must not take anything away from the Mercedes drivers, though. Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton are among the top four or five drivers on the grid, and both have proven themselves to be championship contenders. As we have seen in the past, having the best car on the grid does not guarantee you a shot at the title: you have to deliver. Both drivers have done that in abundance so far this year.

It can be said with some certainty that Mercedes will win the constructors’ championship, and you can be sure that either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg will win the biggest prize in motorsport: the Formula 1 drivers’ championship.

However, the same cannot be said of 2015, or 2016, and so on. Once Renault is back up to speed and has resolved its issues, Red Bull will unquestionably be able to fight back. The team has not forgotten how to win, even with some 48 grands prix and four world championships under its belt in just eight seasons.

Unlike Vettel’s dominance in 2011 and 2013, though, we have two drivers who are capable winning the championship in the quickest car. Be it Lewis or Nico, the world champion will most probably be crowned at the final race of the year – double points and all.

IMSA: Michelin GT Challenge provides second GT-only showcase in ’17

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Three race weekends remain in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, but not three races for all four of its classes.

While the Prototype and Prototype Challenge classes are off until Monterey and Road Atlanta, respectively, this weekend’s two-hour, 40-minute Michelin GT Challenge at VIRginia International Raceway provides the GT Le Mans and GT Daytona their second of two GT-only standalone showcase events this season (Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET).

Like last race at Road America, variety has been the spice of life among GTLM winners. Risi Competizione, Porsche North America and Corvette Racing have won at VIR the last three years with the No. 62 Ferrari F458 Italia, No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR and No. 3 Corvette C7.R, respectively.

Each of those three car numbers is somewhat intriguing to note this weekend for different reasons.

Photo: Risi Competizione

Risi’s No. 62 Ferrari 488 GTE is back after a several-race hiatus, the team having withdrawn temporarily after an expensive, crash-laden first half of the season through Le Mans. Out of the championship and with nothing to lose, the capable duo of Toni Vilander and Giancarlo Fisichella can properly play spoiler.

Engineer Rick Mayer describes the challenge of picking the best Michelin tire compound for VIR depending on the temperatures: “Michelin tire selection might come into play here as the track is dark and if its sunny will get very hot, maybe favoring one tire compound over another. All GTLMs have Michelin options that span the temperature window. Predicting weather and the best tire compound could be important if the track temperature is variable.”

The No. 911 Porsche, driven this year by Patrick Pilet and Dirk Werner, remains on the fringe of title contention in GTLM at 22 points back in fifth place and look to complete a sweep of the two GT-only races this year, having delivered the new mid-engined car’s first overall win at Lime Rock Park a month ago.

“I have fond memories of this storied racetrack deep in the heart of America. In 2015, we celebrated one-two finish there with Porsche. It’s an old school circuit with many fast curves where you can’t afford to make one mistake. If you end up on the grass, you might as well drive straight back to the pits to get the radiator cleaned,” Pilet said.

Meanwhile it’s No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen that, having weathered the storm of a few tough races where the Corvette has not had the Balance of Performance in its favor, maintains the points lead and looks for an encore of its win here last year. Magnussen has matched Garcia as one of the series’ best GT drivers really since this race last year. With Corvette having been given a bit of BoP help this weekend (a 0.5 mm air restrictor increase and an increased fuel flow restrictor), it should help the team get back to its usual race winning contention.

Two sets of pairings – Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand (No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT) and Bill Auberlen and Alexander Sims (No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM) – remain within striking distance in points at eight and nine points back (239-231-230) of the lead. The second Ford pairing of Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook needs a bit more help at 14 points back.

Consistency has kept the Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen (No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3) pairing atop the GT Daytona charts despite not winning a race yet this year. At 15 points clear (254-239) of closest rivals Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating (No. 33 Riley Motorsports-Team AMG Mercedes AMG-GT3), it’d take a poor finish in the 16-car GTD class to see them lose their grip.

Paul Miller Racing won this race last year, the first and thus far only IMSA win for the Lamborghini Huracán GT3 in the hands of Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow, but its post-qualifying technical violation has all but killed any championship hopes here.

Elsewhere Patrick Long is back alongside Daniel Morad in Alegra Motorsports’ No. 28 Porsche 911 GT3 R, as he was at Lime Rock, while the WeatherTech team continues with its Porsche for a second straight race, 3GT Racing keeps its revised Road America lineups, Michael Shank Racing keeps its revised Road America liveries (albeit with a new frame needed to replace the damaged No. 93 Acura NSX GT3 after accident) and Lone Star Racing continues with its Mercedes-AMG GT3, hoping to start its second race after being unable to with various mechanical niggles at Road America.

Photo courtesy of IMSA

“The layout at VIR is an excellent track that makes you feel like you’re really driving somewhere when you’re going around,” explained Mike Skeen, one of Lone Star Racing’s drivers, in this week’s Continental Tire pre-race advance. “It feels like someone just meandered through some fields on a tractor to plan the layout. The result is a great combination of technical corners and flowing, high-speed sections with over 130 feet of elevation change.

“There is plenty of runoff area for the drivers to work with, but all of that beautiful grass proved to be an issue last year for many people that went off course and then had to pit to clean out the grill to avoid overheating. There are also many curbs that we have to use to improve lap times, but they can cause problems if taken too aggressively when the air pressures in our Continental tires are too low.”

Cautions are generally a rarity here with only eight total caution laps over the last three years. Additionally, Lime Rock went caution-free, so it’ll be interesting to see if that cleanliness keeps up.

OTHER NOTES

  • While Tequila Patron ESM with its Nissan Onroak DPi (Pipo Derani) and Team Penske with its Acura ARX-05 (Juan Pablo Montoya and Dane Cameron) have kicked off the IMSA driver market silly season, Mazda Motorsports’ John Doonan provided an update on the Mazda Team Joest status in this week’s Sportscar365 podcast, linked here.
  • In the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, a 31-car field heads to VIR for this weekend’s race as well. The GS class points standings are particularly tight with points leaders Dylan Murcott and Dillon Machavern just four points ahead of Cameron Cassels and Trent Hindman, and eight clear of Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer. Miller, who with Danny Burkett took CJ Wilson Racing’s first GS win at this race last year, and his new teammate will have a revised Andy Blackmore Designs livery this weekend with new partner Unit Nutrition adorning the team’s No. 33 Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport.
  • Military appreciation at race tracks is always a good thing, and will be part of this weekend at VIR. Operation Motorsport is partnering with the USO of North Carolina this weekend at the Michelin GT Challenge at VIR, with the organization hosting 11 wounded soldiers and veterans from the surrounding Raleigh, Ft. Bragg area and embedding them within a few teams so that they can be part of a motorsports experience as a recovery activity. The organization’s website is linked here.

Vandoorne re-upped with McLaren for 2018

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Heading into his first home Grand Prix, Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne will continue with McLaren Honda into 2018. Perhaps more notable was the continued inclusion of Honda as well within the confirmation.

Vandoorne made his Grand Prix debut at Bahrain 2016 and scored a point filling in for Fernando Alonso. He now scored his first 2017 point last race in Hungary, ending 10th as he did in Bahrain.

The Belgian was always expected to continue and it’s been confirmed the team won’t waffle on that.

“I’m delighted that the team has now formally announced that I will continue to race for them next year, because I’ll be able to approach the second half of my rookie season with total focus on the job in hand: namely getting the very most I can out of my car, my engineers, and everything and everyone around me,” Vandoorne said.

“I’ve already learned such a huge amount in the first half of my first season in Formula 1 – from my engineers, from my mechanics, from Eric [Boullier], from Zak [Brown] and from Jonathan [Neale], and also from Fernando [Alonso], who is a brilliant driver and also an excellent team-mate.

“Last but not least, I want to say thank you to McLaren’s partners and fans for their loyalty and enthusiasm – they are the best in the business – and also to McLaren’s Executive Committee Principals, [Shaikh] Mohammed and Mansour [Ojjeh], who continue to put their faith in me.”

Boullier added, “When we announced at the end of 2016 that Stoffel would be a McLaren Honda race driver for 2017, we indicated that our plan was that he’d race for us for a number of years.

“That plan hasn’t changed, and I’m very happy therefore to be able to confirm that he’ll continue to race for us next season.

“Like all rookies, he’s had to learn a lot in the first half of his first Formula 1 season, but we have great confidence in him, and he’s getting better and better all the time. His team-mate is a tough opponent – that’s an understatement in fact, because he’s arguably the best driver in the sport today – but Stoffel’s robust talent and fierce ambition make us sure that he’ll achieve great successes with us in the future.”

Brown confirmed the multi-year number without putting a specific number down on it.

“Echoing Eric’s words, I’d like to add only that I regard Stoffel as a super talent – a future Formula 1 world champion in fact – and that’s why I’ve always been adamant that he should race for us on a multi-year basis,” he said.

“Before anyone asks me any questions about duration, we don’t want to go into that kind of confidential contractual detail, but let me put it this way: when we signed Stoffel, we intended that he would race for us for a significant number of years, and that remains our firm intention.

“We all know Stoffel’s potential, and when we have a package fast enough to win grands prix again – and we will – Stoffel will be in the right place to score his first Formula 1 victory.”

Alonso’s future, of course, remains a hot button topic set to be decided in September at the earliest.

Toro Rosso extends contract for technical director James Key

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Scuderia Toro Rosso technical director James Key will continue with the team for the foreseeable future, following a contract extension announced on Tuesday.

Key joined the team in 2012 and has seen the Faenza-based squad solidify its role in the upper midfield, with occasional surprise finishes that have pushed the team near the top three or four teams on the grid.

“I am delighted to continue with Toro Rosso and remain part of the Red Bull family,” he said. “This is a team which I have great respect for and have thoroughly enjoyed working with for the past 5 years; now I look forwards to continuing our project into the future.

“STR is unique, facing the challenges of being spread over two countries and fulfilling the roles of both a team in its own right and an important part of the Red Bull driver program: they are challenges that the team takes in its stride and, whilst doing so, continues to grow and improve year on year.

“Most importantly, the people I have had the pleasure to work with at STR are second to none: professional, ambitious and focussed, they have all worked incredibly hard to improve the team’s performance and will continue that hard work with the same dedication and optimism in the coming years too. I would like to thank Franz Tost and Red Bull for their continued support and confidence. We have more work to do, and I look forwards to taking the next steps with Toro Rosso towards our goals.”

Team principal Franz Tost added, Formula 1 is a team sport, but one in which an individual can still make a difference. So far, in his time with us, James has proved that he can indeed make that difference, leading the technical side of the operation.

“Not only has he been adept at producing chassis-aero packages that are well regarded throughout the paddock, he has also shown the management skills necessary to get the most out of all the various departments that work together both here in Faenza and in Bicester. I am therefore delighted that James will be with us for the foreseeable future to continue this fruitful process.”

Teams load up on supersoft tires for Italian GP

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There’s almost no variety in team Pirelli tire selections for the Italian Grand Prix, with nearly all teams going with two sets of softs and 10 sets of supersofts for next week’s race. All teams have selected just one set of mediums.

The only variance comes with Mercedes, Force India and Haas going with three sets of softs and nine supersofts. The rest are all the same choice, two softs and 10 supersofts.

Monza comes a week after Spa this week.

Pirelli’s tire breakdown is below.