MONZA, ITALY – The Italian Grand Prix is the one race in Formula 1 that is essentially a ‘home game’ for a team. Whilst other circuits usually play host to an array of fans supporting all of the teams, Monza will welcome Ferrari’s loyal fandom, the Tifosi, through its gates on Sunday.
Even on Thursday, droves of fans draped in Maranello red swarmed the paddock entrance to try and catch a glimpse of their heroes.
However, when it comes to race day, they are likely to be left disappointed. This season has been all about two silver arrows: Mercedes AMG Petronas, led by drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.
The secret to the team’s success has been well documented in 2014, but in recent weeks, there have been a few cracks in the German marque’s armor. As its drivers go toe-to-toe for the drivers’ championship, the team’s own success being put at risk – and it must regain focus to ensure that it can carry its advantage into the 2015 season and beyond.
Earlier this year, it seemed likely that Mercedes would wrap up it first ever constructors’ championship at the Italian Grand Prix, relying it continued its dominant form from the beginning of the season.
In the meantime, things have changed. In fact, since the Monaco Grand Prix back in May, neither of its drivers have been the most dominant. That accolade goes to Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, who has claimed three wins at Mercedes’ expense and scored more points than anyone else in Formula 1. From the darkness of pre-season, Red Bull has emerged as a force to be reckoned with once again.
For Mercedes, it has been a funny spell. Since the Monaco Grand Prix, there hasn’t been a ‘trouble-free’ race, causing some damage to its championship hunt. Both titles are still likely to go the way of the Silver Arrows, but the team will have to learn some hard lessons from the 2014 season.
It’s quite interesting to compare Mercedes’ current success with when Red Bull first dominated Formula 1 back in 2010. In both cases, the team had the quickest car and the quickest drivers, but it did not know how to win. Red Bull nearly lost both titles that year, only to come good at the final round in Abu Dhabi, but lessons were learned. This set the tone for its dominant victories in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Mercedes is currently going through a similar process. It has the tools to dominate like Red Bull, Ferrari (early 2000s) and McLaren (late 1980s) all have done in the past, but little mistakes are still being made. On all three occasions the team has slipped up this year, Red Bull has been the team to pick up the pieces.
Spa saw the Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry boil over, resulting in a puncture for the Briton and ultimately a DNF after Rosberg tried an opportunistic overtake around the outside of Les Combes that was always going to be a big ask. What followed was a series of comments from Hamilton, Rosberg, Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda that made it quite clear: war was afoot.
Although the situation appears to have now been remedied, the damage from Spa has been done: at the one race Mercedes should have scored a one-two finish, it limped home with just eighteen points for Rosberg’s second place finish. The prediction that the team would wrap up the constructors’ at Monza looks laughable in retrospect.
Few of their rival drivers have weighed in on the debate, but Romain Grosjean cutely commented on it in Monza: “Let’s say it wasn’t their best shot to win the grand prix.”
In fact, it was a terrible result for the team. The Hamilton-Rosberg title fight is a classic, but in reality, Mercedes will not care who wins it. Its priority is winning the constructors’ championship and ensuring that one of its drivers clinches the world title in Abu Dhabi.
This was made clear to both drivers in no uncertain terms during the meeting at Brackley late last week. Hamilton and Rosberg know that they must avoid any kind of contact of controversy in the final seven rounds of the 2014 season.
You can imagine the response from the F1 community when the FIA confirmed that both of the championship protagonists would be in the press conference on Thursday at Monza. Unsurprisingly, the media room was packed: the onlooking cameras and eagle-eyed journalists wanted to witness the latest salvo between Lewis and Nico first hand.
Throughout the press conference, Hamilton looked relaxed, chilled and brushed off any questions shot at him. He even took a second to take a selfie with the assembled press. Nico, on the other hand, seemed a little more stressed and agitated. The cool character we saw win on home soil in Germany appears to have been rattled by the fierce championship battle.
However, the team line was towed throughout the press conference. Put simply: it was a mistake, and they’re not to do it again. Nico was happy to hold his hands up and admitted that, following the clash, he had to apologize and take the blame.
“Just with time, I took a week to think about it, have a look at it and discuss with the team on Friday,” Rosberg said. “In the end, I decided that it was me who should take responsibility for it.”
Accepting blame was a big step for Rosberg, but has the divide in Mercedes already been set? Neither driver thinks so. Both do not believe that their Spa spat will have affected the loyalties within the garage.
“We’ve got a very professional team, and they just want to win, so we’ll be working as hard as we can,” Hamilton said. “Also the guys that work in the garage, they work collectively for the pit stops and that, so that doesn’t even cross my mind.
“They know that we have the chance to have one-twos and to win this championship for either driver and the constructors’.”
“In general I think there has been throughout the whole season a healthy rivalry within the team, and that is why we are where we are,” added Rosberg. “We have the best car out there, we are the best team at the moment, and that’s because we work well together as a team.
“If you don’t work well together as a team, you can’t dominate the sport in the way we are at the moment.”
And indeed, because Rosberg did not work well with Hamilton at Spa, allowing himself to get a chip on his shoulder, Mercedes could not dominate the race weekend.
The team will hope that all of these points that have been made will last until the end of the season. It must focus on keeping itself at the very top of the sport, with the aim of wrapping up both championships early and putting more resources into the 2015 campaign.
In a rather entertaining exchange, a journalist asked Fernando Alonso – the man sat between the two Mercedes drivers – whether he could be the “ambassador of peace” between Nico and Lewis, prompting laughter from the entire press room when Alonso turned and hugged Hamilton.
“No, I don’t think I’m an ambassador for peace,” he said with a wry smile. It’s very true: no one person is an ambassador for peace in this championship battle. The onus is on Mercedes to do what it can to ensure that all things are kept equal and fair on track.
Alonso then made another salient point: “They have a good problem: fighting for the world championship.” His comment summed up what Mercedes is dealing with here. These are the demands of success.
For the watching public, this championship fight has the makings of something very special. Seven rounds to go – will it be Nico with the mathematical advantage, or Lewis with the psychological advantage who is crowned the 2014 Formula 1 world champion in Abu Dhabi this November?
You can watch the Italian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and Live Extra this weekend. Click here for all of your broadcasting details.