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.