A Mercedes title encore? It’s hard to bet against it

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What makes a team stand out from a historical standpoint in the more than 60-year history of Formula 1 is legacy, and enduring periods of success.

Whether it was Alfa Romeo in the 1950s, Lotus in the 1960s, Tyrrell in the early 1970s, McLaren Honda in the late 1980s, Ferrari in the early 2000s or Red Bull for its most recent four-year reign from 2010 to 2013, teams become legendary when they sustain their success for more than a single year run.

This appears to be Mercedes AMG Petronas’ time to add itself to the all-time greats, as Mercedes, in this entity.

The team that began as Tyrrell, morphed into BAR, then Honda and Brawn for a single, title-winning season before Mercedes re-entered as a factory team in 2010 now stands at the precipice of extended greatness.

That is, if Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg come close to matching what they did during the 2014 campaign, in what was a classic duel between the teammates (view 2014 team preview linked here).

But that shouldn’t be too difficult.

F1 has lacked that intense, inter-teammate rivalry for title glory for the better part of 20 years. As nearly everyone knows, the Schumacher/Ferrari and Vettel/Red Bull years were dominated by the German driver, with the respective number two driver (Rubens Barrichello, then Mark Webber) resigned to leftovers and the occasional victory.

With Hamilton and Rosberg, Mercedes has arguably the strongest combined lineup on the grid, still, and has two drivers only beginning to enter the peak years of their careers. Hamilton is 30, and Rosberg 29, but combined, they have nearly 20 years of F1 experience.

So long as Mercedes lets them race fairly and freely, as they did last year (even with their Spa contact), it has the potential to rank as one of the sport’s best all-time teammate rivalries.

Hamilton’s resurgence a year ago was the fulfillment of several factors. Personally, some of the personal elements or corporate restrictions he dealt with in his prior life at McLaren were behind him. Competitively, he had a year’s worth of learning his new team under his belt before maximizing everything in 2014.

In 2013, his first season with Mercedes, he was always going to be adapting to his new surroundings, his new life outside the McLaren world, and in the fifth year of a development cycle where Red Bull had the edge. He still won and scored podiums, but a title challenge simply wasn’t on the cards.

But a year ago, whether it was courtesy of his own fuel saving tactics, his ability to be aggressive when needed and his timing to seize the opportunity when it was there, Hamilton was a far more well-rounded driver than when he won his first title as a frequently fast but sometimes erratic sophomore back in 2008. Few begrudged his winning the title and on simple 11-5 win countback over Rosberg, he was always going to be a deserving champion.

But Rosberg, too, has evolved over his career to where he must now, finally, be mentioned among F1’s elite… even though he doesn’t have the World Championship that five of his competitors do on the 2015 grid.

Throughout each of his first eight years, Rosberg lacked consistency. He hit some very high peaks on occasion and scored a few well-judged Grand Prix victories. But a year ago, he managed to add the next level of consistent podium finishes, albeit second to Hamilton way too frequently.

In my estimation, Rosberg needed to go through the battle of a championship fight – and the fact it was versus his teammate probably strengthens him more in the long run – and lose one before he can truly rise to the occasion of winning one.

When you look at first-time World Champions in the recent past, they’ve followed that path. Consider Hamilton probably should have won the 2007 title as a rookie, but for an ill-judged error at Shanghai and subsequent struggle in the season finale in Sao Paulo. Sebastian Vettel was 2009’s most impressive second half driver but was too far back of Jenson Button to make up the ground. Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen each went through years where they were close to the title but didn’t grasp it in their first real chance.

Rosberg can look back on 2014 as a year when he had the speed – he had 11 poles to Hamilton’s seven – but he didn’t have the experience of surviving a title battle and lost the psychological war to Hamilton more often than not in the waning races. He seemed defeated throughout the weekend at Austin, for example, while Hamilton was high on life.

Both now have the knowledge that Mercedes has by far the best car, and one that has only seemed to improve over the winter with the new W06 chassis.

Mercedes was the outright lap leader in testing, and the pacesetters too by the end of the second Barcelona test, when Hamilton and Rosberg stomped the field and then downplayed their achievements.

Those are two very troubling warning signs that Mercedes might already have the year on lockdown.

A storyline to watch this year is Hamilton’s impending contract status. Rosberg signed an extension with the team last year but Hamilton is yet to do likewise, in this, the final year of his contract.

Regardless, both drivers seem poised to build on their accolades a year ago. The Toto Wolff-led team has provided the drivers the challenger with which to do so.

Expect more of the same this year in terms of Mercedes winning the Constructor’s Championship, although it remains to be seen whether Hamilton will be able to make it back-to-back or whether Rosberg can enter immortality as a new World Champion driver.

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans

LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.