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

1 Comment

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.

In tears after the Indianapolis 500, Santino Ferrucci is proud of his third-place finish


INDIANAPOLIS – Santino Ferrucci was in tears after last Sunday’s 107th Indy 500.

The AJ Foyt Racing driver from Woodbury, Connecticut had just driven the best race of his career, only to have the final yellow flag of the race fly just a second or two before he would have been in position for the win.

The field had just been given the green flag with four laps to go and Ferrucci was charging in the No. 14 Chevrolet into Turn 1, about to pass both Josef Newgarden for second place, which would have put him in prime position to draft past Marcus Ericsson for the victory.

JOSEF’S FAMILY TIES: Newgarden wins Indy 500 with wisdom of father, wife

But IndyCar race control issued the third red flag stoppage in the final 15 laps of the race and with Ferrucci 2 inches behind Newgarden’s Chevrolet, he was lined up third.

When IndyCar had the remaining drivers refire the engines for three-quarters of a lap behind the Pace Car followed by a one-lap green and white flag dash to the finish, Ferrucci knew there was little he could do to get past the front two cars.

Newgarden passed Ericsson on the backstretch and went on to take the checkered flag for his first Indianapolis 500 victory. Ericsson was just 0.0974-of-a-second away from winning the Indy 500 for the second year in a row and Ferrucci was 0.5273-of-a-second away from winning his first career NTT IndyCar Series race.

It was a fantastic effort for Ferrucci, but to come so close to winning the biggest race in the world, the kid from Connecticut was heartbroken.

“We were so good this month,” Ferrucci told NBC Sports after climbing out of his car. “When you are that fast all month long, you just want it that much more. The way we did everything to finish the race under green, it’s great for the fans, IndyCar did the right thing, but sometimes it’s a tough pill to swallow restarting third like that when you are really second.

“It’s all timing and scoring. That doesn’t lie. If it says we are third, we are third. It’s very bittersweet.”

When Ericsson and Newgarden were both “Unleashing the Dragon” with the draft-breaking zigzag moves at the end of the race, Ferrucci admitted he was hoping it would play into his favor if those two made contact ahead of him.

“I was hoping and praying because when you are third, that’s all you can do – hope and pray,” Ferrucci said.

His prayers were not answered, but his determination to win the Indianapolis 500 remains undeterred.

He has never finished outside of the top 10 in the Indianapolis 500. Ferrucci was seventh as a rookie in 2019, fourth in 2020, sixth in 2021, 10th last year and third this past Sunday.

“I love this place,” the driver said. “I love coming here. I’m always so comfortable in the race. We are good at avoiding all of the accidents that happened in front of us.

“We will win it eventually. We have to.”

Ferrucci has proven he likes to rise to the big moments.

“I like the pressure,” he said. “We do well under pressure.

“But you have to take third, sometimes.

“We had a really good shot at winning this race. We made the most of it.”

Ferrucci continues to display the uncanny knack for racing hard and avoiding trouble. When he took the lead in the No. 14 car made famous by his team owner, legendary four-time Indianapolis 500 winner AJ Foyt, many of the fans in the crowd of 330,000 roared with approval.

Ferrucci was in front for 11 laps and was in prime position to pounce at the end, before the final 15 laps brought out red flag fever.

Because of that, and the timing of where he was when the last yellow light came on before the final red, put him in a difficult position to win the race.

“It’s just emotional, bittersweet,” he said. “It was emotional getting in the car, which was kind of strange because you feel like there’s a lot of people that really want this, the team really wants this.

“We worked so hard to be where we were. We ran out front all day long. It’s definitely one of the more difficult races that I’ve probably ever run, and just we also knew that we had a really good car.

“We got really close with Felix Rosenqvist when he was wrecking so very thankful, we were able to avoid that. And then yeah, coming to the end, I think on the second to final restart, me and Marcus battling it into 1, and obviously it going red when it did, it’s part of this place, it’s part of racing, it’s part of the Speedway.

“I’m just bummed. I’m sure Marcus Ericsson thinks the same thing I do.

“All three of us could have won it at any point in time.

“Yeah, it’s bittersweet.”

A few days have passed since Ferrucci was crying when he got out of the race car. He celebrated his birthday on Wednesday by mowing his lawn after a 12-hour drive back to his home in Texas. On Thursday morning, he flies to Detroit to get ready for this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on the streets of downtown Detroit.

It has given him a chance to reflect on the biggest weekend of his career.

“Everybody saw on national television I was basically crying,” Ferrucci said. “It’s just one of those competitor things in you that there was so much riding on that race, and it was going so well up until that — it finished really well.

“It wasn’t just pressure to perform but emotional pressure to just be there and to know that we probably had that race won, had it gone yellow two seconds later, it’s just kind of heartbreaking. But still, at the end of the day, you come home in third, to join Helio Castroneves and one other driver, (Harry Hartz, who finished second, second, fourth, fourth and second from 1922-1926), in five of your first five starts in top 10s. And, then you really start to look at what you’ve accomplished at the 500 in your first five starts with four different teams and what you did with A.J. Foyt — what we’ve done at AJ Foyt Racing, who hasn’t had a podium or top 3 since the year 2000 at the Speedway.

“There are so many positives, and that day could have been so much worse. We had so many close calls between pit lane and some of the crashes on track that at the end of the day I was just really, really happy.

“I went to bed that night knowing that I did the best I could, the team did the best they could, and that’s the track.”

Ferrucci stressed that he didn’t have a problem with IndyCar race control doing everything in their power to make sure the race finished the distance under green.

“The way that IndyCar finished under green was 100 percent correct for the fans,” Ferrucci said. “It didn’t affect anything for me. What affected me wasn’t the red, it was the yellow.

“The second it went yellow, had it gone yellow two seconds later had they waited, which you can’t wait when you’re crashing, so there’s nothing you can do, I was in third, I was about 6 inches behind Newgarden, and that’s very clear in the video.

“At the end of the day, nothing changed for me. The fact that they actually went red and restarted the race gave me that opportunity to win again. I just didn’t have a great restart because it’s chaotic when you just go. You’ve got to also remember there’s no restart zone.

“At that point when you’re going green for one lap, it was really cool to see the shootout, I’m not going to lie, but you know that they’re going green, so you were literally at the hands of the leader on a completely random — you could start going into 3 in the middle of 3 and 4 out of 4. He could start the race whenever he wanted to start the race instead of in the zone, so it was completely unpredictable.

“(Ericsson) had a really good jump, and I did not. That’s what took me out of the win at the end of the race. It had nothing to do with IndyCar or the red in my opinion.”

Ferrucci and rookie teammate Benjamin Pedersen helped put a smile on 88-year-old AJ Foyt’s face in what started as the one of the saddest months of Foyt’s life after his wife of 68 years, Lucy, died.

Foyt returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dealing with grief, but for the past three weeks, he was able to see his racing team return to prominence.

I think he was really proud,” Ferrucci said of Foyt. “There’s truly two people that understood my emotions and felt my emotions on Sunday. A.J. was one, and Michael Cannon (his engineer) was the other.

“If you look at some of the photos from that day, you can kind of see it in my eyes, just — you really have to have it in your hands and then lose it in your hands to kind of understand that feeling of when you work that hard. You have to understand you’re coming from a team with two cars, a budget that’s a quarter of the size of Penske and Ganassi, and that’s all month long. We wanted it probably that much more than everybody else that day.

“To come up that short, A.J.’s finished second and third on dominant days in the ’70s, and he talked about those races, where we had the car to win. We were by far the best car at the end of that race. Once the Team McLarens were out of it and the 10 car and the 21 had the incident in pit lane, that left us.

“We were the car to win, and yeah, just sitting third knowing there’s nothing you can do, after all that hard work, yeah, it’s a feeling that very few people would understand.

“But he was incredibly proud of I think what the organization accomplished. I’m very proud of Larry and what Larry Foyt has done with the team because Larry has had control of this team since 2007, and to see him get his first podium as a team boss and team owner at the speedway was huge.

“I think everybody was incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500