Why Mercedes merits praise, McLaren’s prospects, memories of ’65
A memory from the Daytona 24 Hours in 2012. It was around midnight, and Juan Pablo Montoya was in the lead, scything through the traffic in his usual style, reminding me again of what a loss he was to Formula 1.
On his tail, though, was another Daytona prototype, and for lap after lap its driver tracked JPM, matching his every incisive move. This was Felipe Nasr, then 19 years old, new to Daytona and racing a sports car for the first time. I was impressed, and told him so. Nasr reacted shyly, as if surprised that anyone had noticed.
Three years on he is where he always wanted to be, and in his first Grand Prix, at Melbourne, finished fifth for Sauber after a remarkably accomplished drive from lights to flag.
Felipe’s weekend, moreover, had not got away to the greatest start, he and team-mate Marcus Ericsson sitting out the Friday morning session following the legal action taken against Sauber by Giedo van der Garde, who had a deal for 2015, then found himself usurped by apparently better-financed rivals.
Not a pretty story, nor one that reflects well on a team long regarded as the most honourable in the paddock. But if I don’t seek to excuse Sauber’s behaviour, nor am I much surprised by it: survival is the most basic of instincts, and this is one of several teams driven to the brink by the shameful financial arrangements which appertain in Formula 1 these days, courtesy of CVC Capital Partners’ greed and the equally naked self-interest of the F1 Strategy Group.
Not surprisingly Monisha Kaltenborn presented a beleaguered face to the world for several days, but – following the intervention of Bernie Ecclestone, doubtless fearful, with Manor out of the picture, of losing two more cars from the Australian Grand Prix – eventually a fiscal accommodation was reached with van der Garde, and by Sunday afternoon Kaltenborn’s world was looking rather brighter.
Having scored not a point last season, Sauber came out of the first race of 2015 with 14 of them, and Monisha rightly ascribed much of the team’s improved form to straightforward horsepower: “Ferrari has made a really big step. It just shows what a disadvantage we – and they – were at last year…”
No arguments there. At the first pre-season test in Jerez, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen were quick out of the box, and although they were less to the fore in the Barcelona sessions it was clear that Ferrari had found a lot more power since last season. Add in that it was housed in the first red car conceived in the James Allison era, and it was no surprise that Vettel and Räikkönen were pleased with what they had been given to drive.
Even before leaving for Oz, though, they knew they were competing for the bronze, for while history shows it is never wise to set too much store by testing times, the widespread conviction was that Mercedes was on quite another level, perhaps even more so than in 2014.
So it proved. Just as, on TV and in the mainstream press, ‘Vettel’ was the only word one heard a couple of years ago, now the entire focus is on ‘Hamilton’. Lewis was utterly in command at Melbourne, with team-mate Rosberg at hand but unable to challenge, and for their rivals perhaps the most dispiriting remark of the weekend came from Nico on Saturday afternoon.
Having uncharacteristically messed up his first run in Q3, he spoke of the need for ‘a banker’ on his final one – in other words, a safe lap guaranteed to be quicker than all save Hamilton. Rosberg wasn’t using the word for throwaway effect; it was merely indicative of how a Mercedes driver thinks these days. The situation may change as the season wears on (although one doubts it), but for now Nico and Lewis again have only one rival apiece, and that seems to have pitched half the world into Bunyan’s Slough of Despond.
Formula 1 never lacks for folk wishing to stick the boot into it at any opportunity, and God knows I can be as critical as anyone if I perceive something ill within it. But while there may have been eras of Grand Prix racing I have relished more than others – and I concede that in many ways it’s in a toxic state at the moment – my love of people trying to beat each other in cars remains inviolable, for all the efforts of certain malign influences within the business.
Tell me that science has squeezed most of the romance from Formula 1, and you’ll have no argument from me. Suggest that ‘showbiz’ plays far too great a role, and I won’t take issue. But while I may despise those who merely use it for their own self-serving purposes, and although I accept Frank Williams’s observation that, “Nowadays F1 is just commerce most of the time”, so also I share FW’s fundamental belief that, “On Sunday afternoons, between two and four, it’s still a sport.”
Yes, of course it’s disappointing that we appear to be facing another season of domination by one team, but we’ve had a fair few of those over time, and quite often they have come at the hand of Mercedes. Back in 1939, for example, the vaunted ‘Silver Arrows’ lost only twice (to Auto Union), and one driver – Hermann Lang – was nigh unbeatable.
Post-war it was the same story. Mercedes returned to Grand Prix racing at Reims in 1954, with Juan Fangio and Karl Kling finishing first and second, the rest lapped. Fangio went on to win the world championship, and the following year, with Stirling Moss now in the team, the pattern was repeated. Untypical mechanical woes accounted for them at Monaco, but it was the only race Mercedes was to lose in 1955, and invariably the cars were 1-2: at Aintree, where Moss won, four cars were entered, and the first non-Merc – Luigi Musso’s Maserati – finished fifth.
Talk to Stirling about those days, and he will tell you that what most impressed him about Mercedes was the sheer efficiency, both of the car and the whole operation. “The W196 was never as nice a car to drive as, say, the Maserati 250F – it didn’t have anything wrong with it, other than the back-to-front gearbox, but you couldn’t have the love affair with it you could with the 250F. Having said that, although I didn’t enjoy the Merc as much as the Maser, undoubtedly it was a greater car – for one thing, it would never break, and for another, it was streets faster than anything else…”
There you have it, and when has the aim of any team in motor racing been other than to come up with a car ‘streets faster than anything else’? Colin Chapman was rather good at it, but I don’t recall endless moaning when race after race surrendered to Jim Clark in the opening seconds. We’d go to a Grand Prix in those days in the surety that, unless his car broke, Jimmy would win it, and I never saw anything wrong with that. It wasn’t a matter of being resigned to another Clark victory: given that he was the best driver, and Lotus built the fastest cars, it was in the natural scheme of things. What was it Jochen Rindt said, after stepping from his victorious 72 at Hockenheim in 1970? “In my car a monkey could have won…”
Did the fans’ enthusiasm for Formula 1 evaporate at that time, any more than it had in ’61, when Ferrari’s power advantage left Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips to fight for the championship between themselves or, six years later, when Cosworth’s new DFV was way more powerful than anything else? Was there rumbling discontent in 1988, when McLaren’s sublime MP4-4, driven by Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, won all but one of the season’s 16 races? Did aficionados get restive in ’92, when the ‘active’ Williams-Renault FW14B allowed Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese to canter to first and second in the championship?
Thought not. So why is much of the racing public now apparently unable to tolerate the thought of a two-hander for the title between Hamilton and Rosberg? Yes, it’s a repeat of last year, but so it was with Prost and Senna, who were also free to race each other. This is not like the Todt era at Ferrari, when team orders were writ large, and only Michael Schumacher was allowed to win.
From some quarters now, though, come suggestions that Formula 1 should follow the time-honoured NASCAR practice of ‘adjusting competitiveness’ in the interests of ‘The Show’. This is risible.
Simply, Mercedes is doing an extraordinary job in this ‘hybrid’ era, and the rest are not.
Part of the problem seems to stem from the fact that they patently have more horsepower than their opposition. Again that is surely the aspiration of any company building racing engines, but in today’s F1 there appears to exist a curious intimation that it is somehow not quite cricket. One thing to specialise in the black art of grey areas, to place a liberal interpretation on this or that aerodynamic rule so as to get your driver through a corner faster than the rest, but to design a better engine, making him quicker in a straight line… well, it’s not on, is it?
This time last year Mercedes was only just embarking on its period of domination, and the post-Melbourne moaning was focused mainly on the lack of decibels from the new hybrid power units. Ron Walker, for countless years Bernie Ecclestone’s Antipodean mouthpiece, was very hot on that, and there was also much grumbling about the new Formula 1 in the round from such as Luca di Montezemolo, whose engineers had come up with yet another uncompetitive Ferrari, and Dietrich Mateschitz, whose Red Bulls had failed to win for the first time in 10 races.
Now the emphasis is on Mercedes superiority, and what may be done about it. The traditional answer – and still the obvious one – would seem to lie in the building of a faster car, but as that seems beyond their rivals’ capabilities some of them are actually suggesting that the rules be tweaked to ‘equalise’ the engines. All in the interests of ‘The Show’, you understand – nothing to do with being blown away week after week.
Quite apart from anything else, as of now it is not easy to see quite what you would have to do to a Renault engine – let alone a Honda – to make it ‘equal’ to a Mercedes. Many people already spend their every waking hour trying to achieve that, so the corollary for some is that Mercedes needs to be slowed down.
In the recent past there have been many daft ideas, like the awarding of double points at the last race, but this latest suggestion is on another level. Imagine a pitch, if you will, to a manufacturer not yet involved.
“So you want us to build engines for Formula 1?”
“And it’s going to cost us hundreds of millions of dollars?
“But… let me get this straight… we’re not allowed to build an engine better than anyone else’s?”
“Thank you for your interest…”
The engine rules are clearly defined, and it’s hardly the fault of Mercedes that others are unable to make them work satisfactorily. No company, after all, pushed for the move to hybrids more trenchantly than Renault, who threatened withdrawal from F1 if they were not introduced. It’s unfortunate for Red Bull that the French engine is lacking in power – and, new for 2015, driveability – but that’s how the cards fall sometimes, and for now it is Hamilton and Rosberg who find themselves in the pound seats, just as for some little time it was Vettel.
Again, though, Mateschitz is apparently threatening to take his bat and ball home, just as he did a year ago, and it’s all getting rather tiresome. That said, as the owner of 20 per cent of the current F1 field – and a circuit which, rare in Europe these days, can afford the fee for a Grand Prix – he does of course have considerable clout with Bernie Ecclestone, who predictably has been expressing sympathy for his views.
Red Bull, though, is represented in the over-powerful F1 Strategy Group, and the teams therein have their place because they committed to remain in F1 until at least 2020, so Mateschitz can’t simply abandon F1 when the mood takes him. Can he, Bernie?
All the talk is of another fundamental change in the technical regulations in the not too distant future, and as and when that happens Renault, Ferrari, Honda et al will have a fresh opportunity to get on terms with Mercedes. Until it does, though, they must make the best of the current rules, and stop bitching because they’re getting thrashed. If some teams want to embrace ‘performance equalisation’, let them race elsewhere.
As we know, the worldwide fan base is in continuing decline, with gimmicky ideas failing to attract a new audience, while at the same time alienating purists, of whom there remain infinitely more than the powers-that-be appear to understand. Time was when the Hockenheim grandstands were packed tight every July, but for all the success of Mercedes, of Vettel and Rosberg, Germany has lost interest, and now – like France – its Grand Prix. For God’s sake, Formula 1, wise up while there’s still time.
Just as, at the end of 1976, Ermanno Cuoghi went with Niki Lauda from Ferrari to Brabham, so Andrea Stella, Fernando Alonso’s race engineer for five years, has followed his driver from Maranello to Woking. And as he sat on the McLaren pit wall in Melbourne, he could have been forgiven if occasionally he wondered what the hell he had done.
Over the Australian Grand Prix weekend Stella was working with Kevin Magnussen, who was subbing for an Alonso concentrating on his fitness, preparatory, all being well, to a return to racing at Sepang. Even before he turned a wheel in competition in 2015, though, Fernando was down one of his four Honda engines for the season, for it blew apart on Magnussen’s warm-up lap.
At McLaren they are striving to remain optimistic about the future, but in dark moments must be wondering, as are we all, what on earth is Honda playing at?
If it were no great surprise that the first McLaren-Honda test, at Abu Dhabi last November, was problematic, it was rather more of one that, at the pre-season sessions at Jerez and Barcelona, little progress – in terms of reliable running – appeared to have been made. In his time with Ferrari, Alonso may have got used to cars off the pace, but at least they were invariably reliable.
It may have been encouraging that, so far as they could tell with the horsepower they were permitted to use, both Fernando and Jenson Button said they felt the MP4-30 was inherently well born, but so minimal – and fragmented – were the laps they got in that it was impossible to give much thought to set-up.
Then of course came the riddle of Alonso’s accident, for which a full explanation still awaits. It occurred in the middle of a relatively slow lap, and amid all the conspiracy theories and scare stories that so proliferate in this world of social media, it is clear that, whatever else, Fernando was not already unconscious when his car hit the barrier: right to the moment of impact he was downshifting and hard on the brakes, and you don’t do that when you’re out cold.
Alonso was, though, briefly unconscious before being released from the car. What the McLaren had hit was not a tyre barrier, but a concrete wall, and the fact that it was essentially a sideways impact didn’t help, either, for, as Romain Grosjean pointed out, in that event you have no deformable structure working for you: “Wishbones and so on are not designed to break in that way: being carbon they will either break or stay in one piece – and if they stay in one piece the energy has to go somewhere, and that’s into the driver…”
Nor, in a sideways accident, is the HANS device of any use to you. The angle of impact was similar to that experienced by Karl Wendlinger at Monaco in 1994, and although the now compulsory padded cockpit sides will have protected Alonso from the sort of life-threatening injury suffered by Wendlinger, it is nevertheless unsurprising that he was seriously concussed.
As I write, how and why the accident began in the first place is still a mystery, and although the FIA is conducting its own investigation, with McLaren’s complete cooperation, it may forever remain so. As the driver of an identical car, Button naturally needed reassurance that it had not been triggered by a mechanical – or electrical – fault, and after going through every strand of available data expressed confidence that such was not the case.
When first I heard about the circumstances of Alonso’s shunt, I remembered Dale Earnhardt’s curious happening at Darlington in 1997. Immediately after the start of the Southern 500 Earnhardt unaccountably hit the wall at Turn 1, then did the same – much harder – at Turn 2. After a couple of slow laps, he brought his Chevy Monte Carlo into the pits, where he was lifted from the car, taken to the track medical centre, and thence to hospital, where he underwent a raft of tests, including CAT scans, an ECG – and even a check for carbon monoxide poisoning.
Although, as with Alonso, all the tests came back negative, Earnhardt was kept in overnight. Much has been made of the fact that Alonso remained in hospital for three days, and that whereas Dale duly raced the next weekend, at Richmond, Fernando was instructed by his doctors not only to take no further part in pre-season testing, but also to pass up the opening Grand Prix of the season.
The difference in consequence between their accidents is that Earnhardt never lost consciousness even momentarily, and – crucially – suffered no concussion. Had he done so, no medic would have sanctioned his racing again the following weekend.
At the Richmond NASCAR race a neurosurgeon from the hospital gave a press conference. “We believe,” he said, “that this was a temporary dysfunction of the brain – a migraine-like episode where a blood vessel feeding the base of the brain temporarily went into spasm, and restricted some of the blood flow to the brain stem, causing this temporary dysfunction. This is actually fairly common, but it’s not a condition that can be treated – or even identified once it has gone away.”
I offer this only as an explanation for Earnhardt’s accident long ago, and do not suggest that Alonso suffered the same problem in Barcelona. In both cases the circumstances were mystifying, and in neither could the driver contribute any information himself, for Dale had no memory of the accident, and neither does Fernando.
When it was announced that Alonso would not be participating in the Australian Grand Prix, the internet conspiracy theorists went – with dreary predictability – straight to full boost, some darkly muttering that Fernando’s state of health was far less good than we were being told, while others suggested he was merely seeking an excuse to get out of driving his recalcitrant car in Melbourne. Truly moronic, this last: if we know anything about Alonso it is that, as Jacques Villeneuve put it, “Formula 1 is something he needs – he’s a racing animal…”
That said, the Melbourne weekend cannot have made easy viewing for Fernando. Not only were the McLaren-Hondas patently the slowest cars on show, but Ferrari, so lamentable in 2014, vaulted up the order, with a considerable hike in horsepower and a chassis mannerly enough for Räikkönen to look like a racing driver again. As we know, squeezing a meaningful quote from Kimi is about as easy as opening an M&S sandwich, but he said enough to get across that he felt newly optimistic about life at Ferrari.
If perhaps, when Sergio Marchionne began his Augean clear-out at Maranello last year, Maurizio Arrivabene had been appointed as Stefano Domenicali’s successor, Alonso might have felt inclined to give Ferrari one last shot. As it was, unfathomably chosen was a high-powered salesman, Marco Mattiacci, who knew a lot about flogging road cars to rich Americans, but damn all about running a Formula 1 team.
The assumption that success in one field is a guarantee of more in another is a mistake commonly made in the business world, and patently the glacial Mattiacci was ill at ease in an environment of which he had no knowledge or experience. In the circumstances Alonso thought his arrogance misplaced, and as time went by their relationship evolved from cool into icy: this was emphatically not the man, Fernando felt, to turn Ferrari around.
As it turned out, Marchionne reached a similar conclusion, so that at season’s end Mattiacci was pitched, not only from Ferrari’s racing activities but from the company as a whole. This, though, came too late for Alonso, who had by now been won over by McLaren entreaties begun a year earlier by Martin Whitmarsh, then continued by Eric Boullier.
There were those, myself included, who were surprised that Fernando made the move when he did – he had always had faith in James Allison, after all, and it was not as if he were going to Mercedes. Many believed his best option, having endured five years of frustration, would be to stay put: if the first ‘Allison era’ Ferrari were a success, fine; if not, the door to McLaren would assuredly have remained open for 2016, by which time others would have borne the inevitable growing pains of an engine new to Formula 1. As well as that, who knew which other options might exist a year hence?
As it was, Alonso visited Honda, and was impressed to the point that he signed a McLaren contract long before it was announced to the world.
My belief, for what it’s worth, is that ultimately it will all come right, but whether or not I’m subconsciously basing that on times past, on the countless McLaren-Honda victories I saw in the Prost-Senna era, I can’t be sure.
Certainly, during Honda’s last spell in F1, there were suggestions that the ethos of the company had changed since those days, that its traditional focus on engineering had been subsumed by marketing. Whether or not that be true I cannot tell you, but there’s no escaping the fact that the years with BAR, then buying the company and racing under the company’s own name, were singularly unsuccessful, as Button knows only too well.
That said, I remember a conversation with Ross Brawn, who came in to run the Honda operation in 2008, then continued the following year, now as Brawn GP, and using Mercedes engines in the wake of Honda’s precipitate withdrawal from F1 after the worldwide financial meltdown.
Aided by Brawn’s double diffuser, the Merc V8 duly propelled Button to the world championship in ’09, and Ross was full of praise for it. “I tell you what, though,” he said, “I’d felt very confident of what Honda was due to give us that year – it was going to be much better than what we’d had before…”
Perhaps, therefore, the old magic remains fundamentally intact, and merely needs to be prodded into life. We may be fairly sure, I think, that Dennis and Boullier will have been impressing upon Honda the urgent need for significant progress, and in such matters Alonso, too, has never been reticent.
Of all the drivers, after all, he has that right, given his unequalled commitment every time he gets in a car.
“What did Kimi say was his big problem with the Ferrari this year?” Martin Brundle asked me over lunch in December.
“He said he had no confidence in it on turn-in…”
“Right. And what was the overtaking move of the season?”
“Alonso passing Vettel on the outside going into Copse…”
They never did clearly establish the cause of Earnhardt’s problem in Darlington, and it never occurred again. In the same way, given that McLaren could find no evidence of a failure in their car, and all the tests on Alonso’s state of health revealed nothing untoward, we may never know exactly what happened in Barcelona.
As will have become apparent to Andrea Stella in Melbourne, however, Fernando now faces a challenge tougher than any he has previously encountered in Formula 1. If logic suggests that a combination of McLaren, Honda and Alonso eventually has to succeed, who can tell how long it might take?
In Australia Button somewhat surprisingly made the finish, but he had started from the back of the grid, and – if his engine had lasted long enough – Magnussen would have been alongside him. Alonso has known nothing like that since 2001, when he was a 19-year-old rookie with Minardi.
Fifty years ago it was a bit of a schlep from Lancashire to Kent, particularly if one’s mode of transport was a friend’s Hillman Imp, but that was of no account to me, for at the end of the journey was Brands Hatch where, on Saturday, March 13 1965, I watched the Daily Mail Race of Champions.
This was not, in fact, the first Formula 1 race of the new season, for already – on New Year’s Day, no less – there had been the South African Grand Prix in East London, won readily by Jim Clark’s Lotus 33. Now, a couple of months on, the clans convened at Brands for the inaugural Race of Champions, and while it was a non-championship race the entry was of Grand Prix calibre.
At the last minute Ferrari scratched its new flat-12 car, destined for Lorenzo Bandini, but did send a V8 over for John Surtees, and the reigning world champion was joined by Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Dan Gurney, Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren et al – anyone of consequence, in other words. As well as that, British fans were also to get their first look at a couple of promising F1 rookies, a Mister Karl Jochen Rindt and a Mister John Young Stewart. They were to turn out rather well.
Thinking back to the days of the Race of Champions, one tends to remember frigid weather – it was, after all, something of an act of faith to put on a major British race meeting in March – but that first year we had a perfect spring afternoon for a race of Grand Prix length, albeit split into two 40-lap heats.
In the first of them Clark immediately took the lead, followed by team-mate Mike Spence, and there he stayed, but the focus of the race was on Gurney, whose Brabham had been troubled in practice and started 12th, but blitzed through the pack to second, splitting the Lotuses.
Given that the results were decided on aggregate, to be assured of overall victory Clark needed only to finish heat two within 20 seconds of Gurney, but of course Jimmy wasn’t like that. Again he led away, but Daniel Sexton was right with him, and if it was all a very long time ago I have a vivid memory of the pair of them side by side through Paddock: yet to enter the vocabulary of Formula 1 in 1965, of course, were words like ‘aero’ and ‘downforce’.
This was the start of lap 12 – and, as it turned out, also the end of a mesmeric battle, for at the exit of Bottom Bend Clark made a rare mistake, running wide on to the grass, then hitting an earth bank hard. The Lotus flew into the air, mercifully without going over, and next time round Gurney was relieved to see his friend limping away from the wreckage. So were we all.
Given his usual luck, Dan himself retired – engine failure – after only a couple of laps in the lead, and the other Brabham, driven by the proprietor, took over at the front until it, too, expired, leaving the always underrated Spence to score what would be his only F1 victory, with Stewart’s BRM overall runner-up despite finishing only seventh in the first heat and fourth in the second.
Attrition rates were high back then: if you thought there were a lot of retirements in Melbourne the other weekend you don’t know the half of it, which is why ‘career statistics’, comparing drivers from different eras, have always been essentially meaningless: victories and points stack up rather more readily, after all, if your car almost never breaks.
Looking back to that time, though, and comparing it with the Formula 1 of 2015, I suppose the overriding thought is just how simple and clean everything was. Yes, then as now some cars – and drivers – were better than others, but the emphasis was squarely on sport, the paddock still a place where teams lent each other spares, as needed.
Rose-tinted glasses some will say, and maybe so, but they come in very handy half a century on, when all is discord in Formula 1, when ‘power unit tokens’ are a source of constant angry debate and most of the world doesn’t even know – or care – what the hell they are.
By the by, did I mention that, after winning the first F1 heat, Clark hopped into a works Lotus Cortina for the touring car race, offering first prize money of £50? For this I was at Clearways, revelling in the sight of Jimmy three-wheeling through, sideways to a degree incomprehensible to the young fan of today: he seemed to be setting up the Cortina even as he came under the bridge…
Again Clark swiftly left the rest behind, but eventually shed a wheel at Dingle Dell, at which point we went off to get a drink. Then he got back in the 33 for the anticipated battle with Gurney. Even if they were world champions, that was how they did things in those days.
A month later Jim and Dan were on parade again, at Goodwood, but both had to miss the International Trophy at Silverstone in mid-May: while JYS scored his first F1 victory, they were otherwise occupied, qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.