Mercedes emerged with consolation, rather than points, from its home GP.
The board has made it clear that Mercedes-Benz needs victories if its F1 programme is to extend beyond the end of next season, and at face value it would appear difficult for the Stuttgart giant to draw any succour from gleaning just two points from races in Canada, France, England, Germany and Hungary. Notwithstanding its results famine, however, there were signs at Hockenheim that McLaren-Mercedes has begun to turn the tide.
Mika Hakkinen’s early retirement at the British GP served to mask the fact that the new-step Mercedes VI represented considerable progress not just in sheer horsepower, but also in driveability. Qualifying in Germany endorsed that potential: Hakkinen was fourth in the -first session and although he dropped to seventh in the second, this was the first time McLaren had qualified within four-tenths of the lead quartet on a dry track.
Both cars succumbed to engine failure on race day, when Hakkinen further underlined the engine’s promise by setting the third fastest race lap, but Mercedes competitions boss Norbert Haug professes little concern that the team left Germany with nothing tangible to show for its efforts. “We need more reliability,” he acknowledges, “and we knew that from the beginning. We should have put that engine through our normal tests, but that would have taken time. We took the risk and I think everybody understood that. Hockenheim was genuine progress. We have made about a five per cent increase in engine performance since the season started.
“Psychologically too, there was a benefit. As soon as a race driver feels, in the true sense of the word, there is some acceleration in the system, that gives a real kick.” England could have made good use of Haug in its recent test series against the West Indies, so good is his defence against any threatening delivery from the press. But although he plays down deficiencies in the McLaren side of the partnership, Mercedes derived great pride from its performance on what is renowned very much as an ‘engine circuit’.
Unfortunately, as Ron Dennis points out, the combination is not shooting at a static target. Its rivals have also made strides forward as the year has progressed and Haug is realistic about the magnitude of the task ahead:
“We have to accept we have to learn, but there is no short cut. I think we have showed we can keep up with the acceleration process the best teams are doing, because the gap to their fastest lap times in the race, or even in qualifying, is not getting bigger. To do that, you have to have a better development process than Williams, Benetton and Ferrari, and that’s quite a tough call.”
Haug is quick to stress that plans were disrupted by the Mansell affair: “When we decided to make a contract with Nigel Mansell, the idea behind it was that he would give us his big experience of Formula One, but things have worked out rather differently. Mika has done a fantastic job and Mark [Blundell] is catching up, but the planning was that the combination of Nigel’s experience and Mika’s speed would be the ideal solution.”
But things aren’t always what they seem. If it didn’t expect the crushing domination it enjoyed in 1954-55, when Fangio delivered back-to-back titles, nor did Mercedes anticipate dropping to sixth in the Constructors’ Championship after its home Grand Prix. Into the bargain, it is in danger of being overtaken by Sauber, which it ditched last season in favour of McLaren. Haug nevertheless dismisses any talk of a withdrawal.
“I don’t think we will run away,” he insists. “It is not realistic to say we can come into Formula One and win straight away, but definitely we have to be amongst the winners in what, compared to other manufacturers, has to be a short period of time. On the one hand it really honours us that expectations are so high – and I am convinced that the expectations are higher than those we have – but it is not realistic to say we can storm through the field in nine or 10 races.
“We wanted to be in a position to win before the end of the season, and we still think we could do that. As Hockenhiem indicated, it’s going better and better, but if you climb two or three steps up, you must be prepared to fall one down. The good teams are those who keep calm, keep strong, and remember that we are working in perhaps the most competitive environments in the whole world.” MS