How will Mercedes manage its drivers?


Mercedes-Benz insists that it will continue to allow Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to fight and that team orders is a “terrible thing” for Formula 1.

But did anyone else notice hesitancy in Paddy Lowe’s voice as he informed his charges of the pressing need of bringing the cars home safely in Bahrain?

That’s precisely what happened – because both men drove brilliantly, with passion and skill.

It could so easily have gone horribly wrong, however. What then might Mercedes-Benz have said?

Given Niki Lauda’s opinion on the subject – forthright is the unnecessary adjective – exactly the same, probably.

His criticism of Ross Brawn’s decision to apply team orders – in schoolmasterly tones – in the closing stages of last year’s Malaysian GP was an early sign of the schism within the team.

On that occasion Lauda felt Rosberg was denied the chance to reap the benefit of “a smarter and more controlled race” than Hamilton’s.

He must continue to be so even-handed for this new ethic to work. For the slightest hint that he favours Hamilton – whom he persuaded to join the team – could spark a war.

Lauda might not be on the pit wall but his words resound – on both sides of the garage – for he has the experience that counts. Thirty years ago he went toe-to-toe with McLaren team-mate Alain Prost – and both emerged with their reputations enhanced and friendship intact.

Lauda was not best pleased at the Frenchman’s late and surprise arrival from Renault. Niki had been confident that designer John Barnard’s superbly packaged and detailed MP4/2, its bespoke TAG-Porsche V6 turbo the most efficient in the first year of a fuel-limit formula – thanks to Bosch’s electronic injection – could take him to a third world title.

But suddenly he had a team-mate about whom he knew just one thing: he was “a fast son-of-a-bitch”.

In his excellent To Hell and Back, Lauda wrote: “I had to play it cool and act as if it were totally immaterial, but I knew deep down that I was in for a hard time.”

Especially since he had angered both Barnard and team boss Ron Dennis by going over their heads to Marlboro to force them to run an interim turbo car in the last four races of 1983.

Plus he knew that Prost was being paid a “bargain basement price” whereas he had landed a two-year deal that even he considered “slightly over the top”.

Lauda’s initial fears were confirmed when Prost went to great lengths to ingratiate himself with the team while, with a twinkle in his eye, pointing out that he had passed his driving test the same year that Lauda had won his first world championship.

Lauda: “But then, gradually, it motivated me: Prost was someone I had to contend with.”

It’s telling that Lauda entitled the relevant chapter The Toughest Year. One might have thought his near-death experience of 1976 would have been so accorded.

He selected 1984 because not only did he have to defeat Prost, the faster man, but also because his relationship with Ron Dennis soured as the season progressed.

Prost, in contrast, turned out to be “simply warm, friendly and straightforward” – as well as fast.

According to the latter, their relationship consolidated at Kyalami, the second GP of the year, when time constraints forced them to divide set-up responsibilities: Lauda looked after the engine side of affairs and Prost the chassis, and information was exchanged freely at debriefs.

“We complemented each other perfectly,” wrote Prost in his Life in the Fast Lane. “Niki is a delightful person, once you get know him, with a great sense of humour and a real lust for life.

“It was a joy to work alongside someone whose arguments were so precise and lucid.”

Lauda won at Kyalami and Prost finished second after starting from the pit lane in the spare. The rest were nowhere. Already it was clear that it would be a straight fight between them for the title.

And so it proved bar one thing.

Lauda: “Somehow he [Dennis] swings the whole team round behind Prost. We have the same material, of course, and our cars are prepared with the same tender loving care: it’s not that I am put at any disadvantage in material terms, simply that I am upset by the unpleasant atmosphere.

“There can be no question that he is a diligent professional. The team functions perfectly and you can sense the perfection at the helm. To me, however, Ron’s weakness seems to reside in a sort of chip-on-the-shoulder complex. It is for this reason that he overreacts as team boss. His arrogance can be unbearable.”

As a result, Lauda had a secret meeting with Renault – and was taken aback when Ron promptly relayed details of it and the proposed contract – while Dennis threatened to sign either Ayrton Senna or Keke Rosberg.

Lauda again went directly to Marlboro to ask if it still wanted his services. It did.

Even so, he had “to accept the most swingeing pay cut of my career” to eliminate unsettling distractions from the crucial final two races.

Prost won both – his sixth and seventh victories of the season compared with Lauda’s five – but, agonisingly, missed the title by a half-point.

And yet he considered 1984 “a dramatic, electrifying, nail-biting year: a magnificent championship season which, to my mind at least, showed Formula 1 at its best.”

Were either Hamilton or Rosberg – and I am no longer sure which of them is playing which role – to feel the same way at the end of this season, Lauda will have preached what he practised.

But 1984 is a long time ago and there remains plenty of time in 2014 for Big Brother to yet play a “terrible” role.

More from Paul Fearnley
Mercedes once again setting the standard
Schumacher at his sporting best
Keke and Nico’s Australian GP wins

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