Despite taking their first Formula 1 race victory since returning to the sport with the purchase of the Brawn GP team at the end of the 2009 season, 2012 was a disappointing year for the Mercedes AMG F1 team. Even with Nico Rosberg’s victory at the Chinese grand prix, the team’s constructors’ championship position come the end of the season was fifth; one place lower than they had finished in both of the preceding two seasons.
Even though the team have recruited a top class driver in Lewis Hamilton, many suggest that Mercedes will continue to struggle in 2013. There is a widespread belief that 2013 will be sacrificed and that the team will be focussing on 2014, when there’s a significant regulation change. However, I think that there are a number of reasons why Mercedes might confound these negative expectations in the coming season, and here’s why.
First of all, and as I’ve already mentioned, Mercedes have recruited a truly world-class driver in Lewis Hamilton. People might argue that the man who Hamilton replaced, seven time Formula 1 world drivers’ champion Michael Schumacher, was no slouch and was a world-class driver in his own right, but the big difference between the German and the Englishman is that Hamilton is a man at the top of his game, while Schumacher was far from that at the time of his retirement at the end of the 2012 season.
Schumacher was consistently outpaced in his ‘second career’ in Formula 1 by his team-mate Rosberg. Rosberg finished ahead of his countryman in all three of their seasons together at Mercdes, scoring nearly double the amount of points that his more experienced team-mate in both 2010 and 2012. Despite Schumcher’s glittering Formula 1 career, and the odd flash of his old pace, like his pole lap at Monaco last season, his talent was clearly on the wane.
Hamilton, though, should be approaching the peak of his powers. At 28 years of age he is 16 years Schumacher’s junior, but still an experienced Formula 1 driver in his own right. Hamilton is himself a Formula 1 world drivers’ champion who, after 110 F1 race starts, is now entering his sixth season at the pinnacle of motorsport. After a lacklustre 2011, littered with off track problems and uncharacteristic mistakes on the track, Hamilton was back on form in 2012. He drove brilliantly last season, and it was only operational and technical errors on the part of his former team, McLaren, that meant that he was ultimately unable to sustain the championship challenge that his driving performances warranted. Hamilton is also a man who is able to drag performance from a car that might be tricky to drive, which makes him the perfect man given Mercedes’s performance issues. As Martin Brundle said recently “Lewis has got such pace, and if Mercedes can harness that speed and give him the car, he will drag another quarter of a second per lap out of it somewhere”.
It is, though, important to point out that Hamilton has no chance of being able to deliver results for Mercedes in 2013 unless the new car, the W04, is, at least, reasonably competitive. A Mercedes that is able to sustain the sort of performance level that we saw from the Brackley based team at the start of the 2012 season is almost certain to be a winner in the hands of Hamilton, as it was for Rosberg in China. A Mercedes that delivers the sort of pace that we saw from the team in the latter half of 2012 will simply not be good enough, for even a driver of Hamilton’s considerable skill, to win races and challenge at the front of the field.
Why is there any reason to think that the Mercedes team of 2013 will be able to sustain winning performance where the Mercedes team of 2012 could not? Given the team’s position at the end of 2012, who could even say that the 2013 car will be good enough out of the box? Well, to answer the first of my own questions, there are good reasons why Mercedes suffered a mid-season slump in performance last season. As Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn said earlier this month, at the mid-season point Mercedes were transitioning from a 50 percent windtunnel to a 60 percent windtunnel. The change was needed to enable the team to increase the amount of data it could glean from the Pirelli tyres. With extracting performance out of the tyres becoming such a crucial part of modern-day Formula 1, making the switch was crucial for Mercedes, even if it did cost them performance in the short-term.
The windtunnel was not the only reason for Mercedes’s performance problems, though. The team’s had of aerodynamics, Loic Bigois, departed mid-season and his replacement, Mike Elliot, from F1 rivals Lotus, wasn’t able to immediately take over. As Brawn commented “We concluded the situation with Loic and there was a gap that we didn’t fill very well”.
The arrival of Elliot, though almost certainly bodes well for Mercedes. The Lotus E20 threatened to be the class of the field, at times, last season and Lotus scored over double the amount of world constructors’ championship points as Mercedes as a result. Elliot’s appointment, coupled with Mercedes’s new wind tunnel should certainly help the team to move forwards. Interestingly, Elliot’s appointment might also enable Mercedes to steal a march on some of its rivals in one, potentially important, area.
In 2012, Mercedes and Lotus were the only two teams to trial the use of a passive DRS system that uses air pressure to stall the rear wing at certain speeds; a sort of passive version of the driver operated F-duct device originally introduced by McLaren in 2010, but now outlawed. Neither Lotus nor Mercedes actually raced a passive system last season, but if teams can get such a system to work effectively it could be a big benefit. With Elliot, who presumably has some knowledge of the work that Lotus were doing on their system, now on board at Mercedes, you could surmise that the latter team are as likely as anyone to get such a system operating properly.
Indeed, with the change in the DRS rules, an effective passive DRS system might become even more important in 2013. From this year, teams will no longer have free use of their standard DRS systems in practice and qualifying with use of the system restricted to the FIA’s designated race DRS zones. This means that an effective passive system could deliver a qualifying and race advantage. The key factor will, though, be whether anyone can get such a system to work. As I have said, I think that Mercedes will probably be in as good a position as anyone in this respect. Although such a system might not be suitable for all tracks – only tracks with predominantly low-speed corners and long straights – and, as Ross Brawn explained last year, such a system “is not going to be a game changer in terms of your competitiveness”, any advantage is potentially crucial in Formula 1.
This brings me on to my next point. As Red Bull Racing designer Adrian Newey admitted at the end of last year, the stability in the Formula 1 rules – there hasn’t been much significant change since 2009 – means that it is becoming more and more difficult for the top teams to find significant extra performance. With a team like Mercedes, though, which is certainly one of the sports big teams, but was lagging behind in performance terms at the end of 2012, there will be more speed to find than a team like Red Bull or McLaren. The new Mercedes, for example, will certainly feature a coanda exhaust, which the team could not get to work – probably in part due to their windtunnel transition – in 2012, which will deliver performance.
So, do I think that Mercedes will be championship contenders in 2013? Unless they find something that no-one else does, probably not, but with Hamilton on board and a car that’s in the right ball park then who knows? I certainly expect that Mercedes will be in a Lotus-esque position in 2013; consistently able to challenge for podiums and the odd race win.