Thursday, 15 May 2014

The biggest question: can Mercedes win every race in 2014?

It may be the biggest question that remains in the 2014 Formula One season. But five races in.

In 2014 the Mercedes have dominated the top places
Photo: Octane Photography
One-by-one all apparently are accepting the grimly inevitable that the 2014 titles are already effectively the property of Mercedes; their eventual destination are a matter of when rather than whether. Even its closest rivals have raised the white flag it seems. Fernando Alonso has declared the silver cars 'out of reach', as has Red Bull's big boss Dietrich Mateschitz who said his team 'probably cannot catch up the advantage that Mercedes has...I don't think we can challenge the points lead, even if we are winning (races) again'. And you'll do well to find anyone disagreeing with either. Even Lewis Hamilton let his guard down ever-so slightly after his outfit's latest decisive triumph in Spain, saying 'from them (Mercedes's rivals) to catch us up at the moment it looks like it's going to be tough for them'.

It's easy to see why this is the prevailing view. Already there is clear silver water between the Mercs and the rest in both the drivers' and the constructors' tables, having in either more than double the points total of the nearest non-Merc challenger. More pointedly the machine has a pace gap on the rest that is at least as handsome - in the Spanish round just passed it seemed if anything to extend - and even if that can be hauled in it will take time that the chasing pack doesn't have. James Allen estimated that closing the circa one second per lap that currently separates the Silver Arrows from the next team (by common consent Red Bull), combined with the fact that Merc will not stand still, would take around six months ordinarily. By which time the season will be just about over. And Allen added that even if it can be done sooner the probability is that by that stage the points gap to the Mercs will have grown to something unbridgeable: 'even let's presume that Red Bull were able to get their noses in front in pure pace' said Allen, 'the team that would almost certainly would be following them home then in that scenario would be Mercedes, and they wouldn't be able to get enough points to claw back the already enormous lead that Mercedes have got'.

Some suspense remains in the intra-Merc battle between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, although an increasing number, including the oddsmakers at, are arguing that Lewis is showing every sign of establishing the whip-hand in this. You have to go back to 2013 for the last time Nico prevailed when both finished after all. But still, the pair remain close in the points table as well as in a few races - and the Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolff (as if to underline the Mercs' comfort) has said that the marque accepts its responsibilities to the sport and will let its two pilots race.

So, what is this biggest question that remains? It could well transpire that the matter that most holds our attention, at the front of the pack at least, for the reminder of this campaign is that of whether the Mercedes can win every round of the 2014 season.

As before this is not a possibility pulled from the air, the team already has won five from five while the ubiquitous Alonso has mooted in recent days that Mercedes 'should be in a position to win all the races probably'. Plenty of others over the Barcelona weekend speculated as to a similar outcome.

Will Hamilton or Rosberg be spraying champagne every time?
Photo: Octane Photography
A season's clean sweep by a single team is a feat never done before. And when it comes to such an effort the 1988 campaign, the McLaren MP4/4 Honda, Senna, Prost are what get associated. And that collective oh-so nearly did it, being denied only on the penultimate lap of the Italian race at Monza, wherein leader Ayrton Senna tripped over a backmarker, Jean-Louis Schlesser appearing for one race only in the Williams replacing an unwell Nigel Mansell, thus giving the race to Gerhard Berger in a Ferrari (Alain Prost had already retired). Without this McLaren would have achieved an unblemished record of wins.

And as things stand it is genuinely difficult to see circumstances in which the Mercs can be beaten. The German power unit is visibly the most potent in a straight line as well as is by consensus the strongest on fuel mileage; the W05's performance at Barcelona, all long corners, suggested that the team isn't giving much away on the chassis front; its innovative power unit layout and the resultant weight distribution ensures that the silver car is the most nimble out there too.

Plus reliability - something that with the new rules many thought would add a variable - has barely been a consideration since Lewis's breakdowns in practice and the race all the way back in the season-opener in Melbourne.

Monaco is next, a meeting often looked at as one always capable of springing a surprise result. Perhaps especially so this time as the Merc's straightline speed advantage won't have chance to make itself felt, and many think the fine-handling but underpowered Red Bulls will be worth watching there. But sight should not be lost that even in Monaco the best car remains the best car. And the W05's nimbleness we've mentioned.

There may be wet races too which also can throw in a variable. But so far we've had three wet qualifying sessions this year already, and who's been on pole - and pretty comfortably - in each? L. Hamilton.

The McLaren MP4/4  - won oh-so nearly every time
Credit: Paul Lannuier / CC
Can the pace gap to the Mercs be recovered? Compared with the 1988 season cited the Mercedes's second a lap advantage looks small indeed; then in round two the quickest non-McLaren was a full 3.3 seconds off the pole time, while in the following round the gap was a mere 2.6.

Unlike in 1988 there are not now big rule changes impending in the following year, so development can be expected to continue given much of it should still have relevance to 2015.

The rate of in-season development on the chassis at least is much more intense now too, and Merc's closest challenger (a relative term) Red Bull has established itself in this as being particularly capable. David Coulthard on the BBC over last weekend for one was still holding out hope on this: 'Formula One is about rate of development and although it looks very impressive for Mercedes right now...if you look at the comeback of Red Bull, OK they're still some way down the round, their rate of development has been much quicker than what Mercedes have actually delivered since the first test.'

While too if Renault can get its power unit close to Mercedes's, as by consensus the Red Bull chassis remains a good one, you suspect that at a stroke the RB10 could be at the W05's heels.

There is a flipside however. Perhaps the greatest beauty of the works Mercedes's preponderance is that it is in matters that are long lead-in, such as the power unit layout and 'coke bottle' area, where its most telling advantages can be found. These will take months to copy. And while DC's enthusiasm is understandable given everything, it also has to be said that the Bulls' apparently quicker rate of development since testing owes a lot to starting from a much lower point where the potential proportionate gains are far greater. Mark Hughes has demonstrated also that the Bulls didn't actually catch up to a great extent in the 'big update' round of Spain.

But the season remains a long one, some 19 races (and McLaren in 1988 had but 16 to win). And to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, stuff happens. And this is so in F1 more than most activities. Races are long; unforeseen events can scupper. And it was this very thing, no team ever matched a McLaren on pace over a race in 1988, that then deprived McLaren of its grand slam. Indeed it was a combination of them coming together in the said Italian round. Prost knew early on in the Monza race that his engine wouldn't last until the end, so in an attempt to scupper Senna he cranked his turbo boost up and put his fuel use well into the 'red'. Senna took the bait and was similarly spendthrift in response, and after Prost indeed dropped out had to tail off his pace considerably in order to make the flag. It was under pressure from rapidly-closing Ferraris that Senna tangled with Schlesser.

Coulthard concurs: 'When McLaren had great dominance in the past and Williams had great dominance in the past I don't recall them winning every race in an entire season; there's usually something that comes along and trips that up.'

Sacrilegious though it'll no doubt sound in such an activity as F1 wherein everything is sought to be measured, controlled, accounted for, probably the greatest threat to the Mercs winning everywhere in 2014 is dumb luck.

1 comment:

  1. Yes the Mercs are going to do it for sure, even if the others catch up mid-end of season, there will be too many points in it, so the best of racing were going to witness may just be between these guys, boring maybe? me personally I'd rather see teams duel than team mates... happy for Mercedes fans, doe fan base over all may suffer.