F1- Mission Impossible. With David Hall.

Sometimes you have to look at a team and just admit they’ve done something a bit special.

88 – 91 for McLaren:
88 when Senna and Prost won all but one race for McLaren.
Taking 15 pole positions and 15 wins from 16 races.
(Only Berger in a Ferrari prevented a clean sweep of both)
With a then record 199 points.
2000 – 2004 for Ferrari:
2002 when Michael Schumacher became the only driver in Formula 1 history to finish on the podium in every race of a season, setting a record of 19 consecutive podiums.

Right now that’s the case with Mercedes AMG F1. We’re in an era of domination not seen since McLaren in the late 80’s early 90’s, or Ferrari and Schumacher from 2000 – 2004.
I say “era of domination” because while Red Bull were the most successful team of this decade, they only truly dominated the second half of 2013, when Sebastian Vettel won 9 races in succession.
This Mercedes domination is more total, more sustained. Barring late safety car intervention or rain forced tyre change gamble the outcome is inevitable. Mercedes will lock out the front row and they will be the first two cars home.

This weekend in Austria saw Lewis Hamilton reach 15 consecutive podiums for Mercedes. A run that stretches from Monza 2014 to Austria 2015.

Such is Mercedes’ domination that they are the only team that can finish with a double podium and have it feel like a loss. At Monaco a split decision call resulted in the dominant Hamilton pitting under safety car conditions and surrendering a hard earned win to team mate Rosberg.

With Mercedes new found domination follows a surge in popularity.
10 Million Facebook fans. 1 Million Twitter followers.
The first team to break the 1 Million barrier on Twitter also became the first team to so actively engage them, for after Monaco came a wave of outcry from Hamilton fans who cried conspiracy.
If ever there was a case to be made for teams to stay off Twitter it was here, but Mercedes were brave. #AskToto was team Principal Toto Wolff wading into the mire that was certain fans in a determination to address the issues that had cost Hamilton (Not Mercedes) the win. I won’t post the vitriol that the Twitter handler had to process prior to the engagement as frankly it’s ridiculous, but engage with it they did, showing in the process a willingness by Mercedes to do things differently both on and off the track.

The message was clear:
“We told him to stay out,”
“Lewis said “not good” and that the tyres had lost temperature. We had one second to react and, combined with our wrong timing data, we made the mistake of calling him in. We’re not happy about the situation itself & therefore there was no such thing as happiness about that incident.”

“We believed we could make a free stop to cover risk of cars behind on SuperSoft. Unfortunately our data was wrong. You need the right balance between data and gut feeling. Our tools told us we had the gap but they were wrong. Under Safety Car you need 12 seconds gap to maintain position. Our system showed us that we had that gap.”

Merc CelebrateActions speak louder than words. Having engaged with the irate fans over the mistake that cost Hamilton a win he so desperately wants the best way to rectify things would be a faultless Mercedes display. Having done so at Canada and Austria a different complaint resurfaced. “Mercedes domination is damaging the sport” the line trumpeted by commentators like Damon Hill (How good was that 90’s Williams Damon?) Not only did Austria see another Mercedes 1-2, but it saw a Mercedes powered Williams in third giving Massa his 40th podium and pushing him through the 1000 points barrier. Even more impressive was the fact that there were 7 Mercedes powered engines in the top 10. Indeed, it would seem that the best way to be competitive currently in Formula 1 is to have the right engine. Just ask Williams and Lotus, who have both left Renault, and Red Bull who couldn’t be any more vocal about how much they want to leave Renault and/or the sport.

Somethings never change in Formula 1.
Timing is everything.
You can be the best driver in the world, but if you’re not in the right team at the right time you’ll never win a title. It’s something that Fernando Alonso knows all too well. It’s something that Sebastian Vettel knew when he told his Red Bull team to relish the moment when the won 4 in a row at the end of the V8 era.

The only thing that has changed is how those that aren’t winning can deal with it.
Some work hard and look for the advantages to be gained in the future. McLaren Honda have been admirable in how they have dealt with the crisis they find themselves in and how they’ve stuck together in their approach to dealing with it, but there is no escaping from the fact that Honda’s return to Formula 1 has been an unmitigated disaster.

Red Bull have had a completely different approach. There isn’t a week that goes by now that we don’t hear somebody from within Red Bull exclaim their dissatisfaction with Renault and how far they have fallen. It’s not pretty but Formula 1 is in no place to lose what Red Bull brings to it right now. Maybe they have looked down the road and know that there is no way back for their supplier. They must surely also look to their own Junior team and ask themselves why it is that Toro Rosso and its two rookies seem to be having the better of this season. Yes Renault have gone backwards but it would seem so has Red Bull.

If a manufacturer has gotten it so wrong that a complete overhaul is required then it is hindered by the token system, which rather than keep costs down simply limits how those that have got it wrong recover. Ferrari have used tokens to try and narrow the gap to Mercedes, frustrated by Mercedes ability to find speed in the cooling system without using tokens. Chasing a moving target. Renault though have yet to use a token. Indicating that a very big change is needed to fix the problems that it faces.

This is where Formula 1’s competitive problems lie. Not in the fact that Mercedes has made a technically spectacular Hybrid Generation Formula 1 car, but with every passing season that their opposition fails to rectify their problems it becomes even more difficult to do so. The token allocation is set to diminish next season. (5 of the 66 “tokens” are already frozen. 32 tokens can be used for 2015 (48%). In 2016, 38%. 30 percent in ’17. 23% in ’18 & 5% for ’19 and ’20.

Given that set of circumstances the window of opportunity gets ever smaller, pretty soon the most cost effective way to be competitive in this current era of Formula 1 will be to talk nicely to Toto Wolff and see if there is room for another Mercedes supply. As a manufacturer it becomes vital that the unit you produce is perfect in its conception. Get it wrong and there is almost no chance for recovery and every chance of a very public humiliation on a global stage.

Formula 1 seems to have engineered its way into a corner. A massive leap in technology aligned to the introduction of development freezes looks to be a mistake. It appears only to have established an unchallengeable position for Mercedes. Those who have failed thus far must surely tear up the blueprints and start again. Like most technology wars sometimes the best design is the only design that survives and the others must copy it to have any chance of competing. Limited testing and diminishing token allocations prevents that. It merely cements the status quo for as long as this generation of technical regulations exists.

So we look to the Strategy Group and we ask the teams within to open up the regulations to allow more freedom for Manufacturers to right their mistakes. There is just one problem. Three of the teams in that group have Mercedes engines and it’s not in their interest to instigate that change. How do you fix a problem like that?

Formula 1 needs to ask itself a serious question. What does it want to be?

1) It can adopt a NASCAR stance and ignore the technology revolution currently under way in the motor industry. In doing so it would cut the costs to the independent teams. Down this path is the route of V8/V10 engines and the potential to introduce customer chassis. Both of which would create a fundamentally different Formula 1. It then becomes GP1. In that scenario it would make perfect sense to limit testing and development allowed by manufacturers and constructors.

2) It embraces the Hybrid technology as it has currently and maybe even further push the output of the Hybrid component why not go further and allow Super Capacitors and Flywheels, like the one Williams Advanced Engineering supply for Audi in WEC. If this is the case then the manufacturers must be given the opportunity to test their systems away from the public eye. As thing stands Mercedes have been nothing short of phenomenal in how they have delivered in this new era of Formula 1. For Renault and Honda though it has been an absolute nightmare. One from which the ability to rectify their mistakes becomes increasingly reduced every season. Under current regulations they will not only struggle to beat Mercedes but also the teams around them who are powered by Mercedes. It costs too much for a manufacturer not to be allowed to rectify that, and they will not continue in a sport while they are continuously beaten by customer cars. Even more so a manufacturer won’t continue if it is made suffer the humiliation of 25 five place grid penalty (eventually stop go penalty), when it’s already at the back of the grid and is likely to not finish the race, in the name of “sporting interest”.

Formula 1 cannot be both things. It cannot push technology and aim to freeze costs and development. Yet it cannot force that cost onto customer teams without financial aid.

This is one of the biggest tests Formula 1 has ever faced and very soon it will need to stop fighting among vested interests and see the bigger picture.
 

David Hall

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