DUBAI // The first crash of the new Formula One season, so the joke goes, came on Saturday before a car had even taken to the track.
The new Mercedes-GP W04 was finally unveiled in southern Spain yesterday, but two days earlier, such was the anticipation following a teaser promo, that the German manufacturers' website could not cope with the demand and went into a most unwelcome meltdown.
The online promo would have marked fans' first glimpse of the car Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will compete in this year. Courtesy of the server crash, instead it only provided Mercedes with a glimpse of the Hamilton Effect.
Few people garner as much widespread interest as the 28 year old Englishman, who became the sports's youngest world champion when he won the title five years ago. Hamilton's mixture of aggressive racer, handsome celebrity and imprudent young man makes for engrossing viewing and watching how he will settle into Mercedes-GP after a career spent winning grands prix at the pre-eminent McLaren marque will be nothing short of fascinating.
Yesterday, stood at the side of the Jerez track in his silver-and-green Mercedes-GP race suit and posing next to the W04, the reality of his new situation was driven home. Hamilton's story may have been recounted in countless biographies, but there is no doubting this is an altogether new chapter in the life of the paddock's most marketable man.
“It's a very special day for me to officially present our Mercedes-Benz Silver Arrow to the world,” he said in a statement. “It's an honour for me to tread in the footsteps of legends like Juan Manuel Fangio, Sir Stirling Moss and Michael Schumacher.
“It's the start of a new adventure and when I walked through the doors in Brackley [England], I was so excited to get down to work. I've been at the factory for a few days now... and I have never seen a group of people hungrier for success than this one.”
Hamilton, of course, is no stranger to the three-pointed star. Mercedes provided engines to McLaren in each of the six seasons he raced with the Woking-based outfit. In that period, McLaren finished on the podium on 88 occasions and its top step 33 times. In contrast, since Mercedes factory works team took control of Brawn-GP at the end of 2009, they have managed just six podiums and one race win.
Hamilton's decision to defect has largely been put down to a desire to be at the front of the pack in 2014 when the sport's regulations change substantially. Mercedes, as a supplier, believe they are better positioned than their rivals to prosper when radical new chassis and engine rules come into effect. Hamilton, who talks of “playing a long game” clearly agrees.
“This year is about trying to get settled in the team, get a good working relationship and working to steer this car in the right direction and also next year's car,” he told reporters in Jerez yesterday. “We have to deliver as a team, of course, but I am not a miracle worker. I'm going to work as hard as I can with the team to make steps forward. This year is about one step at a time. Finishing the first race, getting on the podium, and then trying to win races.”
The car launch itself seemed to generate a mixed response, with more than 3,000 fans and enthusiasts watching the unveiling on a live stream on the team's YouTube page. More than one fan watching commented not on the car, but on the fact Hamilton looked “weird” in Mercedes team kit.
Gary Anderson, a former F1 car designer and now analyst for the BBC, said he was struggling to see where the “step change in performance” that Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn spoke of was going to come from, adding: “I wouldn't necessarily say I'm seeing anything too exciting about the Mercedes”.
Brawn himself though remained bullish. “[This season] marks the start of a second era for our Silver Arrows works team,” he said. “The restructuring we undertook at the team over the past 18 months [is] now growing in maturity and this is reflected in the F1 W04, which is a clear step forward in design and detail sophistication over its predecessor.
“With Lewis and Nico, we have what I believe to be the strongest driver line-up in Formula One and I know that a healthy level of competition between them both will help drive the team forward.”
However, noting which of the two drivers is ahead of his teammate on track could prove more problematic: both racers confirmed they will wear yellow helmets. One of Hamilton's fans took to Twitter to offer a solution: “Let's just assume the one ahead is Lewis”.
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