Remaking Mercedes: How the Silver Arrows soared to the top
A little less than five years ago, on a sandblasted circuit in the Middle East, the Mercedes-GP Formula One team took to the track for the first time since 1955. They did so with grand expectations and a plan in place to dominate the sport. This weekend, again on a circuit in the Middle East, their objective will officially, historically, come to fruition.
Mercedes’ F1 journey began in Bahrain in March 2010, with Michael Schumacher, the seven-time world champion, bringing an added sense of anticipation to the long-awaited return of one of motorsport’s most illustrious manufacturers.
After 55 years, the Silver Arrows were back as a team and not just as an engine manufacturer, intent on success, and expectations were unfathomably (and unfeasibly) high.
On the Thursday before the team’s first race, the swell of photographers outside Schumacher’s garage in Sakhir was eight rows deep. The first FIA news conference of the season resulted in Fernando Alonso being asked whether Schumacher winning every race of 2010 would be bad for the sport.
In reality, Schumacher struggled in a team finding its feet and without the pace to challenge for race wins.
When he returned to retirement at the end of 2012, he did so having contested a further 58 races, but adding only one podium finish to his remarkable record, a third-place finish at the European Grand Prix in Valencia.
On announcing his decision to quit the sport, the habitual winner conceded defeat. “We did not achieve our goals to develop a world championship-fighting car,” he said.
The man recruited to replace Schumacher and partner Nico Rosberg at the German marque was arguably the only driver in the paddock capable of generating as much hysteria as the Red Baron.
Lewis Hamilton, the limelight-loving 2008 world champion, arrived ahead of the 2013 season free from the formality that had shackled him at McLaren and ready to become a two-time world champion.
Again, expectations were enormous, but Hamilton wisely played them down. He did not anticipate the team would fight for victories until his second season, he said.
Yet, within two races, he was on the podium and, three months later, he was atop it, in Hungary. Rosberg, meanwhile, took victories in Monaco and Great Britain.
Such results proved the first hints of what was to come.
By the time the F1 fraternity rolled back into the Hungaroring in July, Mercedes had won eight of the first nine races of the season and almost certainly turned the drivers’ championship into a two-way, one-team title fight.
Three months later, at the inaugural Russian Grand Prix, the team with the three-pointed star secured their first F1 constructors’ title – with three races to spare.
“With 13 wins from 16 races so far, our performance this year has been true to the promise of the Mercedes-Benz brand: The Best or Nothing,” said Dr Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz cars, after the race.
A couple of days later, Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes-Benz motorsport, visited the factories in Brackley and Brixworth in England alongside Hamilton, Rosberg and Niki Lauda, the team’s non-executive chairman.
“What a moment,” Wolff said. “When I was driving to the factory I remembered when I first joined the team, how inspired I was by everybody I met.
“Not a day has passed since that I don’t walk through the factories and feel the same inspiration.”
Yet for all the inspiration and perspiration, it has been a year with some irritation.
Before the season started, Ross Brawn, the team principal who sold his Brawn-GP to Mercedes in 2009, was forced out.
A venerated veteran of the sport, Brawn felt betrayed when it became clear Mercedes officials – Wolff included – had recruited Paddy Lowe as a direct replacement from behind his back in 2013.
Lowe, a principled, decent man, was clearly uneasy with the arrangement. When Mercedes accomplished part one of their two-part objective in Sochi, he was quick to pay heed to his predecessor.
He wrote in his post-race notes that he would “especially like to recognise the pivotal role played by Ross Brawn in this success and congratulate him, too, on his part in this [constructors’] championship victory”.
Wolff said: “Winning the very first constructors’ championship for Mercedes-Benz is a moment of immense pride for all of us and this is the moment to recognise everybody involved in that team effort – starting with Ross Brawn, who was an inspiring figure at the team and laid the foundations for our current success.”
It was a graceful and classy way of recognising the genius behind the success, while also denying critics the opportunity to suggest Brawn had been cast aside and forgotten. No infighting here; move along.
On track, the same could not always be said. Ahead of Rosberg’s second successive victory in Monaco in May, he was accused of deliberately going off the track during Hamilton’s final qualifying lap. The move prevented Hamilton from taking pole.
At Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium in August, Rosberg ruined Hamilton’s race when he made contact with him on the second lap and forced his teammate to pit and eventually retire.
Hamilton was understandably furious, claiming Rosberg had admitted in the post-race debrief that he had caused the collision on purpose, “to prove a point”.
The crash threatened to derail Mercedes’ progress and Rosberg was made to give a grieving apology in which he described his move as “an error of judgement”. Both drivers were warned they were dispensable and that the team must always come first.
The fallout from the incident seemed to have the desired effect with Hamilton and Rosberg showing extra caution without the need for team orders.
Yet, ironically, Rosberg’s attempt to sneak ahead in Spa handed Hamilton the momentum. In the next four races, the former McLaren driver took pole position at three and triumphed at all four.
After a series of mechanical issues at the start of the season, Hamilton found stability in the autumn, while Rosberg appeared to struggle with the pressure.
Yet both drivers arrive in Abu Dhabi still capable of taking the title.
Mercedes, back on a sandblasted circuit in the Middle East, five years since their return, have already proved their abilities by becoming constructors champions.
Now the drivers have to finish the job and determine who will be the Silver Arrows’ first world champion since Juan Manuel Fangio in 1955.
On Sunday evening, Mercedes’ journey to the top will be complete as one of their two drivers leaves the 2014 drivers’ champion.
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Updated: November 19, 2014 04:00 AM