Red Bull have raised the bar in Formula 1 over the last two or three years, heaping pressure of one kind or another on all their major rivals.
McLaren’s inability to produce a car that can consistently challenge Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel had a clear effect on Lewis Hamilton’s equanimity last season, introducing new pressures into that team as the Englishman struggled to cope with his on-track disappointment and difficulties in his private life.
At Ferrari, a technical director has lost his job and his replacement has felt under pressure to take significant risks this year as F1′s most famous team seeks to produce a car that can do justice to Fernando Alonso’s abundant talents.
But nowhere, arguably, is the need to improve felt more greatly than at Mercedes, the team trying to make F1′s “big three” into a quartet.
Mercedes are hoping their new W03 car for 2012 will herald a return to the front of the grid. Picture: Getty
The German giants enter 2012 seeking a huge step forward from a season of conspicuous under-performance. Lodged in no-man’s land, some distance behind the top three and some way ahead of the rest, there was not a single podium finish for either Michael Schumacher or Nico Rosberg in 2011.
Unsurprisingly, Mercedes’ vice-president of competition, Norbert Haug, describes that as “not good enough”. For one of the world’s greatest car companies, that is something of an understatement.
Mercedes’ latest venture into F1 has only been running for two years – since the company bought the Brawn team at the end of 2009 after spending 17 years as an engine supplier first to Sauber and then to McLaren.
But the current management has a lot to live up to – the company’s two previous forays into grand prix racing were considerably more successful.
In the mid-1930s, Mercedes and fellow German giants Auto Union (the forerunners of Audi) dominated with their famous Silver Arrows. And in 1954 and ’55 Mercedes produced a level of domination with the great Juan Manuel Fangio that makes Red Bull’s performances in recent years pale into insignificance.
Mercedes’ relationship with McLaren had produced drivers’ titles for Mika Hakkinen in 1998 and ’99 and for Lewis Hamilton in 2008, as well as near-misses with Hakkinen in 2000, Kimi Raikkonen in 2003 and 2005 and Hamilton and Alonso in 2007.
But the decision to set up their own team was based as much on the realities of the road-car marketplace as any comparative lack of success on the track.
The poor results McLaren produced in 2009, starting the season with their worst car for 15 years, were an influence. So, too, was the relative lack of recognition for the Mercedes brand in any McLaren success on the track – inevitably the case for an engine supplier, even if it did own 40% of the team.
But when McLaren decided to launch its own supercar into a market Mercedes was also planning to enter with its SLS, such close links were no longer tenable.
In the autumn of 2009, buying the team that had just won the world championship, run by a man who masterminded all of Schumacher’s world titles, must have seemed about as good a guarantee of success as you could get. Bringing Schumacher out of retirement, to rejoin the company that set him on the path to stardom and bring his career full circle, was supposed to be the icing on the cake.
Except that’s not how it has worked out. The cars have been uncompetitive and Schumacher – consistently out-paced by Rosberg in qualifying over the last two years, although with improving race form in 2011 – is clearly a shadow of his former greatness.
So why have Mercedes not been able to compete at the top? The simple answer is that Brawn’s world title with Jenson Button in 2009 rather disguised the reality.
That car was designed with Honda money, before the Japanese giant abruptly pulled out in December 2008. Team boss Ross Brawn had kept the company alive, but had to force through a painful 40% staff cut in 2009 to keep it going in more straitened circumstances.
The car’s speed owed much to its controversial “double diffuser” – and by mid-season a lack of development caused by budgetary restrictions had seen first Red Bull and then other teams overtake them.
There is some truth, then, in Haug’s consistent claims over the last two years that Mercedes are a small team that, as he put it this week, “need to learn and develop” to compete with Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren.
As Mercedes’ great rival BMW proved in 2009, major car companies in F1 tend to get itchy feet if they are not winning – it poses too big a risk to their global image if they are consistently seen to be beaten. In BMW’s case, a strong season in 2008 was followed by a weak one in 2009 and, with the global economic crisis gripping, the board pulled the plug.
There is no sign of such a move from Mercedes but the pressure to perform has been plain to see. The team have been on a major recruitment drive over the last year, the biggest indication of which was the hiring of two star designers – Aldo Costa, the technical director sacked by Ferrari, and Geoff Willis, formerly of Williams, Honda and Red Bull.
There are now four men who have been technical directors at other teams all trying to work together to make Mercedes winners – Bob Bell, the man who currently holds that title at the team and who was recruited from Renault, Costa, Willis and Brawn himself.
Brawn is adamant they have defined roles and will work well together. Others remain to be convinced about the wisdom of having so many big beasts in one pride.
What this technical “super-team” does, though, is emphasise just how important winning is to Mercedes – and consequently just how critical it is that the new W03 enables the team to make a marked stepped forward over 2011.
There is no doubting the ambition.
Mercedes are the only top team to have waited until the second pre-season test to run their new car. The idea was to give them more time to find more performance in the car at the design stage, but the move carries risks. If problems occur, there is less time to iron them out before the start of the season.
Haug has been at pains to emphasise that Mercedes’ current position is understandable, and that they have the time and ability to improve.
But while the form of the new Mercedes will be watched with interest at Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari, you can be sure there will be some nervous faces in the boardroom in Stuttgart, too.