Team: Mercedes (142 points, fifth in 2012 constructor’s championship)
2012 Drivers: Nico Rosberg (93 points, ninth in 2012 driver’s championship), Michael Schumacher (49 points, 13th in championship, now back home, and reportedly having his sight checked before re-applying for his driver’s licence)
2013 Drivers: Nico Rosberg (Car Number 9) and Lewis Hamilton (10)
New Car: Like almost everyone else’s car, the Mercedes WO4 is an evolution of last year’s. With only one significant change of rules (we’ll come to that) and a whole new formula due next year, it’s just not possible to re-invent the wheel, or even sensible. The banning of double DRS systems, and the reduction in opportunities in which to deploy regular systems (it can only be deployed in the zones in practice and the races in 2013), mean Mercedes have canned development of last year’s ‘killer app’, its fantastically complex setup that piped air from the back of the car to the front when the DRS was open, stalling both wings simultaneously. That’s probably a blessing. Getting it to work properly was a distraction last year and caused the team to pretty much lose the plot in the second half of the season.
What Mercedes says about its 2012 season: “You can’t give an old fella too fast a car, can you…?”
What Sunday Afternoon Club says about 2012: The first half of the season looked promising for Mercedes with its first win and first poles, yet there were reliability issues and some terrible driving from Schumacher. In the second half of the season, as other cars got faster, the Merc went backwards, Schumacher’s motivation dropped further and so someone, somewhere must have said “we’re Mercedes Bloody Benz, we can’t be crap.” And so a plan was made.
Signing Lewis Hamilton, it appears, was just the start. New management in the form of ex-champ Niki Lauda and ex-Williams Toto Wolff have been brought in/bought in (it’s still not clear, especially in the case of Wolff, a kind of Austrian ‘Dragon’). Next year, McLaren’s former technical director Paddy Lowe will rekindle his relationship with Hamilton.
The amazing thing is Mercedes already had a lot of chiefs; Ross Brawn, Bob Bell, Aldo Costa, Geoff Willis… How the hell are this lot going to get on? Given the history of factory teams in F1, especially piquant with the inclusion of Lauda, it’s hard not to think ‘Jaguar’ here. Yet somehow, and maybe it’s only the quiet before the political storm, they do seem to have put together an altogether more convincing package than last. Remember, Lewis in on record as saying he only needs a car “that can put him within spitting distance of the leaders”. He’ll do the rest.
What Mercedes has to do to impress the Sunday Afternoon Club this year: Give Lewis that car we say. Hamilton — sometimes silly, and now accompanied by a ‘fashion’ dog — already seems like a new man. You get the feeling had he stayed any longer with his ‘family’ at McLaren he might well have ‘done a Tiger’. This is important because he’s a sensitive soul. But if he’s happy, he’s motivated. And when he’s motivated he’s as quick, possibly quicker, than anyone. We’ll be blunt here, we like to see that smile on Hamilton’s face. Give him that car, or at the very least a car he thinks can become that car, and he’ll repay every one of those gazillion dollars. That’s all we ask of you Toto, Ross, Niki, Bob, Aldo, Geoff…
If you pay any attention to testing… Well this is where it gets interesting. Hamilton’s Mercedes career might not have started well, Lewis lunching it inside a few laps, but by the end of the schedule the car was flying. Now we won’t know for certain until Saturday or even Sunday, but there’s nobody out there saying Nico’s time (fastest) or Lewis’ (third fastest and set on a less grippy track) were low-fuel, one-off fliers. That the car is properly fast appears to be the consensus.
Nico quicker that Lewis? Well since it was assumed Schumacher 2.0 was not as quick as the first generation it was also assumed that Nico Rosberg couldn’t be that good, and that Lewis would blow his doors off. But what if Michael did still have it? That would make Rosberg jolly fast indeed. No wonder Ross Brawn is saying he has the best driver line up in F1.
Who are Mercedes really racing this year? We mentioned Jaguar above. Someone is paying for Lewis and all the other hires. That’s Daimler Benz who have a board and have shareholders. Never mind getting the FW04 ahead of the McLarens, Red Bulls and Ferraris (in that order we reckon), they’re going to need to prove this very expensive gamble is going to pay off. There are a lot of heads that can be rolled, that doesn’t always make for a great racing team. Before it was Red Bull, Red Bull was Jaguar. And they were crap.