It doesn’t matter which way you look at it; one will always be one. That’s the painful statistic etched into the box reading ‘Number of wins’ for the 2010-onward spec Mercedes GP. With re-shuffles and restructuring the order of the day at Brackley, is there any hope on the horizon for the team that once dominated Formula One?
Therein the key to the issue exists – this is not the same team that carried the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio to success in his Silver Arrow. In all but name, the outfit that works out of the leafy suburbs of Brackley is, in fact, Tyrell.
The seeds of the story lie in the early 1990’s, as the team run by the dedicated and passionate Ken Tyrell slumped into obscurity from the once-proud heights of World Champions. They had been battling the tide for some time, cash-strapped and crippled by the inability to afford and source a turbo engine while Mclaren, Ferrari and Williams powered ahead. 1998 was Tyrell’s last gasp attempt at salvation for the respected name after Ken sold the team to the newly-formed British American Racing organisation. It ended badly when a spat with new boss Craig Pollock turned ugly, finally turning his back on the sport he had dedicated his life to. He succumbed to cancer shortly afterwards aged 77.
The BAR years began with crushing humiliation – Pollock, by now in overall control of the team, drafted in friend and management-interest Jacques Villeneuve to front the team but the 1997 World Champion could do nothing with the ghastly equipment at his disposal. This was the first in a long line of dubious decisions and management errors that would culminate in the compromising of the current Mercedes team. The BAR 01 was developed without significant input from the team, design delegated to Adrian Reynard’s Reynard Motorsports and the chassis turning up just in time for pre-season testing. With little familiarisation work achievable in such a short space of time it was no surprise Villeneuve failed to finish the first eleven races. Even more deplorable was the time the team wasted arguing with the FIA over the proposed 555/Lucky Strike livery split and boasting of ‘winning our first race’ that seemed to take priority over working in the build-up to the Australian Grand Prix.
Lurching from one disaster to another, the team managed to net a couple of lucky podiums in 2001 until Villeneuve was fired in the wake of Jenson Button’s 2003 arrival at the squad. By now David Richards, of Pro-Drive fame, was in the driving seat and got things moving in the right direction. That it had taken four years for the board to dispose of the shambolic Pollock showed the lethargy that still bugs Mercedes was there long before any hint of a German inquisition. The Malcolm Oastler designed cars had proved disappointing performers at best and he was removed from office after a barren 2002 season saw the team collect only 7 points, failing to finish over half the races they contested.
2004 was the breakthrough year when the team gave full-reign to new designer Geoff Willis and his re-organised team. Button and Sato stormed to ten podiums and a maiden pole position at San Marino, finishing the year as runners-up to the dominant Ferrari. However, this was the start of a depressingly familiar pattern that would blight the team in subsequent years. Such were the resources that had been dedicated (unsuccessfully) to winning a race in 2004 that 2005 proved to be a slapdash attempt at a season, playing catch-up to eventual Champions Renault. Disqualification for a fuel tank irregularity at Imola brought a draconian three race ban which enabled enough speed to be extracted from the otherwise underwhelming 007 car to secure a single pole position, but it remained the only big result of the year.
False hope dominated the next three years as the team was bought out by Honda who promised great things; winning the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix was thanks more to Jenson Button’s wet weather skills than any design and strategy brilliance from the team themselves. ‘Earthdreams’ quickly turned into a nightmare as Honda exercised more and more control, forcing Willis and other key personnel out to make way for favoured sons of the Japanese management board. Expecting Shuhei Nakamoto to design a stunner was unreasonable and the truly awful RA107 was testament to the folly of using a faulty wind tunnel to design a Formula One car. Its successor, the RA108, was another half-baked effort combining the undoubted talents of ex-Sauber, Williams and Mclaren aerodynamicists such as Loic Bigois, John Owen and Francois Martinet thrown together too late to make any impact on what proved to be the biggest disappointment of the season. With so many big names all vying for influence and leadership internal disorder and strife became the norm and diverted vital resources from racing.
The recruitment of Ross Brawn gave the leadership, so badly laid to waste by Honda management, new impetus and the Brawn GP saga is now common folklore among F1 fans. Honda’s commitment to Formula One was revealed as weak and superficial when the marque withdrew at the conclusion of the 2008 debacle citing ‘financial considerations’ as the key factor. Brawn’s management buyout was the catalyst for the fairy tale that followed; in reality the speed shown by the BGP001 was hardly surprising given Honda had bankrolled the design of the car from early 2008 while they (wisely) left the designing to Brawn and his cohorts. What was impressive was how Button and the team hung on when their speed advantage was eaten away – from China onwards the Brawn played second fiddle to the Red Bull RB5 and, later on in the year, the Mclaren MP4-24. Despite being of limited financial means every spare pound was ploughed into keeping the car as fast as it could be and it paid off in style.
When Mercedes took over their first car certainly didn’t look like a winner – despite by and large keeping the same staff Brawn GP had. Cutbacks while branded as Brawn had reduced the number of men on the shop floor and Mercedes have yet to redress the balance fully, another key cornerstone missing in their bid for title glory. 2010 showed once again the old Tyrrell squad’s propensity to mediocrity after a hard-fought year; the strains of 2009 had taken their toll on the design of the MGP W01 and it proved an underwhelming effort given the depth of talent in the design room. 2011 and 2012 continued the same unflattering form and made Michael Schumacher regret his decision to mount what he likely saw as being a triumphant comeback.
The current restructuring and reorganisation only serves to extrapolate the crises at Mercedes into an even greater problem. The talent of the incoming Lewis Hamilton is not in doubt, but his ability to fit neatly into a totally new environment after spending his entire career ensconced at Mclaren could take a considerable amount of time to achieve. To perform at his best on the track, a driver must first be comfortable with his support crew. Should he be coupled with Paddy Lowe, as suggested earlier in the week, he may feel more at home but Lowe himself will not have an impact on Mercedes performance until 2014 at the earliest.
Removing Ross Brawn is a questionable step; why would anyone in their right mind choose to effectively sack a man who has won championships not only with three different teams but two different drivers? He also possesses the sharpest strategical brain in the pitlane, something Mercedes could ill-afford to waste given their current lack of any other strengths.
From Tyrrell to Mercedes, the cycle has been one of growth and decay. Their fans can only hope a purple patch arrives soon, because the clock on the wall of the accountants in Stuttgart is ticking.