Team Review: Mercedes

After a dreadful 2012, Nico Rosberg’s win in China notwithstanding, 2013 was a make-or-break year for Mercedes, with threats that the Formula One programme would be wound up if improvements were not forthcoming. Instead, Mercedes proved to be one of the surprises of the season as they took three wins and eight pole positions on the way to second in the Constructors’ Championship, piping Ferrari by just six points to end the year as Red Bull’s nearest challenger.

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The Silver Arrows in flying formation in Malaysia, where Hamilton would take his first podium finish for the team, after Rosberg was told to hold station behind his new team-mate

Mercedes, having scored just six points in the last six races of 2012, made a number of key changes over the close season, bringing in Bob Bell, Aldo Costa, and Geoff Willis on the technical side, as Norbert Haug, the long-time head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport stepped down, to be replaced by Toto Wolff. Aside from the technical changes, the team also entered 2013 with a new driver line-up, after pulling off a major coup by signing Lewis Hamilton to replace the retiring Michael Schumacher.

A shocker of an opening day to their pre-season testing aside, Mercedes’ pace – first and third fastest overall – and excellent reliability – having racked up plenty of mileage with the new W04 – over the course of the 12 days meant the team headed to Australia in fine spirits for the opening round of the year, with many considering the team as an outside contender for wins in 2013.

Third and sixth on the grid in Melbourne, after Rosberg had been fastest in Q1 and Q2, certainly showed that the Brackley-based outfit had taken a step forward since 2012. However, this pace flattered to deceive on Sunday, as the team would collect just 10 points, courtesy of Lewis Hamilton’s fifth place finish, after Nico Rosberg’s race was ended by an electrical failure.

Malaysia, now infamous as the scene of the ‘multi-21’ drama between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber, saw Mercedes involved in a team orders dispute of their own, after Rosberg was forced to hold station behind Hamilton, as the Briton took his first podium finish for his new team. The result proved to be a sign of things to come for Mercedes in 2013, as Hamilton repeated the feat in China, after taking his, and Mercedes’ first pole position of the year. Rosberg, in contrast, retired for the second time in three races, this time as a result of a suspension failure on the W04.

Three consecutive pole positions for Rosberg, in Bahrain, Spain and Monaco, clearly demonstrated the pace of Mercedes’ 2013 challenger over a single lap, as well as serving as a reminder of just how good the German actually is. However, a car that destroyed its tyres come race day severely limited the two Mercedes driver’s chances of capitalising on this advantage, as was seen to startling effect at the Bahrain and Spanish Grand Prix’s.

Rosberg suffered in Bahrain, coming home ninth, while Hamilton was left despondent in Spain, after he dropped like a stone down the field following his first stop, finishing twelfth and a lap down, despite starting alongside Rosberg on the front row. These tyre issues would ultimately come to characterise the team’s early season.

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Nico Rosberg is held aloft as he celebrates winning the Monaco Grand Prix, 30 years after his father won in Monte Carlo

After a start to the season beset by poor reliability, and dominated by tyre troubles, the Monaco Grand Prix proved to be an extra special weekend for Nico Rosberg, as the 28-year-old repeated the feat of his father, Keke Rosberg, the 1982 champion, who won the very same race in 1983, 30 years earlier. Having grown up in Monaco, this race was as close to a home Grand Prix that the younger Rosberg could have, so where better to take a pole position, race win, and to win it in such style, leading every lap along the way.

However, revelations on the morning of the Monaco Grand Prix would provide an unwelcome twist to Mercedes’ season. It was revealed that Mercedes had taken part in a ‘secret’ test at the behest of tyre supplier Pirelli, following the Spanish Grand Prix. The sticking point was that Mercedes had used their 2014 challenger, the W04, despite this being a clear breach of the regulations. ‘Testgate’ as it was dubbed, rumbled on for over a month, before the FIA handed Mercedes a reprimand, and banned the team from the upcoming Young Driver Test.

Despite the off-track distractions, Rosberg would win again two races later,  at the tyre dominated British Grand Prix. Hamilton had led the race early on, having taken a popular pole position on Saturday, before a tyre failure saw him fall to the back of the field. Running in second for a large part of the race, Rosberg was then able to capitalise on a rare retirement for Sebastian Vettel to snatch the win and to push Mercedes into second in the Constructors’ Championship, ahead of Ferrari.

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Lewis Hamilton crosses the line to win the Hungarian Grand Prix, his first win for Mercedes, and his fourth victory around the Hungaroring

Hamilton set aside thoughts of what might have been in Silverstone, as he struck back in Hungary, converting his fourth pole position of the year into his first win for Mercedes. The ex-McLaren man took an emphatic win to add a touch of spice to the championship battle as Formula One went into its summer break. Although little did anyone know at the time, that this would be the last race of the year to be won by someone other than Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton would add one last pole position to his, and Mercedes’ tally in Belgium, his fifth of the year, and the team’s eighth, but he would prove to be no match for Vettel and Alonso come race day, as he came home a distant third. Surprisingly this would prove to be the 28-year-old’s last podium appearance of the year, as his form fell away in the latter part of the season.

Five more races would pass before one of the Silver Arrows returned to the podium, as Lotus, and in particular Romian Grosjean found their form, stringing together a series of podium finishes which brought the Enstone-based outfit back into the fight for second in the Constructors’ Championship.

Nico Rosberg, who had seized the initiative in the Mercedes intra-team battle, went some way to protecting his team’s points lead with back-to-back podium finishes of his own in India and Abu Dhabi, where he was the best of the rest on both occasions behind the dominant Red Bull’s. The German was fortunate enough to inherit second in New Dehli, his first visit to the podium since his win at Silverstone in July, after Mark Webber retired late in the race.

Despite a spirited fight back from Ferrari in the last two races of the year, which saw Fernando Alonso take the final podium spot in Brazil, the 26 points scored by Rosberg and Hamilton, coupled with a retirement for Romain Grosjean in the season finale, proved to be just enough for Mercedes to secure second place in the Constructors’ Championship, six points ahead of Ferrari.

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Mercedes ended the season as runners-up to Red Bull Racing in the Constructors’ Championship, the team’s best overall finish since their return to the sport in 2010

2013 was without doubt Mercedes’ best year since their return to the sport four years ago, with second in the Constructors’ Championship a just reward for the changes the team implemented during the off-season, after the utter disappointment of 2012.

Right from the off in pre-season testing the W04 was a clear improvement on the much maligned W03 of last year, proving itself as the car to have in qualifying during the first half of the season, as Hamilton and Rosberg displayed with eight pole positions between them. While the deal to bring Lewis Hamilton to the team, which was much derided by fans, as well as some paddock insiders at the time of its announcement, proved to be a success, even if the 2008 champion did only achieve a sole win in comparison to the two victories of his team-mate.

Despite this, there will have to be some element of disappointment amongst the team that the one-lap pace that was so evident early in the season could not be consistently replicated on a Sunday. Otherwise Mercedes’ tally of three wins and eight pole positions would surely have been higher, and perhaps they would have not finished the year 236 points adrift of the utterly dominant Red Bull.

With the successful pairing of Hamilton and Rosberg set to be renewed in 2014, and with the Mercedes power plant rumoured to be the engine to have next year, expect to see the Mercedes team at the front of the field once again as Formula One enters a new era.

However, the team will have to do this without their talismanic

Image courtesy of MERCEDES AMG PETRONAS Formula One Team

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