When it comes to Mercedes, it feels like most of the focus so far this year has been on how it is struggling for performance and has slipped behind Red Bull, despite taking victory in the first race.
All the talk about the impact of changes to the floor regulations on cars with a low rake angle – specifically Mercedes and Aston Martin – would almost have you believe the Silver Arrow is now completely blunt and running around at the back of the field.
Yet Lewis Hamilton took a stunning victory in the opening race, and Mercedes is, at the very worst, a close second to Red Bull at this point in the season. And sometimes it’s important to look beyond the pure car performance we’re seeing on track right now and instead pay attention to happenings off the track in order to understand what shape a team is in.
Hamilton’s new contract for 2021 aside, perhaps the biggest news that relates to Mercedes this year came out at the end of last week. In fact, it might even be bigger…
There’s no disputing Hamilton’s ability, but there’s also no disputing that to a team, a great car is more valuable than a great driver. The former normally attracts the latter, but there are no guarantees if it’s the other way round.
So creating a structure that allows you to build that great car is crucial. Given the fact that Mercedes has won the past seven drivers’ and constructors’ championships in succession, it’s pretty safe to say the team at Brackley and Brixworth has definitely done that over the last decade.
After such a sustained period of success, there’s often a focus on the end of that era. There’s almost an expectation that it will end, and sometimes spectacularly as somebody else becomes the benchmark. But Mercedes has been preventing that from happening for a long time so far, and continues to move around the pieces it hopes will allow it to keep doing so.
If we cast our minds back to the start of the hybrid era in 2014, it seems hard to imagine Mercedes getting even stronger. The level of dominance on display from the package of car and power unit was such that it felt like the team was untouchable, and had nailed everything about the new regulations. From there, the expectation was that rivals would start to learn where Mercedes had got it so right, and would be able to catch up.
That didn’t really happen in the first three years of the regulations, but then came a change that had the potential to overhaul Mercedes when F1 switched to higher-downforce cars in 2017. The car was already developed – and already good enough to win the championship – when Paddy Lowe’s departure and James Allison’s arrival was announced.
Allison took on the role of technical director, and continued the immense success Mercedes has enjoyed. Smart recruitment plays a big role in such results, but it’s not always about looking outside.
One of Mercedes’ biggest strengths over this period of domination has been to evolve its structure and leadership team, often promoting from within. When Toto Wolff arrived, he wasn’t the team principal. Alongside Lowe, the role was split following Ross Brawn’s departure, with Wolff the executive director (business) and Lowe executive director (technical). But Wolff went on to become team principal, and Allison the more traditional technical director.
Below Allison were all sorts of impressive names, and plenty of movement in recent years as well. Aldo Costa stepped back from his role of engineering director in late 2018 to become a technical advisor before heading to Dallara, with chief designer being promoted to John Owen replace him. Performance director Mark Ellis also relinquished his position, handing over to Loic Serra, who had been chief vehicle dynamicist.
It was a major change at the time, but not one that always stays at the forefront of minds when analyzing Mercedes’ success. Those moves served to retain the culture within Mercedes but promote fresh ideas and energy into key positions, while also highlighting to those already within the organization that progression to the biggest jobs was possible.
“This is a significant moment for our team and a great opportunity,” Wolff said at the time. “We have said many times that you cannot freeze a successful organization; it is a dynamic structure and I am proud that we are able to hand the baton smoothly to the next generation of leaders inside the team.”
There was a transition period in 2018 ahead of the 2019 season, and victories continued to flow. Even into 2020, the performance level remained out of reach of the rest of the grid, and innovations such as the Dual Axis Steering (DAS) system came to the fore.
It was a very impressive evolution within the technical department, and now something similar is happening.
Allison is going to take on the newly-created role of chief technical officer, overseeing matters not only at Brackley, but also the way it is integrated with Mercedes-Benz High Performance Powertrains at Brixworth. It’s a position of greater influence for a highly impressive mind who has been a key part of Mercedes getting stronger over the past seven years.
And just like in 2018, there is a transition period, with the new role starting on July 1 and Allison’s successor as technical director already integrated into the technical leadership team. Mike Elliott progressed from head of aerodynamics to become technology director since 2017, and now steps into big shoes, but with the comfort of knowing Mercedes has created an environment where such changes tend to be smooth and fruitful ones.
When we see a dominant car roll out of the garage, these are the sort of foundations that have to be set first to allow a team to even start to design that car. What Mercedes has mastered is the skill of strengthening those foundations on a regular bases to make itself ever-harder to catch. If recent history is anything to go by, this will just be the latest example.