The gap to Red Bull Racing may ultimately have been huge, but nevertheless last season Mercedes AMG F1 did a good job to move up to second place in the World Championship last year. Between them, drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton logged three wins in a year when victories were hard to come by for anyone not called Sebastian Vettel.
Ross Brawn may have moved on, but the organization he leaves behind is stronger than ever, thanks in large part to the work he did in bringing together a technical “dream team” – which is just what was needed, given the huge challenge of preparing for 2014. If their colleagues at Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains have come up with a good solution to the conundrum of the new regulations, Rosberg and Hamilton could be the men to beat this year. We will know more as the next few weeks unfold.
For Nico, the 2013 season has to be regarded as the best of his F1 career to date. He scored two victories, the first in Monaco after a brilliant drive from pole, and the second at Silverstone after a late retirement for Sebastian Vettel handed him the lead. He also took poles in Bahrain and Spain, and held his own against Hamilton in the qualifying battle, losing out 11-8. He also wasn’t far behind Lewis in the championship, the Brit winning the team battle by 189 points to 171.
You could argue that Hamilton had a harder job in that he had to adapt to a new team, but those qualifying and points comparisons were a lot closer than some had anticipated, especially given that Lewis is a World Champion and regarded as one of the three or four best drivers of the current era.
“Overall, my ambition is to be World Champion and win races, lots of races, and that’s the ambition for us all,” says Rosberg. “I didn’t quite get there and, all in all, I also take into consideration the past years, which really have been difficult. Considering those, 2013 was a great step forward. There were lots of highs and great results, so it can be seen as a good season, in the right direction, but still some work to do to get there.
“Over the previous winter, the team did a phenomenal job, from 1.5sec behind to being the quickest car at times last season; that’s incredible, amazing…And without a regulation change. That really showed the level the team is at now. We still had some weaknesses during the season – with the tires, reliability, the development rate toward the end – but we’re getting there, and ironing them all out. It’s going in the right direction and looking good.”
Tires became such an issue that even after taking a pole, Nico would talk down his chances of staying in front.
“Yeah, but you still have the hope, when you’re on pole! I always have the hope that maybe I can make it happen. Like in Barcelona, where I started on pole, and led the whole first stint. Even at that point I thought maybe I can pull this off, all the way to the end. The hope is still there. So then to just get eaten up afterwards, it’s really not a nice feeling.
“Initially the main problem was understanding the tires, getting the most out of them. We were just working them way too much in the races, and that really hurt our season as a whole.”
The one race where he started at the front and stayed there was Monaco, where he had looked strong the previous year. It was a great weekend for the German.
“Monaco will remain the highlight for many, many years,” he said. “For me it’s the most prestigious race to win, the most difficult race to win, the most historic race to win, and it’s my home town and my streets, where I’ve grown up. It was really amazing. I should have won in 2012 actually, but I had a problem in qualifying, a technical problem, which nobody really knows about. The diff was not working properly, so I started second.”
Through 2013, the team worked hard to get on top of its problems, and when Hamilton won in Hungary before the August summer break, it really appeared that Mercedes might be the team to beat in the second half of the season. Instead Vettel won all of the remaining races.
“It all looked good, but the only thing we didn’t take into consideration was Red Bull doing an unnaturally large step, all of a sudden, out of the blue. Half a second, bang. Nobody knows where they got that from and how they did it. Because everybody’s going the same rate through the season, and then they just take a step which is incredible. They did an unbelievable job, so they must have found something… And notably it was one Red Bull, not necessarily both.”
It was definitely a season of mixed emotions: “The low was Nurburgring qualifying, my home grand prix, where I had a shot at pole, and qualified 11th. Then the other frustrating one was Korea, where my front wing dropped off just as I was set for a podium. And then those poles where I just dropped back, so Bahrain and Spain, they were heavy.”
One intriguing aspect of the year was how downbeat Hamilton often was, regularly blaming himself for some of his problems. That begged the question: Did Nico sometimes do a better job of dealing with the W04’s faults?
“I always like to see it as my strength, the whole technical aspect, setting up the car, getting it right for the race – not for qualifying, because the race is the important one. And then getting your head round what you need to do to make it work in the race.”
Pressed on whether Hamilton’s downbeat comments suggest that Nico had found something, he adds: “I can just say from my side, looking at me on my own, I like to see it as one of my strengths, how to manage a race and get the most out of it. That’s what we need to do nowadays; we have to compromise qualifying to have a strong race. Nobody considers that they are actually very closely linked.”
Rosberg was happy with his new teammate, and given their history as teenaged teammates in karting, they already knew each other well. It was a big change after three years alongside Michael Schumacher.
“Everything was different, strengths and weaknesses in the car, all the meetings that you have together, because you do interact a lot with your teammate. So it was a different world. But in terms of challenge out there, it was tough against Michael and tough against Lewis.
“Through a weekend, we’re pushing each other, stepping up our game, learning from each other, so it’s working really well.”
As suggested earlier the perception is that Rosberg did better than expected against Hamilton, but he plays down suggestions that his reputation was enhanced.
“For you, maybe, it’s all about perception. Not for me. For me it’s about winning races. Of course for my standing, and my career, the last few years have been good, and going in the right direction, for sure.”
Now heading into his fifth year with the team, Rosberg has watched with interest as the organization has evolved. The team is run by Toto Wolff (LEFT, with Ross Brawn) and Paddy Lowe, with his dad Keke’s old rival Niki Lauda taking an overview, and serving as a buffer with the bosses in Stuttgart.
“It’s a great bunch of people, and we’re very lucky. Toto is an extremely competent guy, and he’s come in and really been able to help the team and take over well. Niki is great, especially his relationship with Daimler, he’s very close to that side and he’s able to get support from them. And obviously he always has valuable pointers with his experience, so it’s been good. And Paddy arriving as well…It’s all going the right way.”
He may be gone, but Brawn should take the credit for building the technical team, for he was responsible for hiring Bob Bell, Aldo Costa and Geoff Willis, all of whom have played key roles in the build-up to 2014.
“I was always in the loop, of course,” says Rosberg, “and I always found it to be really good, because we were getting very, very strong people to join the team. Imagine the difference to the team in 2010 and where we are now – there are so many competent people who have joined us. That’s been great to see. I’m very excited. We showed last winter how we were able to make steps in the winter, and that’s the most important part, to get a good car by Melbourne. I think we can really make it happen.”
By contrast, Rosberg is keen to play down the rumors that suggest Mercedes will start the year with the best power unit. It’s not that he doesn’t believe the company is capable of fulfilling those hopes. It’s a more a case of Formula 1’s huge engine regulation changes – and the secrecy between teams – that have left everyone in the dark.
“Those rumors are just wild guesses!” he says. “How would anybody know? If not even we know, how are other people going to know?”
The one thing he can’t dispute is that only Mercedes and Ferrari have the advantage of an in-house engine facility, and given how much has changed this year, that integration is surely an advantage.
“I trust HPP’s ability because they have a great facility, great people. I think they will do a good job. But how good is impossible to judge until the first couple of tests, and the first race.”
What is clear is that the 2014 cars will play to the strengths of the smarter drivers, those who have the ability to really think things through.
“I’m very happy about that, and I think I can get an advantage out of that, even more so than before,” Nico says. “The tires are going to be different, the car aerodynamics are going to be different, the engine is totally different, the way the braking works with the KERS and so on. As drivers, we’re going to have to adapt a lot.”
And is Nico a guy who can adapt his style, should he have to?
“In general. It’s not always easy, but all of us do it to a certain extent, because that’s what the sport is about, adapting from one lap to the next. It’s changing all the time. The main difference is obviously the engine, and not having the Coanda exhaust. So you have all that torque, but less grip on corner exits. But it’s like when traction control left: we were all panicking but then it was actually very straightforward.
“I’m not very concerned. There will be a lot of work going into fuel consumption and managing your race, and things like that. So I don’t think it’s going to be boring for the fans…”