Given the regularity with which Mercedes has racked up title after title since 2014, it’s easy to underappreciate just what an achievement we have been witnessing.
A sixth straight drivers’ and constructors’ championship was confirmed on Sunday at Suzuka after Valtteri Bottas’ victory and Lewis Hamilton’s third place left them as the only two drivers who can mathematically win the championship.
It’s an incredible result, and it’s unprecedented.
Ferrari, of course, was dominant in the early 2000s, but its run ended at five doubles. Matching that record last year was heralded as special by Mercedes, but to exceed it this year marks it out as the greatest Formula 1 team ever.
Money has always talked in F1. McLaren was not exactly short of it in the late 1980s and early ’90s, and nor was Ferrari at the start of the millennium, or Red Bull earlier this decade.
But there’s far much more than money to a dynasty like the one Mercedes is delivering right now, or that those in the past have created. A team will have put a number of other pieces in place that are the right ones for that moment – the right drivers, the right engine, the right management, the right design team, and the right car philosophy, to name just a few.
The latter of those is what makes the Mercedes success story so impressive. Not only was the team ready for the V6 turbo era and streets ahead of the competition in terms of power unit performance, it created a car that was virtually untouchable for three straight seasons from 2014 to 2016.
Then, a massive aerodynamic change occurred in 2017 and Mercedes delivered once again. Power unit performance was starting to converge and a whole new car concept was needed, but it still came out on top. Last year continued the run, but there were still major changes to deal with this year too, and Mercedes took it all in its stride.
Complacency must always have been just a moment away, and in managing to keep it at bay is where Toto Wolff and his senior management team deserve so much praise. It’s a culture that has filtered down through the team, to the point of a press officer ordering sometimes reluctant mechanics to ensure they are in every team celebration photograph, because it might just be the final one.
If anything, a slow start could be expected to the past two seasons given how Ferrari’s challenge had faded each time the year before. But six victories shared equally between Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull in 2018 was a lesson the champions learned from and duly avoided a repeat of this year.
Five straight one-two results were remarkable, coming as they did against the backdrop of such a strong Ferrari in pre-season testing. Mercedes hit its stride with an updated car right at the end of testing but then it executed sensationally while its rivals slipped up under pressure.
Think Tom Brady leading the Patriots to the comeback win over the Falcons in Super Bowl LI. When one team has been so good, for so long, the opposition overextend themselves trying to beat them, or fail to grab a real opportunity when it presents itself in the knowledge of how rare such chances are against the dominant force. Mistakes are made, just because of who the opposition is as much because of what it is doing. Such a psychological advantage is earned over a dominant period like Mercedes is enjoying right now.
It’s an asset that Red Bull has not yet lost either, as the most recent dominant team before Mercedes. Two chances for wins appeared in Austria and Germany and they were very much taken. A third so nearly was in Hungary. After Hamilton’s win there, Mercedes had to watch Ferrari take three straight victories, that probably should have been four in Russia and but for a better start for Sebastian Vettel could have been five in Japan. Make no mistake, Mercedes has had stern competition.
But on each occasion, Mercedes either pushed the eventual winner all the way, or was there to take full advantage of any openings. The first time Mercedes was beaten this year — at the Red Bull Ring — exposed a weakness on the car in terms of cooling, one that it duly addressed within a matter of weeks and has not referenced since.
No team is perfect, but Mercedes’ ability to respond to threats and rectify its flaws has been a hallmark of its current run of championships.
After Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement, Mercedes could probably have hired any driver it wanted, as long as it was willing to stump up the cash. But it had learned that as the opposition got closer, it needed to find a way of getting the best out of Lewis Hamilton. All dynasties had that standout talisman at the head of it — Vettel at Red Bull, Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, Ayrton Senna at McLaren — and if Mercedes was going to create an even bigger one, that’s where Hamilton needed to be positioned.
Say what you like about Valtteri Bottas, but you can’t argue he has delivered all that Mercedes needs him to, and at times even more. He has kept Hamilton happy while still pushing him, especially in qualifying; he has won races with at times dominant performances; and he has often backed up his teammate with second place, doing so for six of Hamilton’s nine wins this year.
Since the summer break – when Hamilton has notoriously stepped up his game in the past – Bottas has scored 86 points to his teammate’s 87, the difference being courtesy of two fastest laps for Hamilton in that time.
Of course, it was Hamilton who provided the standout performances in the earlier part of the year, ones that all but made a sixth drivers’ title a formality from after the French Grand Prix onwards. At that point he’d scored 187 of a possible 208 points, delivering for his team in stunning fashion.
Because we love close competition (and for the sake of variety), there are many who would like to see Mercedes’ run come to an end in 2020, and given Ferrari’s recent steps forward there is every chance it might. Even if it doesn’t end then, it will at some stage — it always does — but for those eagerly awaiting that moment, just take a second to respect what Mercedes has achieved. In terms of results at the very least, it’s the greatest team F1’s ever seen.