If you’re a Mercedes fan, I’m not here to ruin your day. But if you’re not, then this is probably a moment you’ve been waiting for since 2014.
This year really could be the year the Formula 1 landscape changes, and that’s not just down to what happened in pre-season testing.
I won’t claim to be a genius by any stretch, but I’m also not stupid enough to be writing the Mercedes obituary off the back of three days of challenging testing conditions in Bahrain. What those days have done, however, is creak open the door to allow us a glimpse of a very different Mercedes world in future, and it could be one we’re faced with much sooner than expected.
The new technical regulations that are coming into force in 2022 are being worked on with great anticipation by every team up and down the grid, because it’s such a radical change that it really does feel like a time when the competitive order could be completely reshuffled. If there’s going to be an opportunity for another team to steal a march over Mercedes between seasons, it will come in the next 12 months.
But there’s no guarantee that is what is going to happen. Mercedes is also one of those teams eagerly delving into the new regulations, and has shown time and again – including through other regulation changes in 2017 and 2019 – that it is the class of the field. At least in its current form.
Red Bull has threatened before and will threaten again, but there are also other prospects that are getting themselves organized to try and gatecrash the party, and they appear to be edging ever closer.
After a period of decline, McLaren is now very much on the up, and stands as a much stronger prospect that it has ever been in the hybrid era. Then there’s Aston Martin, with its significant budget and even bigger ambition, and Alpine is hoping the budget cap brings it back into the frame, too. That’s all before we’ve mentioned Ferrari…
This year comes too soon for any of those to ruffle feathers at the front, but they are all well positioned to have a good shot at joining the fight in the future.
Where Mercedes has been so tough to beat over the hybrid era is not only in the power unit department, where it has clearly excelled, but in its ability to adapt and evolve. It has had stability in key positions and – Nico Rosberg’s departure aside – has been able to plan for any future changes and integrate new personnel successfully. It could be said that Rosberg’s decision to retire even made things easier, as a potentially explosive driver pairing was replaced with a much more harmonious one in the form of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
But it’s Hamilton who is central to this uncertainty surrounding Mercedes. He has been a huge asset to the team, and has delivered so many of the results that have allowed the Silver Arrows to dominate both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships. But in signing a one-year deal signed in February, he is clearly contemplating the end of his F1 career in the not too distant future.
Mercedes will wait for Hamilton to make that decision, but that also means it won’t have the same ability to prepare for changes in the same way it has been able to when senior management have moved on. Can you really envisage Hamilton making an early decision on whether he’ll stop at the end of the year or not just to allow Mercedes the chance to actively pursue Max Verstappen or similar?
Of course, even if uncertainty over Hamilton’s intentions could prove to be a major distraction, that is all of secondary importance if the team has a true title fight on its hands this season that ends the dominance right here and now. Red Bull looks a stronger proposition at this point in the year than it has since 2013, and goes into the new season armed with an upgraded Honda power unit.
If Honda has closed the performance deficit even further over the winter, then this is the base Red Bull will start working with when the power units are frozen from next year onwards. Again, the longer-term picture looks that bit more challenging for Mercedes.
The new financial regulations, coupled with the sliding-scale aerodynamic testing restrictions, are designed to stop one team dominating the sport to the same extent that Mercedes has, so it’s not a surprise that the outlook isn’t quite as bright for the team as it has been in the past. It’s still very good, but those at Brackley will know this run is going to come to an end, and that might be a timeline that gets shifted forward by a few years.
It would be silly to write off the potential for another season of Mercedes dominance; one in which the team irons out the teething problems with its 2021 car and keeps Red Bull at bay, allowing Hamilton to break Michael Schumacher’s record of championships.
But there is also the potential for this year to be one where we see the best of F1. This could be a season when two absolute superstars battle it out for supremacy, with the all-time record holder and incumbent king being ousted from his throne by the expectant heir – or at least, coming very near to being overthrown. And that might just get Hamilton’s juices flowing enough to want to fight back in future years.
Or, it might signal the end of Mercedes dominance: a real watershed moment where the run of the past seven years comes to an end, never to be repeated. And in that scenario — or even in the either of the ones that have him leaving on top — it might be that Hamilton recognizes it’s time for him to move on.
From there, who knows what happens next?
Right now, Mercedes has to remain favorite for another title, extending that stunning run of success. But for all we know, a year before the next F1 revolution, the Mercedes era might already be over. We’ll start to find out if that’s the case this weekend.