There’s a simple answer to what makes an all-conquering team like Mercedes so effective: “everything”. Unfortunately, it’s not a very illuminating response, so to understand what that really means, just look at its performance in pre-season testing so far.
Not only has it set the outright pace in the three days of running to date, but it has also logged the most miles, been fastest on race pace and wowed the world with the now-famous dual axis steering system that could have significant performance and tire management potential. Things always start well for Mercedes – the last time anything significant went wrong was in 2014, when Lewis Hamilton suffered a front-wing failure on the opening day of running at Jerez and crashed.
After six back-to-back titles, this is clearly not a team that is resting on its laurels. There’s a long way to go before the season even starts, so much can change, but right now the smart money is on Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes to make it an unprecedented seven back-to-back doubles. And this success is not because it’s a big team with a big budget – although these are preconditions of this level of success – but because of the way it operates.
This will to win is essential. While obvious, there are subtle differences in how the motivation impacts people. It’s not simply enough to create that motivating force, it must be constructive and applied in the right direction – although the pain of defeat does also feed into this.
Fear of failure can have its place, but it’s something Ferrari has been known to fall victim to, and after more than a decade without a world championship, it’s fair to say this is a team that has no recent memory of title glory to prevent that fear becoming counter-productive. While Mercedes can apply itself with confidence even when things get difficult thanks to a battle-proved way of working that has dominated F1, no other team has such a firm foundation.
But the real magic is that the desire to succeed remains, and the previous success does not appear to lead to complacency. Toto Wolff was asked recently about how he redefines targets this season to ensure the team keeps pushing, but he described an almost self-sustaining culture that has been created.
“Every year we try to set the right objectives, and objectives that are understood throughout the organization,” says Wolff. “I think it’s so important to wake up with purpose, and I don’t see a lack of motivation within the organization. The pain of losing is so much more intense, and lasts so much longer than the joy of winning. This drives us strongly, and the sheer thought of losing means you forget all about your previous achievements.
“Last year’s record doesn’t buy us any credit for the 2020 championship, so all lap times, all points go to zero and we are yet again facing another challenge. There is a reason why six [championships] was a world record, because it’s bloody difficult. And we want to push that needle further. We have a great group of people that has just found partners that share the same values and are really pushing us to be successful.”
That’s the perfect balance – self-assurance and confidence in your way of working because of previous success, but without the self-delusion of believing what happened in the years before means 2020 owes you anything.
This is part of the overall culture that is so critical to success. This is a team that works to build understanding between departments rather than conflict, minimizing the chance of buck-passing and a siege mentality within different parts of the team. In one of its previous guises as BAR/Honda, there were times when this was a significant problem at Brackley.
Fear of failure can become counterproductive if it leads to individuals refusing to raise their hands if a mistake has been made. That’s the difference between making failures individual or collective. This appears not to be a problem at Brackley. The team has looked perfect from the outside for years, but there have been constant problems of varying scales. What makes Mercedes so effective is the way that it tackles them.
You can also look at race strategy, where James Vowles has regularly been criticized. But while there have been errors – as there always will be when fighting for victory every week – he and his team have won countless more races than they have lost. By allowing him to accept an error and correct it, rather than blood-letting, the team grows stronger. The same applies throughout the team.
Then there is last year’s cooling problem. This originated from some ‘finger trouble’ when the cooling requirements were being generated for the 2019 car ahead of the season. But the team understood the real problem was the failure of the checks and balances, which were subsequently improved. Not only that, but Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains has also found a way to allow its engine package to deal with slightly higher temperatures. So not only has the fault been cancelled out, but actually the recognition of a cooling problem has led to a drive for further gains with the power unit. This is just one virtuous circle in a team made up of countless such systems, small and large, where every part has a knock-on effect for improving the other.
The key here is the recognition that every department has its part to play, augmented by an understanding of the roles other parts play. Over the years, the team has worked hard to ensure that different departments understand the role of the others. To add to this, it has diverged from convention by sending all sorts of unexpected personnel onto the podium to accept the winning constructor trophy. As well as the usual technical personnel – although the net has been spread wide when selecting those individuals too – it sent up marketing head Victoria Vowles in Austin 2016, and communications director Bradley Lord appeared in Brazil.
This is a small detail, but it’s possible for the marketing and communications side to be seen as a distraction. This plays a vital role in the exposure and commercial appeal of the team, which is vital for budget and allows technical improvements. Once again, departments that can become polarized with one another are culturally able to understand the value of what each other does and therefore collaborate more effectively. Mercedes isn’t just the best team on the grid technically, after all. Every area of the operation has its part to play, and therefore its share in the spoils.
It’s also a team that has effectively been together a long time. While personnel come and go, there is remarkable continuity. Individuals such as sporting director Ron Meadows and trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin have been there since the BAR days – and they aren’t the only ones – while Lewis Hamilton has built a superb rapport with Pete ‘Bono’ Bonnington, his race engineer since 2013. This kind of understanding and collaboration can’t be underestimated.
The technical leadership of James Allison is also essential. His first role as technical director was with Renault, moving into the role ahead of the 2010 season, and he played a key role in the re-emergence of the Enstone Renault/Lotus team as a race-winning operation in 2012 before moving to Ferrari then, in March 2017, he started work at Mercedes.
Ostensibly, the Mercedes concept has been evolutionary throughout the 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid era, but that belies the vast amount of work done. The DAS system has caught the headlines this year because it’s so visible, but it’s symptomatic of countless other innovations, modifications, miniaturizations and optimizations that have also contributed to making the car so good. One of the key jobs of the technical director is to ensure there is an overall concept that is logical and works over the range of circuits visited during a season, and Mercedes has done this superbly.
On top of that, it has also managed to weather one major rules change – the switch to higher-downforce cars in 2017 – and last year’s more minor tweaks without losing ground. It’s the only team to have gone through such as substantial chassis rules change and remain at the top of the pile. That’s a measure not just of how good it is, but also the planning functions, the capacity to balance up development of one year’s car with that of another, and to zero in on the right blend of characteristics to thrive. And never has the team appeared to go overly-aggressive just for the sake of it.
These are just a few examples of areas where the Mercedes team works so well. You could turn the spotlight on every single department and find countless such ways of working that have contributed to making the team so strong, but the common factor is the culture that Wolff – among others – instills. Yes, you can point to budget, facilities and sheer resource as crucial, but it’s how you use these that matters. As, say, Toyota showed in the first decade of this century, that simply gives you potential that, inadequately exploited, wins you nothing.
There remains one test for Mercedes to pass that it has yet to take on, and that’s responding to outright failure. There will come a time when it does not win the championship, and that will be the ultimate test of its culture and robustness.
But it’s so effective an operation that this reckoning might be some way off yet. Its rivals can’t hope for the 2021 regulation changes to trip up Mercedes – instead, they must find a way to become better, and raise the bar yet further for teamwork and culture.