F1 2013 Mid-Season Review Mercedes
Mercedes' turnaround from a dismal second half of 2012 to their success of 2013 has been nothing short of spectacular.
TV: Sky F1 (UK), NBC (USA)
Only the bravest of soothsayers would have predicted that Mercedes would be at this position this season. While improvement was certainly expected from a dismal back half of 2012, podiums certainly weren't, let alone race wins.
It wasn't just media speculation that had Mercedes so lowly rated, it was their drivers and staff themselves. Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes' prized winter recruit made it quite clear that points was his main objective.
No, not 'big' points. Just getting into the top ten to score some points. Again, based on where Mercedes had left off in 2012, this was the only viable and realistic goal the Brit could've set.
In order to realise the reason Mercedes re-entered the sport as the Silver Arrows in 2010, which was to win the championship, the powers that be at Stuttgart completely restructured the team that hadn't achieve much in three years.
Out went Norbert Haug, the head of Mercedes Motorsport, in came Toto Wolff form Williams. Michael Schumacher retired, and Mercedes went after arguably the next biggest name in the game, Lewis Hamilton.
What's transpired since has been nothing short of remarkable. Having turned up in Australia with a car that looked markedly better than the one last seen in Brazil, Mercedes proceeded to go on an amazing run of pole positions from China in round three, to Monaco in round six. After a blip in Canada, normal practise in 2013 has resumed with Lewis Hamilton taking the last three consecutive pole positions.
There qualifying pace is quite clearly unrivalled, with seven pole positions in total after only 10 rounds.
The thorn in Mercedes backside has been their faltering race pace, coming and going as simply as a change of wind. They seemingly had it in Malaysia, to only loose it for the next three races. Then Monaco and Silverstone were brilliant runs, before a horrendous outing at their home German Grand Prix.
The root of their problems lie in the tyres, something that pushed to them to conduct a 'secret' tyre test with manufacturer Pirelli, which landed them smack bang in the middle of one of the biggest scandals in recent F1 history.
Having appeared to have broken the strict ban on in-season testing by running their 2013 W04 at the Barcelona track at the conclusion of the Spanish Grand Prix, Mercedes were subject to a massive investigation by the FIA into the matter.
Although the rules on the matter are ambiguous, Mercedes, in the eyes of many, were lucky to escape with the lenient penalty of an enforced absence from the Young Driver's Test, which was ironically turned into a tyre test for all teams.
This test took place after the German Grand Prix, and after had Pirelli announced a decision to change the construction of their tyres after so much worry surrounding safety. All of a sudden Mercedes' punishment inadvertently became much more severe than initially expected.
Considering they were turning up to a Hungary in searing temperatures and already on the back foot in terms of operating knowledge of the current tyres, it's staggering that they managed to so comfortably win the race.
It was Hamilton's first win for the team, and a race that was won in style. Concise and aggressive driving mixed with caution and an understanding to do only what was needed, produced arguably the best drive of the season from pole position. Only Vettel's two victories in Bahrain and Canada come close in terms of how easily controlled the race was.
It caps of a solid first half the season for Hamilton who, by his own addition, has not been totally at home in his new surroundings. It certainly takes time for a driver of any calibre to settle into a new team, and Hamilton appears to be hitting top gear now with just ten races at Mercedes under his belt.
Those few weekends in between when he was being embarrassingly outdone by Nico Rosberg, culminated in a terrible race at Monaco where the Brit effectively threw a way a certain podium by not following the team’s instructions.
Post-race it was the down-beat, sulking Hamilton of 2011 that had made a reappearance. It was only until the Hungarian GP that Hamilton appeared to have put away that side of himself, although questions still linger about the state of his personal life.
At the moment, Hamilton has a genuine chance of challenging Vettel for the title. It will require his entire focus to be on that sole goal if he wants to be successful in his quest of making it two championships.
His teammate Nico Rosberg, is probably no longer in that title fight. A disappointing start, mainly due to mechanical troubles in the race, once again raised serious questions over the reliability of Mercedes' No. 1 car. Even at Hungary a struggling Rosberg retired from the race with an expired engine, although this particular incident could be put down to the heat.
Questions were asked on Rosberg too and his ability to handle pressure during the death of qualifying, especially when driving a car capable of a front row berth. He was beaten quite comprehensively by Hamilton at the first three races, and he needed a response at Bahrain to save face more than anything.
A response is exactly what we got when the German surprised everyone with a stunning pole lap that no one saw coming. His race wasn't anywhere near as good, as despite his efforts a poor Mercedes with plenty of tyre troubles simply couldn't cope slipping to 9th.
It would be much the same story in Barcelona, despite another pole position. It was as of this moment that many began to seriously reassess just how highly they rated Rosberg, a man who was comfortably outdoing the driver most regard as the fastest on pure raw speed.
Once again in a rain affected Monaco qualifying session, Rosberg finished top of the pops, but crucially this time, with a bit of luck, was able to convert it into a win. Yes there was luck, but the calm drive by Rosberg in a hectic and action packed race that had safety cars and red flags showed a mature side of the young German we hadn't yet seen.
This was the certainly moment he was seriously being framed as perhaps the better Mercedes driver and even a genuine contender for the title. It would be unfair to say that he's had a drop on performance, even though that's what the results show.
Instead, the more reasonable assessment of Rosberg's last few races is that his teammate has raised his game. Rosberg was getting comprehensively outdone in Silverstone, and only won due to a pair of technical failures for Hamilton and Vettel.
In Germany his qualifying was ruined by a terrible strategic error by the team that meant he stayed in his garage towards the end of a Q2 session where the track was rapidly improving. His race, due to a horribly degrading car, was a constant uphill struggle.
Even in Hungary, while he was outdone in qualifying, Rosberg had the potential of a podium looking retrospectively with a respectable starting grid slot of P4. Perhaps some inexperience showed when he got tangled up in a dirty scrap on the first lap that forced him wide and ruined his race. Being forced to retire with an expired engine marked a poor end to the first half of a productive season that, if anything, has enhanced Rosberg's reputation as being able to genuinely fight at the top end of the grid.
With nine races left and lying 40 points of teammate Hamilton and 88 points of leader Vettel, Rosberg's push for the title is all but over. But with the car starting to come into its own, Rosberg will have ample opportunity to add to his two wins of 2013.
Given that at the conclusion of the Hungarian GP, Lewis Hamilton praised the dramatic turnaround in Mercedes’ fortunes and claimed the W04 now had the potential to win ten races, optimism at the Brackley and Brixworth bases is certainly not lacking.
It’s good cause for Mercedes to push at 2013 even harder. Yes, 2014 has always been earmarked as the year they genuinely attempted to become outright championship contenders, but Christmas might have come early for a team that has failed to meet expectations in previous years.
2013 provides to opportunity for the Silver Arrows to flex their financial and intellectual muscle, demonstrate that their team is all-round first class, and take the fight to the premier outfit in Red Bull.
Even if they eventually don’t win, the momentum of a considerable about-face from a tragic 2012 will provide a sizable momentum ride into a tricky 2014.
Lest we forget that Red Bull found themselves in a very similar situation in 2009. With a car certainly on the up but still perhaps not quite championship worthy, finishing the year off in style allowed Sebastian Vettel to carry the solid base into 2010, and the rest is history.
In a way the pressure is off Lewis Hamilton. The two biggest questions for him coming into this season were how quickly he would regret his move and how he’d stack up against Rosberg.
The first is almost a laughable matter. Internally Hamilton must be counting his lucky stars he left McLaren just before the wheels fell off, although this is something nobody could foresee.
The second has been answered more or less; that throughout the season he’s probably better.
The championship was certainly never in the picture. Podiums and that elusive race win have been achieved, as has a surprising number of pole positions. Anything from hereon in is simply a bonus to what has been a very productive first ten races.
Mercedes wouldn’t want a complete drop off like last year, but they won’t be too concerned if the relative competitiveness of the car fades slightly.
At the moment 48 points looks possible just by judging how dominant Hamilton was at the Hungaroring.
But that performance seems unsustainable, with the realities of their tyre worries sure to eventually catch up when F1 heads to more tracks with higher degradation levels like New Delhi and Austin.
It would also mean that Mercedes development team, impressive as they may be, keep ahead of the championship winning Adrian Newey at Red Bull, also something that just doesn’t seem likely.
It’s hard to rule out Hamilton taking the title, although it would take something truly remarkable, of the likes we haven’t before seen.
In the end the more likely scenario is to see both Mercedes drivers win another race or two and consolidate P2 in the Constructors’ Championship, a truly extraordinary achievement considering where they’ve come from.