Issue 43: 2014 Season Review – Part 1 – Why Hamilton Won and Why Mercedes Dominated

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30 November 2014

What is the engine of Formula 1? By this I mean the factors that drive the sport forward. I offer the following:

  1. Memorable driver rivalries.
  2. Game-changing technical innovations.
  3. Political crises.

The 2014 season will stand out in the history of F1 as, unusually, it featured all of the above in spades. Some may say that Mercedes’ dominance made for a boring season. They will point to Mercedes winning all but three races as evidence. But that is to overlook the true narrative of the season: the intense rivalry between the Mercedes drivers. I don’t put Hamilton vs. Rosberg in the same category as Senna vs. Prost, but they’re surely up there with Lauda vs. Hunt or Mansell vs. Piquet. In short, they lit up 2014 and as a result it is a season that we will remember. The single-car, single-driver domination of 2011 and 2013 is a fading memory.

Other doubters will point to the cost of and question the need for the all new 1.6 litre V6 turbo powertrains, but again, that misses the point. These engines are a technical leap forward, unusually available to the whole grid, even if only one manufacturer got it right. However, more importantly, the 2014 season will be marked as the year that reintroduced the engine as a performance differentiator in F1 and this directly contributed to a much-needed shake-up of the competitive order. Mercedes in particular showed the world the value of simultaneously recovering energy from braking and heat from the exhausts and turning it into forward motion. And they made hybrids cool. After all, Lewis Hamilton drives a hybrid.

As for politics, F1 has lurched from crisis-to-crisis in the 20 years I’ve been watching the sport. The current (unresolved) debate over cost controls, three-car teams and the very survival of smaller competitors is sad, but frankly not surprising. Political crises define the atmosphere in which F1 goes racing. The current crisis is, at a superficial level, about money and the health of teams’ finances. However, it is ultimately political in nature, because any resolution has implications for the distribution of power between the teams and between the teams and F1’s wonderful commercial rights’ holders.

My review of F1 2014 will not be like other season reviews. I will not assess the fortunes of each team and driver individually or mark them out of 10. I will instead isolate the turning points in the title battle and analyse why Mercedes dominated in Part 1.

In Part 2, I’ll discuss the surprises of the season and highlight the rising stars of F1.

1. Turning Points in The Title Battle: Why Hamilton Won

There are the obvious turning points of 2014: Monaco, Britain, Belgium and Singapore. The way these races played out served to keep the championship fight alive and prevented one Mercedes driver from getting too far ahead on points. In Monte Carlo, Rosberg halted Hamilton’s run of consecutive wins. At Silverstone, Hamilton closed down Rosberg’s growing points lead when Rosberg retired and he won. At Spa, the clash came. Rosberg scored a short-term points gain by finishing second with Hamilton retiring, but sustained a strategic defeat as Hamilton embarked on a second run of multiple victories from Monza onwards. At the Marina Bay Circuit, Rosberg’s points lead was wiped out entirely and he never regained it.

But let’s look deeper. There are equally important turning points to be found in the dynamic between attack and defence on the track.

The attack first. We remember the overtakes. Those moments when a driver snatches the lead from his rival. They stand out principally because they happened. Think of Hamilton’s daring move around the outside of Rosberg at a wet Suzuka. Or his drive down the inside of Rosberg at Austin. These two moves netted the Briton 14 points that would have gone to Rosberg.

What about the defence? Those overtakes that didn’t happen. Think back to Bahrain and Spain. Hamilton had track position. Rosberg had the quicker car. Hamilton couldn’t hold the lead, surely? Through some tough defensive driving, especially in Bahrain, the Briton kept Rosberg behind and in doing so, kept hold of 14 points. The defence won out and Rosberg was denied the opportunity to halt Hamilton’s winning run earlier than Monaco.

In sum, Hamilton won because he was generally quicker on race pace, he converted all but one of his pole positions into wins, he overtook his team-mate multiple times and made fewer costly errors while leading or challenging for the lead. These numbers say it all:

7-0 Hamilton (successful overtaking moves made by one Mercedes driver on their team-mate either on track or on strategy).

6-3 Hamilton (pole positions converted into race wins).

3-1 Rosberg (mistakes made while leading or challenging for the lead that may have cost a win).

Frankly, it would have been a travesty had Rosberg won the title having never made an overtaking move stick in a close title fight. And why should the driver that consistently finished second to his rival win outright?

That said, Mercedes have two great pilots. Rosberg, underrated as a driver for so long, grew considerably in stature this year. Hamilton, still a polarising figure, answered the doubters resoundingly.

2. The Origins of Mercedes’ Dominance

Few cars ever achieve the dominance enjoyed by Mercedes’ creation: the W05 Hybrid. That said, big changes in the technical regulations often produce a dominant car for a season or two as one team gets it more right than its competitors. Mercedes got it right big time. Several questions interest me about this topic:

  • Why did Mercedes dominate so extensively?
  • Why did some teams, notably Williams, push Mercedes in qualifying but not in the race?
  • Why did other teams not considerably close the performance gap to Mercedes over the season?

It would of course be wrong to distil Mercedes’ success in 2014 down to one factor. And I’m sure that all the secrets of the W05 Hybrid’s speed have not been fully revealed. However, Mercedes produced the best overall powertrain. As has been documented by @SportmphMark and @ScarbsF1, their splitting of the turbo around the combustion engine offered significant power and aerodynamic gains. Additionally, the power produced by their energy recovery system meant they relied less on their combustion engine than say Ferrari, as was clear from relative fuel consumption rates. Furthermore, Mercedes developed the second-best chassis on the grid, if not the best by Abu Dhabi. However, it was their optimisation of the powertrain and chassis that was probably Mercedes’ biggest asset. All told, these factors added up to one hell of a technical advantage.

Why were some cars, generally the Williams, able to push Mercedes hard in qualifying but not in the race? For example, counting only dry qualifying sessions in which at least one Mercedes and one Williams took part in Q3 (a total of 14 sessions), from the Italian Grand Prix onwards, the fastest Williams qualified only 0.29 seconds behind the slowest Mercedes. The obvious answers to this question included a better chassis than say McLaren or better tyre usage than say Williams. But Williams had a strong chassis. However, I went without a good answer for most of the season. At Abu Dhabi, it became clear that Mercedes had made an agreement with its customer teams that in the race they couldn’t use more powerful engine maps than Mercedes. The price of racing with the benchmark engine.

Finally, there was an expectation that other big guns on the grid would, over the course of the season, narrow the gap to Mercedes. Williams did manage to achieve this. Counting only dry races uninterrupted by a safety car and in which at least one Mercedes did not experience a mechanical failure or obviously cruise at the front (a total of 10 races), from the British Grand Prix onwards, the highest-placed Williams finished on average 26.9 seconds behind the lowest-placed Mercedes. Earlier in the season, however, that gap at the flag had been on average 47.5 seconds. So Williams had made progress, but even so, they were still nowhere near Mercedes on true race pace by Abu Dhabi.

There are several reasons why Mercedes kept their advantage:

  • Mercedes started the season with a massive technical lead over the rest of the field. They wouldn’t be caught easily.
  • The sporting regulations made it very difficult for other teams to out-develop Mercedes. The engines were homologated in February 2014 meaning no changes to hardware changes except for reliability or safety reasons. Likewise, the 30/30 rule prevented the excessive running of wind tunnels or CFD supercomputer modelling for aerodynamic gains.
  • In areas that could be developed, e.g., engine maps, fuel and lubricants, limited aerodynamic updates and chassis-powertrain optimisation, Mercedes was pushing as hard if not harder than everyone else. For example, as late as the Japanese Grand Prix, Mercedes introduced heavily revised sidepods and tighter bodywork at the rear of the W05 Hybrid.

I am glad that Mercedes won. For me, the German marque stands out among the world’s car manufacturers because they truly value their rich history. In today’s fast-paced world of now, now, now, a commitment to protecting heritage is something to be cherished. Additionally, Mercedes was the first to see the marketing potential of hybrid powertrains, renaming their car the W05 Hybrid early on. They also let their drivers race freely. I’m under no illusion that they could afford to do this because they had no competitors, but still, no team orders is an admirable policy. Finally, they made more concerted attempts than almost anyone else in F1 to engage fans, not least through social media, e.g., polling fans on Twitter after Belgium on whether to impose team orders or not.

In 2014, Mercedes showed the energy drinks company, the Prancing Horse and the rest of F1 how you go racing.

Part 2 coming up!

@TheWheelspinner

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