SUZUKA, Japan — Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff arrived at his post-race media session holding a red hat. He placed it on the table in front of him, glanced down at it and let a smile spread across his face. The same hat has been hanging in the entrance to the team’s garage since the Monaco Grand Prix, hooked over the headphone radio-set still reserved for Niki Lauda.
Wolff didn’t have to say a word, there was no doubt who Mercedes’ sixth consecutive constructors’ championship was dedicated to. This one was for Niki.
“It’s very difficult because I miss him every day and I think about him every day and when we talk with our group of friends, with Birgit, his wife, or Susie [Wolff’s wife], it’s so surreal that he’s not here because he was a larger than life person,” Wolff told Sky Sports in the paddock moments earlier. “I say to myself ‘what would he say? what would he think?’ but it doesn’t compensate for the loss — that he is not here anymore.”
Lauda died in the build-up to the Monaco Grand Prix earlier this year. He had been the team’s non-executive chairman since September 2012 and was instrumental to its success. Among many other roles, he was key in bringing Lewis Hamilton to the team in 2013 as well as convincing Mercedes’ parent company, Daimler, to invest more money in the Formula One programme ahead of major rule changes in 2014.
For Wolff, Lauda was a business associate, a sparring partner, but above all a dear friend. Lauda often joked that he had no friends but admitted Wolff came close, telling his fellow Austrian on numerous occasions that he classified him as a “half friend”. To win a championship without Lauda present or at the other end of a phone line was clearly emotional for the entire team. But, as Wolff said with a smile on his face, Lauda’s approach to Sunday’s historic victory would have been brutally honest and straight to the point.
“We just talked about it, and Niki would’ve said, “Congratulations for the sixth one — now you have a problem for next year!” and then we would’ve flown back to Europe together.
“We want to dedicate this championship to Niki because he’s just been such an important part from the beginning of the journey and his sheer presence was always so important. The mixture between support and pressure, he was just a very special person.”
Hamilton, who finished third on Sunday but secured the crucial fastest lap point that tipped the title in Mercedes’ favour, has been present at the team since the start of 2013 and has experienced all six championships.
“This one definitely feels a little bit different,” he said after the race. “Obviously, I wouldn’t say as happy as previously because we lost Niki this year and it doesn’t feel the same without him. So, naturally I’m very, very proud of the team. Very proud of everyone back at the factory, and I know Niki would be taking off his hat for today’s result.
“Yeah, I think we owe him a huge amount and this win is really for him. I think the whole team and the whole of Mercedes will probably dedicate this to Niki — I definitely do. Very, very proud to be a part of it, and a part of the journey — but it has been a tough year for us, y’know?
“And every time I walk into the garage I see Niki’s headphones and his cap, and today I stood and looked at it before I got in the car. As I said, I know he’ll be proud, I know his family will be as well. The team should be proud too.”
Is the current Mercedes team the greatest of all time?
Although the 2019 drivers’ title has not yet been decided, it is guaranteed to go to either Valtteri Bottas or, more likely, Hamilton. In securing both constructors’ and drivers’ titles for the sixth year running, Mercedes has surpassed Ferrari’s record of five consecutive double championships.
During Ferrari’s most dominant time in the sport, the Italian team won six constructors’ titles in a row between 1999 and 2004, while Schumacher, who sat out of the majority of the 1999 season due to injury, took five titles from 2000 to 2004. It was a period of dominance that no-one thought would be matched, but on Sunday Mercedes managed to surpass it. Although comparisons between two teams in two different eras of the sport are always imperfect, there is a strong argument to say the current Mercedes team is the greatest team of all time.
Mercedes technical James Allison, who joined the team at the start of 2017, was also at Ferrari during its glory years with Schumacher. Speaking to the official Formula One podcast earlier this year, he compared Ferrari’s success to that of his current team, adding context to the achievements of both teams.
“Although people remember that [Ferrari era] is a period of utter dominance, there were two seasons that were utterly dominant but there were also some seasons that were pretty challenging where we really had to fight for it,” he said. “But with the benefit of hindsight, I can also see that there was a degree of asymmetry in the teams back then, in that Ferrari was the biggest team with the biggest budget — and the others weren’t that close either — and it had an utterly magnificent driver. And the teams that we were beating off and winning against back then, were not on the same scale of endeavour as the war machine that Ferrari had put together.
“I think one of the things that makes the era that Mercedes has found itself in and prospered in more remarkable is that there are some real titans to beat. The three top teams [Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull] are extremely professional, extremely well-funded and extremely strong organisations. And if anyone wins in that climate they have done a very fine job, but for Mercedes to have done it a number of years on the trot merits a degree of recognition.”
What’s more, Mercedes’ success has been impressive as it has spanned two different sets of aerodynamic regulations. Periods of dominance in F1 are often bookended by regulatory changes – indeed, the introduction of the current engine regulations in 2014 kick-started Mercedes’ current period of dominance – and it is rare that a team maintains its advantage. But despite a complete overhaul of the aero regs two years ago, and some substantial tweaks this year, Mercedes has remained the team to beat.
A lot of that is down to the impressive infrastructure Mercedes has back at its two factories in Brackley and Brixworth, but it’s also about the individuals that work there. Key to Mercedes success — and something that is unusual in the high-pressured world of Formula One — is the team’s no-blame culture. It’s often said that humans learn far more from their failures than their successes, and it’s a philosophy that runs deep for Mercedes both trackside and back at base.
Given the complexity and the nature of the sport, it is impossible for a Formula One team to achieve perfection, but by drilling deep into its failures Mercedes has often unlocked answers that a straightforward victory would not have yielded. Yet in order to fully explore all the learnings from those failures, individuals must be able to admit to their mistakes and accept hard truths. Achieving that, while maintaining morale and avoiding complacency, is all part of the rich chemistry that makes the team so successful.
“I haven’t seen other teams’ structures, and I have no doubt there are very competent people there as well, but for us it’s about the marginal gains,” Wolff said. “It’s about putting everything together and not leaving one stone unturned — having a no blame culture, empowering people, even when it’s difficult sometimes and when you would rather control things.
“But I think the strengths go very deep, values that are engrained in the teams that you can’t put on a power point and say now we are empowered. You need to live it in the difficult moments, and that has made the strengths of the team, that we had many hiccups over the last years and we were always able to collect ourselves, understand why we haven’t performed well and come back even stronger.
“But I could spend a whole day trying to analyse what I think are the strengths of the group, but there are just too many factors and so many faces come into my mind that I see through the year that are happy and tired.”
Even among its rivals Mercedes has won admirers. Although the newly-crowned constructors’ champions have had the best car for the majority of the races this year, it’s not always been the case.
A big part of the reason Mercedes has wrapped up both titles so early is because its main rival has failed to fulfil its potential. Likely Ferrari victories went missing in Bahrain, Baku, Canada and Germany in the first half of the season, and at the last two races the Italian team has failed to convert pole position into a win on Sunday. The reasons are widespread and varied — sometimes down to driver error, occasionally reliability issues, at times mismanagement from the pit wall — but whichever way you cut it a large number of points have gone missing. Comparing the two teams, especially at recent races when they have been closely matched in raw performance, the divide between the operational sides of the two outfits has been clear.
“Obviously we can’t see what they are doing but I think from the outside they are very close to perfection every time they go out on track — very consistent, very little mistakes,” Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel said on Sunday. “That’s certainly also part of what makes them so strong.
“But, yeah, if you clinch the constructors’ title with four races to go there’s a lot of things you do better than all the others. If you go into detail then you can argue what their car is maybe doing better than ours but I don’t think that’s the point overall — it’s a team effort and I think we [Ferrari] do have the ingredients, we do have the commitment, we do have the intelligence but we just need to do it better.
“It’s a lot of small things; it’s not one thing that we need to improve, it’s a lot of small things that we need to do better, every single one of us and that’s the only way that we can try and step up.
“Hopefully they get a bit bored [of winning], we will see what happens!”
And that is big questions remaining over Mercedes’ dominance in Formula One: How long can they keep it up?
Next year’s regulations remain largely unchanged, which should suit Mercedes even though Ferrari has made a big step forward with its car performance in the second half of this season. But even if they make it seven from seven in 2020, a new rule book for 2021 has been drafted with the specific aim of closing the gaps between the top teams and the rest of the field. If it’s successful, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a period of dominance like Mercedes’ again.
What’s more, Hamilton’s contract expires at the end of 2020 and, until the team signs up to the 2021 regulations, so does Mercedes’ contract with F1. With the potential for big changes on the horizon, could the 2019 season prove to be the halcyon days of the Mercedes dynasty?
“What’s left to achieve? I don’t know,” Wolff said on Sunday night. “We are so performance driven we’ve got to get the performance back into the car. You’re right, it’s a good question.
“Every year we’re trying to set objectives that motivate us. So we’ve beaten the Ferrari record now and we’ve got to reinvent ourselves again next year.”
But in the meantime, it’s worth standing back and appreciating the size of Mercedes’ achievement. The one-sided nature of recent Formula One seasons may not have offered the nail-biting title battles fans crave, but they have been inspirational.
The Mercedes team has been a prime example of what can be achieved when a group of very talented individuals work in a structure that demands excellence while allowing for mistakes. Combined with great leadership — in Lauda’s case, a personality capable of inspiring others even after his death — it’s clear that there is has been no “secret” to Mercedes success just a great deal of hard work.
“Each of the championships felt very special for different reasons,” Wolff added. “This one, again, is so special because it’s not always easy to reinvent yourself at the beginning of the year and set objectives that motivate everybody and then embark on the long season.
“Niki is being missed, and therefore the sixth one, beating the record that was set by Ferrari 15 years ago, is extremely special. I’m not able to fully get it yet — we had a difficult qualifying [in Japan on Sunday morning], and we are so eager to do well that this non-performance sits in our bones — but probably it’s going to sink in overnight flying back to Europe.”