The bottom line is, a new set of regulations was agreed for 2014 by the F1 manufacturers and the teams. The result? Mercedes have smashed the competition – fair and square. Yet after two years of complete and utter dominance in Formula One, the voices of concern are growing.
Over the festive season, Christian Horner called upon Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt to make swift changes to the rules for 2016. This would ordinarily require unanimous agreement from the teams, yet during January, Bernie and Jean have an FIA mandate to make governance decisions unchallenged. A failure to act Horner argues, will see a repeat of 2015. “The regulations are incredibly stable for next year, so Mercedes will inevitably carry on the dominance, such is their margin. They will find gains throughout the winter and will undoubtedly be near the top of the curve.”
The need for action is desperate given the collapse in F1 TV audience numbers and those attending the races in person. “Inevitably, with predictability, people get turned off and it needs a rejig to bring it closer together”.
Red Bull critics will point out to Horner that he oversaw the most dominant sequence of results for a team and driver in Formula One since just after the turn of the millennium. Horner believes those circumstances were different: “Two of our world championships went to the last race, and we never finished first and second in a championship”.
You can almost hear the clipped Germanic response from Toto to Horner’s observation. After all one of the Mercedes championships went to the last race and it’s not Wolff’s responsibility to ensure Red Bull have two equally matched drivers – as the Austrian would claim Mercedes do.
Yet Toto is not banging the drum as predictably as we might expect despite his drivers winning 32 of the last 38 races. Wolff draws on the evidence of how damaging continued dominance in a sport can be to a brand.
“Our dominance is bad for Formula One,” says Wolff. “It makes the racing boring. It becomes predictable how the result is going to be. The sport needs multiple winners. It needs the odd freak result. It needs the underdog to win. The moment you become a dominant force, you suffer and your brand suffers. You become the dark side of the force”.
Whatever Christian Horner thinks, Red Bull suffered a similar backlash after four consecutive driver and constructor world F1 titles; something Wolff remembers well. “They joined the sport. They were the Jedis. They jumped in the pool when they finished third in Monaco with Coulthard. They had the Formula Unas, the girls around the paddock. They had the Red Bulletin. They were controversial. They had a superb brand.
“But after winning the world title four times in a row, they developed into an unsympathetic brand. Nobody wants the establishment”.
The problem for Mercedes AMG F1, is that despite the big talk from Ferrari’s Sergio Marchionne, they are likely to once again be way ahead of the field in 2016, which is causing some concern for Wolff. “So I want the dominance to continue but if it were to continue like this, I need to think what to do so we do not become the enemy and how we can help the show. Maybe it’s about unleashing the two of them [Hamilton and Rosberg] completely. Make them have their own strategy… cars. That would be a solution.”
At present, Mercedes plot an optimum race strategy and insist both their cars follow this schedule of pit stops and tyre changes during the race. Of course the driver behind is potentially disadvantaged because they cannot try something different to maybe gain an advantage over their team mate. Lewis Hamilton has been particularly vociferous over this issue and won some concessions at the final race of the 2015 season.
In Abu Dhabi, Hamilton was given some strategy freedom to try and get ahead of Rosberg on track, though the reality is that on the whole one strategy is better than all the other options. If the leading driver is using this strategy, there is little the driver behind can do to change the race order.
What has changed for 2016 is the tyre regulations, and it could be the unknown of how these new rules will play out is on Toto’ mind at present. If Mercedes deploy just one team strategist for both drivers and get it spectacularly wrong, they will look silly insisting on it being ‘their way or the highway’ to Lewis and Nico.
Allowing the drivers some freedom of strategy may be a smart move for Mercedes in the popularity stakes; after all it will take several races for the teams to understand the impact of the new tyre regulations. At least if Nico and Lewis appear to be duelling it out properly, whilst still smashing the rest of the field, at least Toto can claim he’s done his bit for the sport.
Horner’s call to Todt and Ecclestone to make late 2016 regulation changes will almost surely fall on deaf ears. Whilst Bernie would sell his grandmother’s soul for a dollar more, Todt is keen to retain some semblance of proper order and will only use the FIA mandate if he feels it’s absolutely necessary. Add to this the fact that Christian has no real suggestions on how the 2016 rules can be tweaked to deliver ‘occasional’ wins for the underdogs and more unpredictability without fundamentally upsetting the apple cart – something which of course could come back to haunt Milton Keynes further down the line.