Mercedes F1 driver Lewis Hamilton of the U.K. brakes as he approaches Turn 10 during the first free practice session for the Canadian Grand Prix at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal on Friday, June 6, 2014.
Photograph by: Dario Ayala, The Gazette
By the time they get to Abu Dhabi in late November for Formula One’s 19th and final race of 2014, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton might be ready to settle matters with duelling pistols at dawn.
The two Mercedes Petronas pilots are racing away from the F1 pack after just six events, Sunday’s 45th Canadian Grand Prix the seventh on the calendar.
Rosberg leads Hamilton by four points, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso choking on their exhaust 57 points down the road. Another few drivers on the table and you’re into the traffic — the guys who are scoring points but who, relatively speaking, are unwisely driving in the passing lane, holding up the fast cars.
So this F1 season is, for better or for worse, a storyline of two Mercedes drivers who are getting along, kind of, but seemingly ready to bang fenders, if they had any, at a moment’s notice.
Mercedes motorsport boss Toto Wolff is the closest man to this battle, and he has the most to lose if cooler heads don’t prevail in the heat of asphalt battle.
Wolff chatted with maybe a dozen journalists Friday morning in the Mercedes paddock, discussing the technical and the human side of his team’s efforts.
With the relationship between Rosberg and Hamilton civil at best — it’s coolly professional at times, blood-simmering at others — it seemed reasonable to ask Wolff whether he’s ever forced to be headmaster, that is, school principal on this side of the pond.
“We do that, every day on race weekend, and between races every week,” he replied. “I don’t feel like a headmaster. They are not schoolboys ...”
“All the time?” came the interjection, brightly.
“They are kindergartners,” he said, playfully taking the bait.
Wolff knows full well his team is a l-o-n-g way ahead of the pack, Mercedes ridiculously dominant with four wins by Hamilton and one by Rosberg, his drivers going 1-2 in five of the races to date. The only blemish was in the season’s curtain-raiser, Hamilton failing to finish.
Wolff also knows the last thing he needs will be for his two guys to start dicing dangerously should their testosterone overtake their common sense and their egos get the better of them.
“I’m not afraid (of a collision) because at the moment we’re having a solid gap to the other drivers and the other teams,” he said. “I’d be feeling that our system hasn’t worked if they crash.
“Part of the way we’re deciding the situation is involving both of them. What we did at the beginning of the season and do every weekend and after every weekend is discuss the situation and what actually has happened.
“Did we manage it in the right way? How could we manage it in a better way? ... They’re part of the decision-making process.”
Of course, this season is just six races old. Imagine if Rosberg and Hamilton are going wheel-to-wheel for another dozen races, tempers as short as the points margin between them. What fun.
“For us, as a team, it’s important for us to win the constructors’ championship,” Wolff said. “This is the target No. 1. As long as a Silver Arrow driver wins the world championship, we are happy.”
And then Wolff grew more than just a little provocative.
“It is a situation which could evolve during the season,” he said of a head-to-head fight. “It could well be that after a certain stage, that the battle, the format, the way we manage that battle could change. If we have secured the championship, why not unleash them?
“Having said that, it’s still about one of the largest brands in the world, about Mercedes, and we don’t want to look like fools. Let’s cross the bridge when we reach it.”
Is this rivalry being overblown by the media? Wolff was asked. Is it overshadowing all else on the grid?
“You need to (report on it) because I probably think it’s the only story left this year, knock on wood,” he replied, tapping a plastic table, then his skull to great laughter. “When you’re in a car which is able to win the world championship and your only enemy is your teammate, it’s clear that the relationship is difficult.
“It will have ups and downs. We haven’t really seen the big downs, we haven’t lost a front wing yet. It’s completely normal.”
Wolff described himself as somewhere between mildly and hugely surprised by his team’s monster margin this early in the season, saying that hadn’t been apparent in pre-season testing. He said, as would any chief executive, that the competition will press harder as the campaign wears on.
For now there is a great satisfaction at Mercedes, which finished a well-beaten second in the constructors’ race last season and was fifth, fourth and fourth the three years before that.
“Because the team went through a lot of trauma in the last couple of years, there is still the pain we feel,” Wolff said. “It was not so long ago that we had really dreadful weekends, so we’re enjoying every moment.
“Nevertheless, you need to keep the philosophy, ‘Let’s celebrate Sunday night if the weekend was good, but let’s go back to the office on Monday and pretend it wasn’t as easy as it was.’
“If you’re successful on a sustainable basis like we are at the moment, that is one of the most important factors in terms of management — to keep the fighting spirit in the team, to keep the development curve steep. And to pretend that we haven’t got the margin that we have at the moment.”
Wolff said there remain areas in which Mercedes can improve, saying that 80 to 90 per cent of success on the track is a direct result of the work at the factory.
“A racing team, like any other company, is a dynamic object,” he said. “It needs to be developed in relation to the rules, and in relation to technical and sporting regulations. Therefore, it’s a constant development process.”
Wolff spoke of the trickle down from state-of-the-art F1 design to Mercedes’s road cars, joking — maybe — that the automaker’s robust global sales are exclusively because of the race team’s brilliance.
“What we’re doing is a branding exercise, to shape the brand in the way of making it appear more dynamic, sporting, maybe a little younger, which kind of fits to the new models of Mercedes,” he said. “Everything we do here is around the branding. The way we appear and communicate is around the brand.”
The downsized V6 turbo engines powering F1 this year have produced power plants one-third the size of last year’s V8s but with more horsepower. Mercedes’s road cars, Wolff said, ultimately will benefit with smaller engines that are more efficient and more powerful.
All of that, in a way, spins off what the team hopes to achieve here on Sunday. Mercedes is now reaping the harvest of having focused less on 2013 in the latter half of last season and more on this year’s car, looking to the future while Red Bull was making mincemeat of the competition last year.
Wolff studies the results thus far and says “it’s not going to last” when he sees a sweep of victories and five runner-up finishes. But as long as Rosberg and Hamilton keep pummelling the competition and stay out of each other’s carbon fibre, the prospects are bright.
“The guys are really intelligent and mature in F1 since a long time,” Wolff said of the drivers whom minutes earlier he had joked were kindergartners. “They know that probably driving into each other is probably the highest risk factor to winning the championship. A DNF costs a lot of points.
“There are no orders (of strategic finish),” he added, suggesting “order is probably the wrong word. They know what to do.
“Honestly said, when the visor goes down ... it comes back to the fact that ‘I want to beat my teammate and in order to do that I should score more points than my teammate.’
“I’m still carefully optimistic that we’ll get through the season without any big drama.”
Wishful thinking, and touch more wood, from the man who pays the salaries.
And the repair bills.
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