Interview: Why Mercedes never expected its triple success
Mercedes has been the dominant force in Formula 1 for three years in a row now but, as tech chief Paddy Lowe tells Adam Cooper, it was something not even the team expected.
Most neutrals among us would probably like to witness see-saw battles for both F1 world championship titles, preferably resolved on the last lap of the final race of the season.
Three years of domination by two drivers and one team isn't necessarily the sort of scenario that attracted us to the sport in the first place.
But that shouldn't make the achievement of Mercedes any less impressive. Three on the bounce is quite something, and it was quite right that Mercedes has this week made much of its triple success.
And even the team's top management didn't anticipate such a run of success, given the strength of the opposition.
"It's terrific," technical chief Paddy Lowe told Motorsport.com. "I don't know why in human nature there's something magical about three. We have five fingers! But there's something about three where people go, 'Right, that really is seriously good.'
"So winning three consecutive championships – I've been in the sport quite a long time and I never thought I would do that, so I'm just really made up to be within such a fantastic team of people.
"They are really the most professional group, and yet great human beings. To achieve this success is so well deserved, and achieved with such enjoyment as well. You couldn't think of anything better in the sport."
And that's the point, it's all about the people. After taking over from Brawn in 2010 Mercedes spent several years putting the pieces in place, with several folk who are no longer there – such as Ross Brawn, Norbert Haug and Bob Bell – playing key roles.
It was not by chance that the team appeared to have a surplus of guys who had been technical directors in their own right elsewhere, or that so much much resource was devoted to the hybrid project from an early stage.
Lowe and Toto Wolff came along just before the start of the hybrid era with perfect timing, and much of the hard work already done, and no one would deny that they benefited from what had gone before.
But they could easily have screwed it up, with a wrong decision here or there. No successful team can rest on its laurels, as the sport is in a constant state of development.
"People maybe don't appreciate what makes up a team," says Lowe. "We had a guy at Suzuka who doesn't normally come to races, one of our key people from the factory.
"He started with the team right at the beginning, 15 years ago. So everything he knows he's learned the hard way, and that's just one small example.
"F1 teams are made up of huge numbers of people who learned their trade over many, many years, and you put that together, and if you can put that together perfectly, you create championships or triple championships.
"But it's never grown overnight, it takes decades or multiple decades to put that experience and that intelligence together, and that team working together."
Surprised by dominance
The move to hybrid rules in 2014 was always going to create something of a shake-up, with the potential for one of the manufacturers to hit the sweet spot. Mercedes did just that and enjoyed a significant advantage in the first season.
The rest have now had a chance to close the gap, and yet the silver cars are still dominant. That's down to sheer hard work and getting everything right.
"To be honest, it's surprising," Lowe admits. "We thought 2014 was pretty exceptional. I never thought I'd see that level of dominance in the modern era, with the greater degree of professionalism we have in teams these days compared to the past.
"To see it repeated in 2015, and then in a slightly different way but further extended in 2016, we haven't had the performance margin this year but we've still won the races, it's really unexpected.
"I have huge respect for our competition. People think we've been super, super dominant these last three years, and yet 2014 was reasonably exceptional with the power units, 2015 was less so, as you move into this year the difference between the power units is not night and day.
"Ferrari and Red Bull, they are very, very strong teams, and whilst we've won a lot of races, you go and look at the numbers, you are talking about differences that are less than half a per cent between these teams.
"So if you make the slightest slip-up, you leave anything on the table, and Suzuka was the perfect example of that. If we hadn't got the set-up exactly perfect, they'll beat us. It's the way it is with the reliability we have in F1 these days, it does mean even with slim margins you can maintain that position to win."
The new aerodynamic package and wider tyres coming for 2017 create another chance for a shake-up, and don't forget too that the token system is going, which gives the other manufacturers more freedom.
Time will tell us whether rivals can take advantage, or Mercedes will simply be able to use its superior starting point as a springboard.
"It's a great foundation, and we see next year as a whole new set of rules from the chassis point of view, so it's a clean sheet of paper. We don't take anything for granted in terms of carry over of performance advantage. It's a complete re-set, and we start from scratch."
Meanwhile, we still have the 2016 drivers' title battle to enjoy, one that could yet go either way despite Nico Rosberg's handy lead over Lewis Hamilton.
Suzuka was a landmark, because the current gap means that the outcome is now out of Hamilton's hands – he can win the last four races and still not be champion.
"We're in that territory, but so many things can happen in this sport, we've seen that in the past," says Lowe. "I don't think there's anything to count up at this stage. But mathematically one of them has won the drivers, because Ricciardo is 101 behind.
"That takes a bit of pressure out of the team from that point of view. We always say, and there's nothing wrong with keeping on repeating it, you take one race at a time in this business. And that's what I'll say to Lewis, and he knows how that works."
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