Lewis Hamilton’s new adventure with Mercedes began with a strong performance in Australia - but is it a genuine sign that he could ‘do a Schumacher’ and help turn Mercedes into a front-running force?
It’s only round one, but Hamilton feels he has already dealt a knock-out blow to some of his critics.
His self-stated dream, and the reason he moved to Mercedes, is to try to emulate a feat achieved by seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher: to turn a struggling giant into a dominant force.
After receiving some heavy criticism from the media and ex-F1 drivers he was quick to point the finger in Melbourne after proving his pre-season testing pace with a good performance in the opening race.
“It’s nice to prove people wrong,” he said.
But there’s a long way to go yet.
When Schumacher joined Ferrari in 1996 they were the third best team behind Benetton and Williams and had achieved just two wins in five years. They hadn’t won a world title since 1983.
It took just five races for Schumacher to get a pole position and just seven to take his first win. But then it took a further three seasons for the first constructors’ title to come Ferrari’s way and for the ‘Tifosi Dream Team’ to begin their long period of dominance.
So what factors need to come together for Hamilton to achieve a similar feat? And do Mercedes and Hamilton have it ready to go...?
SIZE AND QUALITY
It’s not easy to fight at the front. Keeping up with the pace of development is only possible with big numbers of personnel, while the need for innovation to feed down from the top has led to a ‘superstar’ designer market as everyone tries to find the next Adrian Newey.
In this, Mercedes have significant strength.
The team has re-structured its engineering group and has hired a lot of extra staff over the last year or two, while at the top their list of key designers and engineers reads like a who’s who of the key players in recent F1 history. Their recent coup in taking Paddy Lowe from McLaren is seen as a possible masterstroke.
But while Mercedes now unquestionably sits within the big boys, a quick flashback to Toyota will remind you that big staff numbers, supposedly big names and pots of cash doesn’t always get what you want.
That’s where the leadership comes in.
When Ferrari grew strong, it was thanks to their super-strong backbone of team principal Jean Todt, technical director Ross Brawn and chief designer Rory Byrne.
So far, Brawn has been in the Todt role at Mercedes having taken that position at his self-named team, Brawn, when it grew out of Honda in 2009 and retained it when Mercedes bought in a year later.
But a recent management shuffle has seen Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda placed in a loose and yet-to-be-clearly-understood position above him.
Could that mean that Mercedes have recognised Brawn’s skills lie more in his old technical position and are handing more of that back to him whilst taking other elements off his hands? If so, it could be crucial. But it would also need Wolff or Lauda to deliver the qualities that Todt did at Ferrari – and that’s a tough ask.
Whichever way it goes, the recent political moves will be crucial for Mercedes’ long-term success.
If Mercedes does now sit in a stronger long-term position, Hamilton’s dreams of emulating Schumacher are halfway there. But his own crucial chess game has only just begun.
When Schumacher joined Ferrari he already had a commitment for him to be the team number one. First Eddie Irvine, then Rubens Barrichello and finally Felipe Massa all signed up to that role, and all stood back – to greater or lesser extents – as Schumacher had his way on everything.
Unless there is a similar secret clause somewhere deep in Hamilton’s contract – something extremely unlikely given team-mate Nico Rosberg’s pre-established stature within the team – then Hamilton has some work to do on this first.
The only way he could achieve a dominance like Schumacher at Ferrari is if he completely dominates Rosberg on the track. He will have no help from the team on that – he will have to prove to them that he genuinely is the step above Rosberg’s level that he is thought to be.
Only by doing that will he have first say in race plays, first dibs on new parts and, most importantly, be the primary focus on long-term design development. And that’s where he needs to be to dominate.
Mercedes have clearly closed the gap this year but to go from as far back as they were to get out front, let alone be comfortably dominant, requires more than step-by-step progress. It needs a step-change.
It took Schumacher and Ferrari three years to finally get a title because they had to contend with a period of rules stability and just chip away at the leaders until 1998, when major changes came in and they made the most of the opportunity, narrowly missing the title that season but taking it a year later to begin their dominant period.
This is where Hamilton and Mercedes can really get the jump, with the new 2014 regulations expected to deliver massive change and significant benefit to teams who build their own engines.
A GOOD START, PATIENCE AND THE LONG-TERM
After three lean years in Formula One, things need to come together quickly in 2014 for Mercedes to be convinced that F1 is a worthwhile long-term prospect for them.
Getting ahead, then staying there, in the next F1 generation is going to demand significant ongoing investment.
Their commitment to Hamilton for the long-term shows belief, but to get on the road to dominance he needs to show he is clearly better than Rosberg by the time the real detail development of next year’s cars begins – which is not at all far away.
Mercedes is committed to 2014 and beyond, but if the team is not right at the front next year then questions will quickly be asked as to how the brand is benefiting from its involvement in the sport.
Hamilton’s first few races, then, will be crucial.
He was 0.5s ahead of Rosberg in qualifying in Australia and is clearly enjoying his new-found freedom. He needs to use that positivity to get a new focus and, as Schumacher did at Ferrari, to spend significant time with the engineers dialling down into the detail, showing his knowledge and cementing his position as team leader.
From first glance, in race one, it appears leaving McLaren was a good call, given their sudden struggles.
But as for the long-term dream...
Well, the signs look good but there are still a lot of jigsaw pieces that need to come together before Hamilton can truly say he has proven his critics wrong.