Mercedes can’t be blamed for being dominant. The blame for that lies with Ferrari & Red Bull.
Mercedes Formula 1 team principal Toto Wolff is right when he says that it is not the fault of the Brackley team if it’s dominant in the sport. If the team is doing a better job than all of its rivals, it cannot be blamed for that.
In fact, the reality is that any criticism should be directed at his adversaries for having failed to build competitive machinery. Okay, that’s not entirely fair because there are different budgets involved, but one can apply such thinking to Ferrari and Red Bull Racing. But even with Mercedes apparently running rampant, Wolff says that Mercedes is not about to become complacent – which is why the team has been such a success in recent years.
‘If we would take the 2020 season for granted, as a walk in the park, and it’s basically just about picking up the trophy in Paris in December, we wouldn’t have won these championships,’ Wolff said. ‘There is not one fibre in us that thinks that this championship is done. It’s something that can really catch you out.’
Having said that, one must acknowledge that dominance in F1, is not always the best thing for the sport. ‘But it’s not up to the team that has made steps forward to be seen as responsible for the predictability of the championship.’
The underlying message is clear. The others need to up their games. Racing Point has done so by adopting a different philosophy by openly copying the Mercedes. I prefer to use the term ‘reverse-engineer’ rather than copy because what the Silverstone team has done is to understand that continuing to try to develop its own concepts is never going to be a success, with the budgets it has available – and it is more cost-effective to try to take the idea of a rival and recreate it.
It’s a lot more difficult than people think, and in order for it to be successful one needs to understand how the concept works. Copying without understanding will never be successful, but Racing Point seems to have understood the complexities of the Mercedes and made it work. There is a philosophical argument here about what is right for F1 in the future, but, as the FIA’s technical boss in F1, Nicholas Tombazis, says there is no such thing as a clean sheet of paper when it comes to design.
‘Speaking as an engineer, you never start a new design from a clean sheet or paper,’ he says. ‘You always start from a baseline design and improve it. Every design includes knowledge, IP and lessons learned previously, and you can never have a design starting from zero. Every design has background to it. All teams have big databases of other people’s designs. It has always been accepted that copying is part of the sport. The usage of other teams’ knowledge or ideas have always been a part of F1.’
And long before F1 as well, going right back to the earliest days of the sport, there are countless examples of engineers who have copied rival cars. Where it becomes illegal is when the copying is done using data, or drawings that come directly from the rival teams. There is no skill involved in that.
Much is being made of the upcoming decision by the FIA Stewards about whether the Racing Points were legal in Styria and Hungary, but I would be astonished if the decision went against the team. Tombazis and his engineers visited Racing Point before the season began because of worries about what they had done, and having inspected the cars in detail, and having had the design explained to them, they went away happy that the cars were not illegal and that Racing Point had done a good job. The reason behind the thinking was that the team had seen what Haas and Ferrari did previously, although many seem to have forgotten this.
Things are a little more complicated these days, because of the technology available. There are, for example, 3D scanners that exist that can replicate the external surfaces of a rival car to the same level of accuracy as the original. Are these acceptable? There are programmes that can create 3D models based on 2D photography, should these be deemed to be useable? If one accepts that there is nothing wrong with the concept, then it’s simply a question of deciding what tools can be allowed. That is not easy, but it can be done. What is clear, however, is that acquiring CAD-CAM data directly from another team, or from an employee of such a team, is illegal, and that anyone who is involved in such activities should be penalised suitably. It is hard to imagine that an organisation such as Mercedes F1 would hand over its own design data.
Yes, one can argue that it serves the team’s purpose to have another car that is capable of beating Ferraris and Red Bulls, which would obviously help Mercedes win the championship by reducing the ability of its rivals to collect as many points, but there is absolutely no evidence that this has occurred and Mercedes has earned a sufficient level of trust and respect in F1 circles that it is hard to imagine that such a thing is possible. And what would be a challenge in that? Winning is not all that counts, at least not to intelligent people. It is the manner of victory that provides the satisfaction. Any idiot can ram a rival off the race track in order to win a World Championship, but while that may sit in the record books forever, anyone educated in the sport knows that the achievement has little real value. For some that does not matter, but I firmly believe that Mercedes folks are not like that. And the manner of victory is as important to them as victory itself.
Joe Saward has been covering Formula 1 full-time for 30 years. He has not missed a race since 1988.