As has been widely reported in the news this weak, Toto Wolff has issued what can only be described as a warning to his drivers that if their rapidly deteriorating relationship begins to affect Mercedes’s results, one of the pair could be dropped from the team. The British press have been quick to suggest that Wolff’s comments were directed primarily at Hamilton but with Rosberg’s contract due to expire at the end of next year the jury is out on who is under the most threat at F1’s current top team. It’s fitting that in an F1 season which has seen more drama off than on track that controversy should still be stirred up long after the engines have fallen silent but as the Motorsport community speculates the real meaning being Toto Wolff’s message, we’ve taken the time in investigate one of F1’s age old problems, is having two No1 drivers really better than having just one?
There’s plenty of evidence knocking around that suggests having a clear No1 and No2 works perfectly fine when chasing a championship. After all, Ferrari and Schumacher won five consecutive world drivers and constructors championships from 2000-2004 when although never officially admitted, Rubens Barichello was a strict number two. Move forward through another two seasons and Renault’s clean sweep of both championship’s again proved what could be achieved when you have No1 and 2 drivers within a team. Yes, you could argue that Renault’s circumstances were more race pace related than Ferrari’s, (in 2005 Fisichella scored less than half the points of Alonso and 2006 he scored just over half), but they were a fine example of what could be achieved none the less.
In contrast to the previous seven seasons, 2007 is where things begin to go drastically wrong, and potentially the reason some motorsport journalists believe Wolff’s comments were targeting Hamilton. Nobody, except for maybe Ron Dennis and Lewis himself expected Hamilton be as quick as he was right from the start of his debut season in Formula One. Fernando Alonso, fulfilling a childhood dream by moving to McLaren just as Renault were beginning to lose their competitive edge, was quickly thrown into a season which could only be described as a nightmare. It’s rare to call a season where a driver finished third in the championship, taking four race victories and and a further eight podiums a mess, but that’s exactly what 2007 was. For Alonso, for Hamilton and for McLaren. Yes, McLaren had a competitive car and were favorites for the title right up until the last race, but they were also excluded from the constructors championship, and all those involved in both spygate and the Alonso/Hamilton catfight were left with a tarnished reputation, which may have just come back to haunt Lewis.
It’s no secret that there were fireworks at McLaren from every early on in 2007, ones which came to a head as Alonso blocked Hamilton in the pits in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. The public fall out from their tumultuous relationship ensured Alonso’s return to Renault after just one season in his dream drive, but the general consensus in the paddock at the time was that the two time champion couldn’t deal with Hamilton as an equal driver. With Kovalainen joining Hamilton at McLaren for 2008/2009, the status quo was restored an Hamilton went on to win the championship in 2008. Again when McLaren (although they would never admit it) had a clear No1 and No2.
Fast forward through many seasons and you reach the end of 2015, and possibly the start of a story which may rumble on until Nico Rosberg signs (or doesn’t) a new Mercedes contract. Only Hamilton will ever know if he has consciously (or subconsciously) taken his foot off the gas after his title win in Austin but his behavior since that weekend has been nothing short of embarrassing for himself and the Mercedes team. Rosberg and Hamilton have been at loggerheads for over a year now, and as Wolff rightly pointed out, this internal warfare is a huge weakness in the well oiled Mercedes team – one which should Ferrari move closer over the winter, a weakness the Scuderia can certainly capitalize on next season.
Having two drivers of equal status and ability could eventually become the downfall of Mercedes. All to often this year the post race coverage has shown one jubilant Mercedes driver celebrating with his side of the garage and the other sulking, running out of photos, making excuses and criticizing the team. Hamilton’s behavior post Austin has been a poor thanks to the team who has provided him with a dominant, title winning car for the last two seasons. Barely three weeks after being crowned World Champion, Hamilton’s decision to publicly criticize Mercedes for not allowing their drivers free choice on race strategy, suggests he is more than a little concerned about Rosberg’s new found form, and rightly so, because if Rosberg can carry his stunning late season pace into 2016, Hamilton’s position at Mercedes could begin to come under threat, and here’s why.
Contracts aside, you can bet at least a large proportion of your money on the fact that many people at Mercedes would rather work alongside Rosberg than Hamilton. Rosberg is Mercedes through and through. Having been with the team since the start in 2010, he has given his all for the two time champions and wears the Mercedes badge with pride. He has never come out and publicly berated his team, teammate or car and has been a great ambassador for the Mercedes brand. Yes, Rosberg has had rare moments when he has lost his cool, (Spa 2014, Cap-gate) but it would be a great shame to see Nico leave a team he has done so much for.
Now we can turn the attention to Ferrari. Never once would you expect to see fireworks between Vettel and Raikonnen, and even if they did run each other off the road it’s hard to imagine them at each other’s throats in post race interviews. It’s a far cry from the situation at Mercedes, when even in races when both Hamilton and Rosberg had incident free drives they were at each others throats in press conferences, for one petty reason or another. Whereas Arrivabene was able to sit back and savor a well earned race victory, Wolff and Lauda were busy celebrating with the victor whilst attempting to stroke the ego of the other at the same time, hardly an ideal situation to manage.
It’s unlikely to ever be publicly admitted, but in Vettel and Raikonnen Ferrari, not for the first time have a clear No1 and No2 driver, and with Hamilton and Rosberg seemingly headed for all out warfare, Ferrari’s driver line up could well be their silver bullet in 2016. Free from the shackles of managing drivers both the management, engineers and indeed drivers themselves can turn all their attention to improving the car and engine in anticipation of a title challenge. Ferrari find themselves able to head into the season full of excitement and hope, whereas over at Mercedes you get the impression that they will be heading into 2016 with a sense of nervous anticipation as they await the next chapter in one of F1’s most spectacular fall outs of recent times.
I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Hamilton Vs Rosberg by any means, and if relations between the two continue to deteriorate at the rate they have, then maybe, just maybe we might be seeing a surprise departure from Mercedes at the end of 2016. Whilst many in the motorsport community may feel that letting go of Hamilton, one of F1’s fastest ever drivers would be madness on Mercedes’ part, it could well be that the three time champion is shown the door.
You heard it here first……