As Formula One prepares for the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday, the 14th of the season’s 19 races, it is already certain that the Mercedes Formula One team will again win the world championship this year. It also seems highly likely that a Mercedes car will win this weekend at the high-speed Suzuka circuit.
Like last year at this point, the two Mercedes drivers, the defending champion Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, are the series’ leaders, and Hamilton is favored to win in Japan like last year.
Suzuka is the favorite track of many of the Formula One drivers because it is so fast and challenging to race on.
“It’s fast, it’s flowing, and it’s got everything,” said the Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo. “High-speed, low-speed, inclines, drops. Wonderful circuit!”
But what Ricciardo did not say is that his Renault-powered car has practically no chance of winning the race. For that matter, neither have just about all of the other teams in this lopsided championship, dominated as it is by one team and its cars powered by the most successful of the new hybrid engines, the Mercedes.
One team for which things could hardly be worse is McLaren Honda, returning under that name for the first time in more than 20 years to the track owned by its engine provider, Honda. With the least-powerful and least-reliable engine on the grid this year, the team has virtually no chance of winning on Sunday — unless some freak weather conditions force most of the other cars off the track.
Beyond the prospects of the four engine manufacturers at Suzuka, another wider story has emerged this season, the second year of the new downsized 1.6-liter, turbo, hybrid engine format: the question of whether a team that does not build its own engine and chassis together can still win not only a few races, but win the Formula One championship.
Throughout most of Formula One history, teams won the title using engines they bought from a separate manufacturer and the teams built the chassis. Since road car manufacturers joined the series early last decade, the winning teams were defined more by a close partnership and team ownership between the engine manufacturer and the chassis builder.
Ferrari has always built its own chassis and engine, and it dominated the series last decade, winning all the titles from 2000 to 2004. In 2005 and 2006, Renault built its own engine and chassis and won the titles. (Before that, the close partnership and partial team ownership of Mercedes and the McLaren team had resulted in the drivers’ title in 1998 and 1999, with Mika Hakkinen at the wheel.)
Red Bull won the title as a customer of the Renault engine, from 2010 to 2013, with Sebastian Vettel driving. But even that relationship was considered by many to be a privileged one.
“Red Bull has done that,” said Monisha Kaltenborn, director of the Sauber team, which is a customer of the Ferrari engine. “But it is not a typical private team like we are. They had a very different relationship with Renault, they were kind of their preferred customer, around whom things are developed. And probably they had such a strong relationship that you could have a lot more say in the development and do things like that together.”
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With the new engine formula introduced last year, the Mercedes engine company built the best, most powerful of the hybrid engines. While it also provides these engines to several other teams, it is the Mercedes team itself that has dominated and won all but a handful of races since the beginning of last year.
This is because the new engine formula has yet to be entirely understood and perfectly integrated, as was the previous V8 engine formula, which had not evolved much for several years. But Mercedes engineers can work more closely with the design of the Mercedes car chassis and the concept of the engine than any customer team can do.
Referring to the concept of the customer car, Graeme Lowdon, a director of the Manor team, suggested that the parent companies are there to win and take priority over the customers.
“When you hear some of the big teams say that they are in favor of customer cars, and then they will also make a statement saying, ‘We are here to win, we are not here to make up the numbers,’ you think, ‘Well, immediately there is a problem. This ain’t going to end well,”’ Lowdon said.
That appeared to be the case this year when Mercedes provided an engine upgrade only to the Mercedes team at the Italian Grand Prix on Sept. 6, as it rushed to keep its team’s advantage. But the engine manufacturer’s customers — Force India, Lotus and Williams — had to wait until later to receive the upgrade.
Those teams try to remain optimistic about the possibility of winning a title while remaining “a customer.”
“I don’t see why not,” said Claire Williams, the deputy team director of the Williams team. “Formula One is not just about an engine; it is about your chassis. It is about so many other components that if you can get that bit right, why can’t you beat your engine-supplier team?”
Kaltenborn said, however, that with the engines today so different in power levels it would not be very easy.
“I think under the current circumstances it would be very difficult,” she said. “It’s a matter of finances. If the power-trains are more level, I guess it is possible if you could compete on the financial level.”
But the question still remains. Red Bull, unhappy with Renault, may change to Ferrari next year. But will that be any better? Perhaps, said Mark Webber, a former driver for Red Bull.
“With those engines, they could be winning right now,” Webber told the Italian sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport. “Remember Vettel with his Ferrari-powered Toro Rosso?”
Unfortunately, Webber’s example of his former teammate Vettel winning the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 2008 was a bad one. It was a fluke victory in the rain. That season, Toro Rosso finished sixth in the championship, behind five chassis-engine manufacturing teams: Ferrari, McLaren Mercedes, BMW, Renault and Toyota.