Nico Rosberg, Mercedes, Baku City Circuit, 2016

Why Mercedes’ return to dominance in Baku may be temporary

2016 European Grand Prix

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After two races in which Mercedes’ rivals finally seemed to have got on terms with them, Baku saw a sudden return to the dominant form we have grown used to seeing from the silver cars.

Is this the shape of things to come, or a track-specific phenomenon on an unusual new circuit?

Mercedes’ narrowing advantage

Mercedes’ superiority has clearly diminished in 2016. Over the first seven races of the year their average lap time advantage was 0.56%, down from 0.94% at the same venues in 2015*.

But at Baku nobody could get close to the W07s. Nico Rosberg took pole position by 0.995 seconds – 0.97% faster than the next-quickest team could manage.

It’s significant that the closest team to Mercedes on pure performance last weekend was Mercedes power unit customer Force India rather than Ferrari or Renault-powered Red Bull. The new Baku circuit introduced the longest flat-out section on the Formula One calendar, which clearly played into their hands.

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But there was more to it than that. As with other new venues introduced to the calendar recently the combination of a very smooth surface – less abrasive even than Sochi’s – and a conservative tyre selection from Pirelli appears to have flattered Mercedes.

As this graph shows, in the two races this year where the ultra-soft tyres were available – Monaco and Canada – Mercedes’ advantage was at its smallest (indeed in Monaco they were beaten on pace by Red Bull). However at Sochi and Baku, both low-abrasion tracks where the ultra-soft tyre might have been used but wasn’t, Mercedes had performance to throw away:

Baku was especially tough for Red Bull. They trimmed back the downforce levels on the RB12 in a bid to stay competitive on the straights, only to discover in the race it compromised their tyre management.

From here the teams head to Red Bull’s home circuit which, ironically, is ill-suited to their under-powered package. Mercedes’ performance advantage at this track last year was 0.52% over Ferrari, and with the ultra-soft tyres available this year the SF16-H should be closer to Canada levels of performance compared to Mercedes.

For the sake of this year’s competition, many will be hoping so. But of course having a fast car doesn’t automatically mean scoring a maximum haul of points.

Although Mercedes achieved this with one-two finishes in Australia and Russia, they failed to deliver the same at the two other tracks where they were emphatically the quickest team. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg crashed in Spain and in Baku Hamilton’s travails meant he finished off the podium.

Mercedes’ rivals will take encouragement from the team’s failure to fully capitalised on its strongest weekends as they bid to keep bringing down the gap.

*Mercedes increased their advantage in 2015 compared to 2014 over the same seven tracks. It rose from 0.74% to 0.94%.

2016 European Grand Prix

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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41 comments on “Why Mercedes’ return to dominance in Baku may be temporary”

  1. Evil Homer (@)
    21st June 2016, 12:52

    Well except for Merc fans lets hope so! It would be great to see 3 or even 4 teams (a stretch with 4) battle for the constructors title – that would put some more bums on seats. That said even a close battle with 2 teams would keep us happy :)

  2. I am gonna repost my message on another thread.
    Some people don’t like the fact that there are quite a few of us who are overly critical with Mercedes drivers. That’s OK. I am a pure racing fan (and attacking football also). Let me ask you a question. Let’s say that in the forthcoming Premier League a specific team, Leicester for instance, starts with a 3-0 advantage before kickoff on EVERY SINGLE GAME (That’s EXACTLY the case with Mercedes. Whoever denies it just can’t handle the truth). Sometimes the final score is going to be 3-0 or 3-1 and most of the times is going to be 4-0, 5-0 and 6-1. How would you feel about it? How would you feel with comments like “4-0. What a stellar performance!”, “6-1. Top of the world”.
    Come on, let’s hear your comments on this.

    1. @sakis
      You speak as if there is no gulf in football, apart from fluke seasons like last year, it is always the big team that win, the ones that spend a lot of money.

      The same in F1, I don’t see any hope of the mid-field winning the championship, it is always the big teams with very large budgets that contend for the top spots.

      F1 is not just about the driver, the team’s are all given the same set of rules, whoever adapts the best should reap the rewards.

      1. @sakis, @xusen

        Xusen is right. Obviously it is the big teams with big money winning on a regular basis, imagine it would be different… Unimaginable. Why would anyone muster up the money if it wouldn’t do anything for you?

        However as Leicter proved, only having the most money is by far not enough, you need to spend it wisely… Turning money into value/performance is not that easy.

        1. I mean “Leicester” of course, and not that they had the money, but that they showed others what you can do with less, much much less.

      2. Except for when their hard worked for and fair initial advantage is ring fenced for a number of seasons and the chance to catch up on 1 teams USP is restricted by tokens.

        Every year Red Bull dominated teams were not restricted by the rules on the levels they could go to to catch up same in Ferrari, Williams or McLaren eras. Until Ferrari found the loophole to use tokens in stages through a season others would of had only 2 upgrades since the start of 2014 and use all tokens at each point or loose them.

        1. The only item restricted by tokens was the engine, and that was not unique to ‘1 team’. 4 teams had the best engine, but only one team matched it with the best (or close to the best) aero, chassis, cooling, mechanics and drivers. It was the ongoing work by the whole team that allowed Mercedes to be so effective. That is why Mercedes still dominate, even though the other manufacturers say they have now matched the Mercedes power.

          It is ironic that Red Bull were the team least able to exploit the engine rules for which they were largely responsible. Of course the rules were introduced to reduce costs, but when the only way to catch up is by outspending the competition they had the effect of prolonging the advantage of the Mercedes powerplant.

    2. From a spectacle point of view, you are right in that certain teams are starting the weekend with a guaranteed advantage. But when has that not been the case? To use your example, Mercedes start with a 3-0 advantage, but Ferrari and Red Bull are also starting with an advantage over those behind. Mercedes beating Ferrari by a second a lap is no different than Force India beating Sauber by the same margin.

      Your metaphor suggests an unfairness, where for no apparent reason certain teams are afforded a benefit. F1 has always been a team sport, based on engineering ability and resourcing. All teams are entirely equal, but to varying degrees have managed to obtain sponsorship or outright purchases to gather more funds, to gather more engineering capability, to improve the performance of their car and therefore attract the best drivers.

      There are plenty of other series with entirely (or largely) homogenous engineering – so if you want that then watch those instead.

      1. Exactly. And there have been many other years where one team had a large advantage over the others. Just, in fact, as has been the case in most sports including football.

        But it is not an unfair advantage, like giving someone a 3-point start just because. That would be like allowing one team’s cars to start half a minute before everyone else. The reason they have an advantage is because they have done the best job. This could, in F1, be that they have hired the best drivers, or strategists, or that they have developed the best car. Or, in football, it could be that they have the best players, or the best manager, or have trained together the best and work really well as a team.

        If you want motorsport which is purely about driver ability, there are plenty of spec series you can watch. F1 will (or should) always include a large amount of input from the team, from engineers, strategists, pit crews etc. It would not be F1 if it didn’t.

      2. You missed one key point.
        Everything you said is true… but lets talk about tokens and the Farce that tokens have produced from 2014 untill now.In an engine Formula era teams have major restrictions on improving the portion of the car that influences performance the most. Thats not racing.
        The Ferrari SF16-H is faster than the Mercedes WO5 at every single track F1 has been to so far this year…
        Imagine how competitive the 2015 season would have been if during the season Ferrari could have done to their engine what they did in the offseason because they didnt have enough tokens.
        2017 cant get here fast enough so we can see REAL competition again

        1. Going back to the football analogy, removing the token system is like removing the transfer window because football teams can’t constantly spend money on better players during the year to improve their squad. Each football team builds the best squad it can with the budget it has and then has to stick with it until the transfer window. Whoever did the best job has a locked in advantage until the next window, but it’s not unfair: the playing field is level, no-one starts with a 3-0 advantage, everyone operates in a free market for players trying to build the best team.

          The token system was fair to everyone from the start as it applied equally to all (whether it was the right thing or not is a matter for discussion, its purpose was to reduce spending to help the smaller teams). Arguably the tinkering with the token system after it was in place to try to disadvantage Mercedes relative to others (not that it seems to have done a huge amount anyway) was the only thing which has been unfair and that was intended to give everyone else an advantage, not Mercedes.

          Another analogy to football (it is the middle of the Euro Champs after all) – Red Bull’s complaints about their engine situation would be equivalent to Chelsea complaining how unfair it was that they didn’t have Jamie Vardy playing for them and that as former league champions they have a right to the best players.

          The idea that Mercedes have an unfair advantage is just nonsense, Mercedes have an advantage – yes, but one they built entirely by themselves by their own work and investment.

          I’m not a football fan, but the one big difference between the Premier League and F1 appears to be distribution of funds which is much fairer in Football.

          1. “Going back to the football analogy, removing the token system is like removing the transfer window because football teams can’t constantly spend money on better players during the year to improve their squad. Each football team builds the best squad it can with the budget it has and then has to stick with it until the transfer window. Whoever did the best job has a locked in advantage until the next window, but it’s not unfair: the playing field is level, no-one starts with a 3-0 advantage, everyone operates in a free market for players trying to build the best team.”

            Yep.

            “The idea that Mercedes have an unfair advantage is just nonsense, Mercedes have an advantage – yes, but one they built entirely by themselves by their own work and investment.”

            Exactly.

            “I’m not a football fan, but the one big difference between the Premier League and F1 appears to be distribution of funds which is much fairer in Football.”

            I completely agree here, too.

    3. ColdFly F1 (@)
      21st June 2016, 16:13

      @sakis, you want my comment? I think your comparison is flawed (at least the conclusion is).

      Mercedes is a team, like Leicester in your EPL comparison.
      They start with 0-0 every game; and when they win they win on pure merit.
      Leicester wins because they are better prepared, better trained, play better together, etc. etc. Part of it they did over the past season(s) and will take some time for others to mimic; but their is no unfair advantage here.

      HAM and ROS are just the goalkeeper and striker of the team. They might concede less goals and score more. That is partly due to them being good at what they do, but also to a large extent to how well the team plays together.
      ROS might become the top scorer this season, and HAM the least passed goalkeeper.
      I don’t agree with people who say they don’t deserve those accolades because they play for the best team. I hope true fans can see through the overall team performance and appreciate the individual performance.

      PS – I voted for ROS as DOTW in Baku and stand by my vote based on this analogy!
      PPS – F1 and EPL are more alike than many think; except for the way the money is split.

      1. @coldfly @sakis – I think Coldfly’s final point “F1 and EPL are more alike than many think; except for the way the money is split,” is where the real concern of unfairness should lie.

        People may like/dislike or find fair/unfair the token system or other technical regs, and I have my opinions. But as far as Mercedes advantage, I find nothing unfair about it at all. It would be one thing if Ferrari had an advantage that was in part due to its unfair monetary position from BE or its veto power. But when a team actually simply develops a better car on merit, it is entirely fair that they win with it. We may find it boring or dislike a dominant streak, but I think it is difficult to call it unfair.

        If anything, the attempts to reel in Mercedes (previously Red Bull, and before them Renault, and Ferrari…) are unfair in that they are attempts to disadvantage a team who happened to get it right just because no one else has caught up yet. I’m not saying I’m against some field leveling, but in proper context, it isn’t fair. Nor, however, is paying teams so differently.

        If Manor or Haas came in this year and pulled a Brawn, for example, and won the title(s) based on a different interpretation of the rules that was allowed, they still wouldn’t get the same money that the big teams do, and that is crazy.

        1. Very well put. An equitable, merit-based distribution that is less obsessed with a constructor’s “historical significance to the sport” and more heavily weighted towards current performance would go a long way towards redressing what has developed into an unhealthy imbalance. Over time, teams like the admirably efficiently run Force India would receive just and immediately proportionate reward for their good results and stand a real chance of breaking out of the midfield.

          It is no secret that the bigger teams have contributed significantly to the innovations that laid the foundations for the pinnacle of motorsport, and indeed continue to redefine it, but their “fixed” share of generated profits effectively hinders the broad-based development best suited to provide a fairer foundation for racing.

          Allied to equitable profit distribution, the technical regulations should strive to check runaway advantages. With all but one team reduced to the role of mere participants, what is needed is a global reset in which the most impactful of the variables yielded by technical regulations are effectively frozen or capped by periodic standardisation, preferably at the highest attained level, while those less impactful are fully released to more aggressive development. This should reduce overall complexity and attending cost without necessarily sacrificing speed. What the sport needs most is closely matched cars able to follow closely and pass without being aerodynamically and mechanically compromised in “dirty air”. This improvement would obviate DRS and make for the purer form of racing the pinnacle of motorsport has gradually lost.

        2. In the 2014-2020 contract Bernie had a bet with Mercedes that he would pay them an extra 30million p.a. if they could win 2 team championships. Mercedes took up the challenge, hired the best aero guys, the best engine guys, Lewis Hamilton, Toto Wolff, Paddy Lowe and a whole bunch of other people at the top of their game. They paid top dollar and promised top bonuses. For their investment they wanted to be sure of winning the bet and probably overengineered things, but they did win 2 championships in the first 2 years of the new contract, entitling them to an extra 30million for the last 5 years of the contract. They won a 150million bet and you can’t fault them for that.

          As others have said, you can fault Bernie for putting bonuses into the contracts of the teams to ‘encourage’ them to break the unity of the constructors. Ferrari and Red Bull have unconditional bonuses – Mercedes is the only one which depended on performance. Winning should be the reward – Mercedes value it at over 300million of ‘free’ marketing. Haas get none of this but still thought it worth the investment, albeit at a lower level and with Ferrari help. So after the current contract ends in 2021 scrap any bonuses which are not prizes for success, and even those should be minimal. Then there will be a fair playing field.

    4. Make a comparison between Leicester and Brawn GP in 2009. The first 6 races or so of 2009 were cakewalks, IIRC. Not very exciting races for the lead, thanks to the double diffuser. Maybe that was the Vardy of F1. The big teams didn’t win that year, though, like Leicester, they did rely on investment from the Far East from the previous season.

      My bigger point would be that F1 and football are very different and, while analogies are fun, F1’s unique combination of driver skill and engineering can make the actual racing lopsided. That’s been the norm in F1 for years.

    5. @Sakis

      The same as Barcelona.. their games also “start at 3-0”, when they start with Iniesta, Neymar and others; or Real Madrid with Ronaldo, Benzema and others; or PSG and Chelsea with their recent rich owners that help raise great squads.
      A better example: Germany squad – did a better job in the last 10 years, promoting and protecting young german players, granting them better working conditions and now their A squad wind european and world championships. They also start their games 3-0.

      Mercedes did the best job with the same set of rules. That’s it! Now, you can argue about the restrictions on testing and development.. maybe these restrictions are good to cap costs; or they’re bad that don’t let the teams catch up.

  3. Evil Homer (@)
    21st June 2016, 13:57

    @sakis
    I wasn’t suggesting a fairness or unfairness in my first comment, just want to see more teams duke it out at the top.

    If you were saying the Mercs start 3:0 dues to their better car then of course, but you must see it as a drivers series rather than a team series – I can see this as I like the best driver to win, but put HAM or ROS in the Manor this year and is the leader board the same? well, no. But this is F1- the best driver does not always win!

    If you were referring to an advantage to unequal distribution of F1 income then that’s another story!

    1. @evilhomer
      “…just want to see more teams duke it out at the top.”

      Indeed, you are not alone in that sentiment, to be sure!

      1. Evil Homer (@)
        21st June 2016, 14:22

        @heartbreakridge

        Next year I hope it will be Nick, new regs should get things closer and F1 needs that a bit to be honest. But most races this year except for at the front I think have been great! Maybe 2 a bit boring but some good action- but I would rather seen 5 cars at the front in close proximity with little overtaking rather than DRS BS (Not sure if that’s the correct technical term haha!)

        1. “Next year I hope it will be Nick, new regs should get things closer and F1 needs that a bit to be honest”

          Really? Seems to me if anything is going to lead to one team dominating in 2017 it is the big regs changes. A continuation of 2016’s regs would have been more likely to get the teams closer in my view.

    2. “just want to see more teams duke it out at the top”

      I agree, but that should happen (as is happening already) by the other teams upping their game, not by altering regs to force it.

      “If you were referring to an advantage to unequal distribution of F1 income then that’s another story!”

      Again, I agree, there should be a more equal distribution of funds, and this would help close the gap in terms of performance

    3. @evilhomer

      See my comment above. I replied to myself just to clarify some things.
      It’s one on one racing. Drivers and their abilities SHOULD stand out and NOT the team’s or car’s ability.
      Another guy on his comment above, said that “the top teams are trying to attract the best drivers”.
      Mercedes is the top team by far, but I think neither ROS or HAM are the best drivers.
      Cruising the top car is a thing but real racing and proving that you are a really good driver, no matter what the circumstances are, is a whole other story. HAM on Monaco and ROS on Canada just confirmed this.

      1. “It’s one on one racing. Drivers and their abilities SHOULD stand out and NOT the team’s or car’s ability.”

        I disagree. If that’s what you want, there are plenty of spec series where the driver’s ability is (almost) all that matters. F1 is a team sport and should remain so. Changing that would be like somehow making football so that only the strikers’ ability mattered.

      2. Evil Homer (@)
        25th June 2016, 13:48

        @sakis
        “Drivers and their abilities SHOULD stand out and NOT the team’s or car’s ability”

        I totally agree with this comment and a real talent will usually shine in poorer machinery. Look at Senna in 85 & 86 in the JPS Lotus, everyone on pit lane knew he made that car go faster than it should. Also Jules stood out in the Marussia- but its the teams pace that gets the results – I agree that the Merc drivers are not the two best on the grid, they are fantastic F1 drivers but a few others would beat them in the same car. But you still need a great car to perform.

    4. But it is a constructor competition. Constructors enter the competition and the prize money is given to constructors. It has never been a drivers’ competition.

  4. The most important think to me is having multiple teams fighting for the win and titles. Currently Mercedes is still a good step ahead of everybody, even though the gap has narrowed. I still want next year’s rule changes. It’s not a given the field would spread out. The massive rule changes made the field more competitive in 2009, roughly the same in 2005 and less competitive in 2014. However even if it fail to create a more even field, that would give other teams their best chance to stop Mercedes total-dominance. Yes, it is tired to me if a team wins seven races in a row on average for over two years. Hopefully the 2017 rules work and we would end up with multi-team fight at top. So far I can only hope for some fun and they would no longer waste the opportunity when Mercedes has a worse day.

    1. “However even if it fail to create a more even field, that would give other teams their best chance to stop Mercedes total-dominance.”

      The last two big rule changes (2009 and 2014) saw the Mercedes team steal a huge march on their rivals, if you are going purely on past data the 2017 rule shake up is likely to increase Mercs advantage not shrink it.

      1. I wouldn’t say so about 2009. They started working towards that year very very early, when they were Honda, plus they have gotten a double diffuser. And despite this, their advantage wasn’t as big as Mercedes had in 2014.

  5. Yes but Mercedes’ rivals seem far more determined to throw away their advantages when they have them. Maybe those others will clean up their acts and we will see actually contested races among different teams. But it could be that now that the speed gap is closing, we are now seeing more clearly the operational gaps among the teams. Also, we are seeing the benefit of having two really top drivers, who are getting the most out of the car and are thus only a few tenths, or hundredths, apart on pace. Compare to Ferrari where there is often a large gap between the drivers and RBR which is playing musical chairs with one race seat. After Mercedes, the team with the best driver line ups may be Williams and McLaren, but Williams is incredibly inconsistent in their chassis performance race to race, and the less said about McLaren the better.

    1. the speed gap has never been the issue, fuel economy has always and will be Mercedes biggest advantage, and it will give them the championship next year too. Because the people who write the rules are throwing the championship to Merc’s key advantage.

      Speaking of Merc throwing it, why no one talks about how Merc messed up Lewis Hamilton’s FP3/Qualifying and Race with the bad setting that got put in on their messy Friday. Hmmm. Talk about ‘throwing’ it.

      1. Well, except that it is the other way around @xsavior, as the rules first were made such that fuel efficiency would be rewarded; reading them, Mercedes prepared for the new situation the best it seems, and they are still plucking the fruits.

        In contrast, Ferrari thought they’d be able to win by going all-in on aero, except they didn’t have good enough aero, and they were wrong to make the engine come 2nd. In 2015 they fixed that, and improved, but they are still busy getting the engine (and fuel?) up to Mercedes’ level.

        Renault/Red Bull just underestimated the effort required, it seems; as did Honda, really.

  6. It is a track built for Mercedes.

    Loads of stop n go corners, straights for power to shine…

    Mercedes is #1 in many areas. Power, Traction, Tire warm up on street circuits, fuel efficiency, power regen efficiency.

    Mercedes is #1 at many things, essentially almost everything, save for high downforce grip at low speeds, area RBR is better right now, and top speed, where other teams with merc power are better now.

    Track compounded Merc strong points.

    I wonder if Ferrari is #1 in any area?

    1. @jureo – I’m not sure about “Tire warm up on street circuits.” Last year’s Singapore results, this year at Monaco. I actually think that Mercedes’ advantage tends to get less at less in hotter temps and the softer the tires/tyres are.

      But I agree that Mercedes is ahead or level in more areas than just the power unit, like some fans/commentators/rival teams claim. Level engine power wouldn’t level the times, I don’t think, because Mercedes is top of the heap in many other areas–as you suggest.

      1. In 2017 real championships will begin. there will be no restrictions on teams to fix flaws and copy whatever they like the way it has been since the beginning of F1.
        if Mercedes comes out on top then kudos to them 2014 2015 and 2016 will forever have an asterix for me.
        no amount of talking about football will ever convince me that this was a “real” championship.
        Yes mercedes did the best job at the beginning of the V6 era but why restrict anybodies ability to catch up in an engine formula?
        Whats also laughable is that a unanimous vote could have fixed it all but of course that means mercedes has a self serving interest that they needed to protect . The predictable result was of course Mercedes played spoiler to every attempt to give other teams a realistic chance to catch up.
        lets look at Red bulls dominance in the recent past…. every single team could do as they needed to catch up… they didnt and kudos to Red Bull for winning a fair and balanced competition

        1. no it won’t. I hate to burst your bubble but the bigger tires and more drag will compliment the Mercedes fuel economy and give them an even bigger race pace advantage. If you want to know what would even out the field there are two, maybe three things that need to be considered.

          1. Get rid of unlimited boost, why this is allowed is completely contradictory the FIA encouraging less spending and it gives teams like Mercedes and Ferrari (factories) a bigger advantage.

          2. Get rid of the 100 kg fuel limit for the whole race, even adding 5kg will not be enough, just stop it, don’t limit fuel, if you want to understand why people don’t put unlimited fuel in their car, it’s because it adds weight, there is a happy balance, and it gives the smaller teams who might have real legit talent, a bigger stick to bat with.

          3. Consider refueling, yeah, the small teams say it cost more, but in reality, limiting fuel to what it is (not the fuel rate, talking scalars here) is factories like Mercedes dominate. Refueling diminishes the effects of having to carry more fuel because you are not a factory/have a special deal. Fuel is cheap, Regulations are what is costing the small teams, not fuel.

          1. … limiting fuel fuel to what […] allowing factories like Mercedes to dominate.

            … Just to reitterate, much like in MotoGP fuel restrictions destroy the mid and back field, just stop it, please. It ONLY ever helps the factories and their special deals with fuel suppliers, etc…. F1 needs to embrace competition, REAL competition, not brand names and factories. If the factories cannot compete (which they can) then they should leave, seriously.

            2017 will not change anything, unless Lewis Hamilton goes to Ferrari :) & get’s FAIR treatment.

          2. @xsavior, about your points with special fuel deals – you are aware that all teams using a Mercedes engine use Petronas fuel/oil; likewise all teams running Ferrari use Shell, etc; Renault -> Total, I hope?

            Also, the fuel is restricted enough that the weight won’t differ a lot between the different suppliers, and the developments in fuel are coupled to updates in the engines, which are now in principle equalised for all teams with a certain engine, so between teams with the same engine manufacturer, the fuel will be the same. Mercedes has a policy of having everyone on the same spec. of engine (and fuel) where possible, because it helps in data-consistency and inventory management.

    2. No doubt they are strong in all areas, but their power advantage is still the most considerable advantage. I rubbish the rumours that Ferrari’s PU is on par with Mercedes. The fact that a Force India was actually quicker than a Ferrari shows that on circuits where PU advantage shines (Baku, Monza, etc), Mercedes still has a massive advantage.

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