Crushingly dominant is the best way to describe Mercedes’s start to this Formula One season. Boring may be another way to define it.
Before the sixth race in Monaco on Sunday, Mercedes has scored five successive one-two finishes in five grands prix. Another around the streets of the principality and it will set a Formula One record, bettering the five by Ferrari at the end of 2002.
Following the latest one-two in the Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, where just months earlier Ferrari had emerged quickest from preseason testing, there was talk in the paddock of Mercedes becoming the first team to go through a season invincible.
Toto Wolff, the team principal, laughed off the suggestion, saying it was “not realistic.”
“We have to stay humble and not see success as guaranteed,” he said. “We have had five fantastic performances and five one-twos, but we don’t take it for granted. It is not just saying it. It is really the mind-set we have.”
Franz Tost, the Toro Rosso team principal, has said that Mercedes’s dominance is having a detrimental effect on the sport.
“From the race entertainment, I must say it was not so exciting because we have two cars in front which are winning race after race,” he said.
“That’s not, I think, the best for Formula One because it starts to become boring, as far as friends of mine say to me, who don’t watch F1 any more because always the same team is winning. This, I think, is not good.”
Even the five-time champion Lewis Hamilton, a beneficiary of Mercedes’s pre-eminence, has said Formula One is “not as much fun” when the battle is intrateam rather than with a rival. (Hamilton is one of the five drivers who have surpassed the three titles won by Niki Lauda, who died on Monday.)
“That’s what Formula One is about, the exciting part when you’re competing against one or two other teams who are also bringing their A-game,” Hamilton said.
“It puts another spanner in the works, and often, when the cars are close, there are strengths and weaknesses in both teams, and how you play those and benefit from those is awesome.
“But when that’s not there, it’s definitely not as exciting from a competition point of view,” Hamilton said. “Racing within a team, it’s not really how Formula One should be in my opinion. But it is how it is right now, and it has been like that in the past as well.”
Wolff said that within his team “the energy levels, contentment, are higher than ever,” and that the team wants to continue to set new levels of excellence as it seeks a record six consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ titles. Ferrari won five in a row from 2000-4.
“That is an exciting objective,” Wolff said. “If you find your purpose within a group that is on that journey, you have a very strong force. When you walk around, what you hear and see are content people enjoying what they do.
“It’s a calm, positive atmosphere, and a tremendous privilege to be in a situation where we have won five championships and we’ve earned the possibility of going for a sixth one that hasn’t been done before.”
The drivers’ title already appears to be a private Mercedes battle, with Hamilton’s three wins to the two of Valtteri Bottas giving him a seven-point advantage.
Max Verstappen of Red Bull is their nearest rival, 46 points behind Hamilton.
As for Ferrari, its season has unraveled alarmingly since it left Spain at the end of the second preseason test, when the team had a clear advantage over Mercedes. Ferrari is now 96 points down, while Sebastian Vettel is 48 points back and Charles Leclerc 55.
It has not been all one-way traffic for Mercedes. It inherited a one-two in Bahrain, the second race, when Leclerc’s car had a cylinder issue and loss of power 11 laps from the finish. Leclerc finished third.
He had the potential to start from pole position in Azerbaijan, the fourth race, when he appeared to be the fastest until crashing in the second of the three qualifying sessions. He could finish only fifth in the race behind Bottas, the winner.
In Spain, Ferrari made a power-unit upgrade.
Binotto, the new team principal, said it was done to intensify its development program. But the change didn’t help much. Ferrari had the third quickest car, behind not only Mercedes, but also Red Bull.
Vettel, a four-time champion, has found his No. 1 status within the team threatened by Leclerc. “Inside the team,” Vettel said, “we are not happy” about the overall performance.
“It is what it is, and we have to look at the positives and try to build on those,” he said. “We need to stay focused and do our job, and I am sure the results will come.
“Obviously, Spain was a big step back in terms of pace, with Mercedes being far away. I know everybody is very keen to do better, but it is a question of time. It is not easy. Other people are doing a very good job and you need to respect that.”
Binotto, who stepped up from technical director to replace Maurizio Arrivabene over the winter, also said he was “not happy with the points we’ve scored so far.”
“We missed a great opportunity in Bahrain where we certainly could have had a fantastic result compared to the one we did, and in Baku, we could have had a better race, certainly a better qualifying,” he said. “To sum up, we are missing points compared to where we believe our potential is.
“The world championship is far from over,” Binotto said. “We still have a good car. The competition is very, very strong, which was known, it’s not a surprise, but we are still in the battle.”
Vettel and Verstappen have each had two third-place finishes, with Leclerc the other, behind Mercedes’s commanding duo.
Verstappen, who recently learned he will have a home grand prix in the Netherlands in 2020 when a Dutch race returns to the calendar for the first time in 35 years, has performed well for Red Bull, which is using a new power unit from Honda.
Honda replaced Renault as supplier at the end of last season.
“It’s good but not as good as Mercedes,” Verstappen said about his car. “We clearly still need to work harder and bring better things to the car. It’s good to see we closed the gap to Ferrari, so I’m happy about that.”
Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, said in an interview that “there are encouraging signs.”
“We’ve areas where we know we need to improve, but generally it has been a positive start to the year,” he said.
“Hopefully, we can continue to reduce that gap. We have an aggressive development program on both the chassis and engine, and we can continue to push in both those areas.”
McLaren leads the congested midfield, in fourth place, with just 16 points separating it and ninth-place Toro Rosso. Williams is last and has not scored a point.
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