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Mercedes Dominated Formula One, but Not in the Second Half

Mercedes Dominated Formula One, but Not in the Second Half

It was a Formula One season in which Mercedes started off perfectly, but by the conclusion it was obvious that it did not consistently have the best car. That is giving other teams hope for next season.

Mercedes scored five successive one-two finishes in the opening five grands prix. Toto Wolff, the team principal, said it was “five fantastic performances.” He also said it was “not realistic” to expect the results to continue. He was right.

Mercedes set a record, winning constructors’ and drivers’ titles for a sixth successive year. Its top driver, Lewis Hamilton of Britain, won his fifth championship with the team and his sixth over all.

Despite its continued dominance, winning 15 of the season’s 21 races, Mercedes won only five of the final nine grands prix after the sport’s summer break in August, for a winning percentage of 56 percent, compared with 83 percent before the break.

Ferrari won three races and Red Bull one in the second half.

“You can see the top three teams are really close together in terms of performance, so it looks like exciting racing for next year,” Wolff said in an interview.

“I know we have not had the quickest package — car and engine — at times. What we will try to do is understand where we missed out and where we can improve.”

He said that in a recent conversation, a friend told him it was good for Formula One that Ferrari and Red Bull were winning races.

“I said to him, ‘What are you talking about?’,” Wolff recalled. “He said that it’s good for the sport, that we need variety, hard racing.”

Wolff said that while it was nice to dominate, Formula One “needs more drivers and teams capable of winning,” but he said Mercedes “will do its utmost to stay on top.”

Hamilton, who finished 87 points ahead of his teammate, Valtteri Bottas of Finland, started from pole position only five times.

Since the introduction of the current turbo hybrid era in 2014, his previous lowest total had been seven.

“This car has not been easy,” Hamilton said after winning the title at the United States Grand Prix in November. “Midpoint of the season we were behind, and it’s been a real challenge.

“It’s been the toughest second half of the season that I think we’ve had as a team, fighting against Ferrari and Red Bull, which is great, we welcome that.”

He said it was also “the hardest year for us as a team” because of the “emotional roller coaster” of losing Niki Lauda, the team’s former nonexecutive chairman and three-time Formula One champion, who died in May.

Despite not always having the best car, Mercedes and Hamilton still found ways to win.

“More often than not I have delivered performances when we’ve had a car that’s quicker than the others and also when the car has not been as quick as the others,” Hamilton said. “Particularly this last year, when Ferrari was just too quick for us to beat, we outwilled them, we had to outthink them, and we did that collectively as a team.”

Bottas, who won four grands prix, said that he had made “a few mistakes” with race starts and in qualifying, and that he had not driven at “his very, very best every single race.”

“In terms of race pace, which has been my weakness in the years before,” he said, “I’ve made huge gains by working really hard with the engineers, every single detail of my driving and setup.

“That’s getting better, and that gives me real confidence for next year, unlike at the end of last year. I’m already excited to start next season, start from fresh.”

Ferrari could have won more than its three races, and it had to wait until after the summer break for its first victory. Charles Leclerc won back-to-back grands prix in Belgium and Italy; his teammate, Sebastian Vettel, won the next race in Singapore.

But Ferrari started on pole nine times. “It’s true we didn’t get enough victories,” said Mattia Binotto, the team principal.

“To win, we need to improve. We did improve the performance of our car through the season, but we need to be more reliable, and we missed opportunities through not being reliable.”

Binotto also had to deal with issues with his drivers throughout the season. It culminated in their crashing out after a collision in the penultimate race in Brazil.

A few days after the race, the drivers and Binotto met at Ferrari’s headquarters in Maranello, Italy, to work out the problems this season.

“They know that silly mistakes are something we should avoid for the team,” Binotto said. “Certainly we need to improve for the future. It’s not to happen anymore.”

There is a disparity between the drivers. Vettel is a four-time champion and has driven for Ferrari for five years. He is 10 years older than Leclerc, who has spent one season with the team and two in Formula One.

“They have a good relationship,” Binotto said. “They both represent a good benchmark for each other, and we have seen how well they have improved.”

Red Bull finished third in the constructors’ championship for the third consecutive year. It was 87 points behind Ferrari, the closest it has been in that period.

The team switched to Honda engines at the start of the year after a long relationship with Renault. Christian Horner, team principal, said the partnership could improve in 2020. “It’s been a transitionary year for the team,” he said. “It was always going to be, with the first engine change we’ve had in 13 years.

“But the partnership with Honda has worked tremendously well, from the first race and the podium in Melbourne. With stability in the regulations going into 2020, hopefully, we can be the challenger team next year to Mercedes, who are still the benchmark, but it feels like we are definitely getting closer.”

Max Verstappen of the Netherlands was a career-best third in the drivers’ championship after winning three races and finishing on the podium six other times.

“We improved quite a bit throughout the season,” he said. “Now we just need to keep that momentum into the winter break and try to improve the car even further, together with the engine, and be there from the first race, not from the middle of the season or toward the end.”

McLaren had its best season since 2012 to finish fourth, 272 points behind Red Bull but 54 ahead of Renault in a tight midfield battle, with Toro Rosso, Racing Point and Alfa Romeo close behind.

Williams again finished last. The team had its worst season, scoring one point. “We came into the season knowing we would be last, that we would be tugging around at the back.” said Claire Williams, the deputy team principal.

“But there is positive momentum, so as much as this year has been really difficult, I still have a smile on my face, and I know we are moving in the right direction.”


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