JONATHAN McEVOY: Mercedes badly miss the drive and charisma of Niki Lauda… the Austrian ‘warrior’ would have shaken them from this malaise and brought about change sooner
- Formula One legend Niki Lauda was the man who glued Mercedes together
- The Austrian was a vital link between the team and the board in Stuttgart
- Lewis Hamilton has not been impressed by the recent Mercedes’ upgrade
Mercedes will find out over the next 72 hours whether there is life after Niki Lauda.
It is now just over four years since that inspirational man died aged 70, 43 years after the accident that left him burnt, scarred but unbowed.
He was a ‘warrior’, as Bernie Ecclestone wrote in Mail Sport at the time of the Austrian’s death, adding: ‘I wish in some ways he could have lived a peaceful life but that would not have suited him. He was not a peaceful man. He was a fighter.’
He was also the man who glued Mercedes together. The leader who would cut to the chase. His role, as non-executive chairman, in establishing the team and in bringing in Lewis Hamilton was imperishably important, not least in acting as the link between the team and the board in Stuttgart.
So why bring his name up now? Because Mercedes have finally introduced an upgrade, and you can’t help wondering whether if Lauda were still around this may not have materialised sooner, rather than 15 months into the new regulations.
Formula One legend Niki Lauda (above) was the man who glued Mercedes together
Lewis Hamilton has not been impressed by the recent Mercedes’ upgrade
Mercedes long stuck to the line that the car’s performance did not match their simulated figures. I can imagine Niki declaring: ‘Bull****, I’ll give you some data — ONE SECOND behind the Red Bulls,’ and then calling for a change of direction on the spot. Vacillation was not Herr Lauda’s middle name.
Toto Wolff is a team principal more given to procedure and balance of evidence, and seems to have acted slowly in remodelling the car with the new floor that was trialled in Monaco last week and gets another outing this weekend in Barcelona, having stuck with Mike Elliott as technical chief for longer than the evidence of his work suggested was wise. Elliott has since swapped places with the highly respected James Allison, a switch that has oddly been dressed up as a promotion for Elliott.
This loyalty and evolution of design persisted despite Lewis Hamilton saying how glad he was never to drive last year’s car again.
Then on the eve of the opening race of the season, Wolff made the extraordinary statement that the car was irredeemably poor. The concept was flawed. What this gloomy forecast did for team morale is barely imaginable.
Now Wolff has prophesied the upgrade won’t, after all, put them ahead of Aston Martin and Ferrari, Red Bull’s other pursuers. That doesn’t sound much of an ‘upgrade’, then. And yesterday Hamilton declared it is ‘definitely not the step forward we were hoping for’. Oh dear, squared.
But let’s see what the timesheets tell us over the next few days at the Circuit de Catalunya before making a definitive judgment.
A few other observations about Mercedes’ malaise. They have shipped staff and appear to have taken their eyes off the ball. For example, Wolff has moved to Monaco, which puts significant distance between himself and the Brackley factory.
History suggests it is hard for teams to recover after dips following prolonged eras of success. I wish Mercedes well with their upgrade this weekend. The sport needs them contesting at the top. But there are no guarantees that they will scale the highest terrain again.
Steer clear of Barca
Name the memorable Spanish grands prix. It’s not a long list — however you slice it.
It’s ironic that after the belly-aching about Monaco, Barcelona escapes without the same scrutiny. Not here.
My heart leaps at the notion of Madrid replacing this venue, which is way out of the marvellous city.
Talks are underway in the capital, whether as a gee-up to Barcelona organisers or more likely for real.
Facilities at Circuit de Catalunya are tired, and thus at odds with Liberty’s desire to embrace the spanking and the shiny.
Perhaps the removal of the chicane at the final bend will help spice up the action, but it feels like time for a change of scene.
Alonso is a proven great
Fernando Alonso hasn’t won a race since taking the chequered flag in Barcelona 10 years ago, which makes his revival this season all the more remarkable.
How many drivers would not have walked away after struggling at the back of the grid beyond their 40th birthdays?
Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso is enjoyed a remarkable revival this season at the age of 41
He has always been a hero in his native Spain, but something of an anti-hero outside, not least in Lewis Hamilton heartlands dating back to 2007 and their unholy rivalry at McLaren.
I sense those animosities are fading on the basis that Alonso deserves more than he has ever won. He has claimed two titles to Hamilton’s seven, but is not less than a third as talented.
He is one of the three proven greats on the grid now, alongside Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Whether or not another title is within range in the next year or two, I hope he at least notches a few more wins to go with his 32 to date, seven fewer than Verstappen.
‘Pretty impressive for an old guy,’ said his Aston Martin team-mate Lance Stroll of the 41-year-old, a smile of appreciation on his face.
When Alonso made his F1 debut in Melbourne in 2001, Stroll was aged just two.
Russell’s food for thought
This column isn’t necessarily the place you turn to for dietary advice, but here’s some from George Russell.
He tells me he is 6ft 2in and weighs 11st 9lb, having barely fluctuated more than two or three pounds in the course of his career.
He can take few liberties on the scales being one of the tallest drivers on the grid.
‘The rule is 80/20,’ he says. ‘If you watch what you eat 80 per cent of the time, you can eat what you want the other 20 per cent.’
Monaco coverage on right track
The twists and turns of the Monaco circuit were brought to life by aerial footage
Credit to Formula One for their TV coverage from Monte Carlo last week. It was their production debut in the principality after years of the Automobile Club de Monaco calling the shots.
The view from the helicopter — never sanctioned by the ACM in past years — showcased the area in its gleaming splendour.
Riding onboard during qualifying was also effective, as was done when they stuck with Lewis Hamilton for a lap.
It brought to life how hairy it is on the narrow streets. Without doubt, the coverage was sharper.
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