The history of Formula One can be categorised into several eras of competition as technology evolves and the pursuit of speed becomes even more intense. These eras are often bookmarked by periods of dominance by a particular team which managed to stay one step ahead of the rest of the competition. There is arguably no greater example of this than the dominance of Mercedes throughout the Turbo Hybrid Era between 2014 and 2021.
In 2014, with mounting pressure and calls for F1 to become more environmentally friendly, the biggest regulation changes in the sport’s long history were brought about, the crux of which, was the introduction of new 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 power units that utilised hybrid energy recovery systems. The ramifications of this rule change were massive and the biggest way this was seen was in the sudden advantage one team (Mercedes) had over all the others.
Since the 2014 season and the introduction of the new regulations, Mercedes has won every single constructors’ championship, having just won its eighth consecutive title, as well as every single drivers’ championship bar one (2021). Between 2014 and 2021, Mercedes won 111 races out of 160, around four times as many as the next best team during the same period (27).
From an outsider’s perspective, this period of dominance came out of nowhere, but if you were paying attention, you could have seen this coming years in advance. In this article, I will be discussing the most important factors that combined to create one of the most sustained periods of dominance in the history of Formula One.
The Origins of the Mercedes Formula One Team
The true beginning of the Formula One racing team known as Mercedes stems back all the way to 1958 with the founding of the Tyrell Racing Organisation by Ken Tyrell, which competed in Formula One from 1968 until 1998. In 1997, the racing team was bought by British American Tobacco in order for its entry to be transferred into their new team, British American Racing (BAR). The team’s headquarters were set up in a new factory in Brackley, which is still used by the team as its base of operations today. Having initially formed a partnership with Honda, to supply the team with engines, the car manufacturer took control of the team for the 2006 season, when heightened restrictions on tobacco advertising caused British American Tobacco to leave the sport.
Having enjoyed initial success in 2006, Honda’s results significantly worsened in the following two years, resulting in the team deciding, in early 2008, to focus the majority of its budget and efforts into developing their car for the major technical regulation changes that would be coming in for 2009. However, despite their investment, Honda pulled out of Formula One in December 2008 due to the impacts of the global recession, mere months before the start of the season. The team was saved due to a management buyout led by team principal, Ross Brawn, and CEO, Nick Fry. However, despite their best efforts in trying to fund the team to a sufficiently competitive level, being able to secure a budget of $100 million from Honda, they still lacked engines. This would be fixed however, by the actions of the McLaren team, which at the time was the works partner of Mercedes, meaning that its engines were designed and supplied specifically and exclusively to McLaren. Motivated politically to not let the team leave the sport, McLaren voluntarily waived the veto it had on Mercedes’ engines, allowing the newly named Brawn GP to be supplied with what were arguably the best engines on the grid.
The team was still underfunded even with the budget provided by Honda, meaning that it could do little to improve the car throughout the season. Fortunately though, the car Honda had spent the vast majority of the preceding year developing was the fastest on the grid, and with drivers, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, they won six of the first seven races; a possible prelude to what was to occur in the next decade.
Even with waning results in the latter half of the season due to the aforementioned lack of resources, the team was still able to win both the drivers and constructors’ championships, piquing the curiosity of Mercedes. Over the previous few years, Mercedes had become increasingly dissatisfied with its works partnership with McLaren due to the numerous controversies the team had been involved in, and was now looking to break away from McLaren to form their own, entirely independent factory team – Brawn GP, having just won both championships, was an ideal candidate. As a result, before the start of 2010 season, Mercedes bought a majority stake in Brawn GP, rebranding the team as Mercedes GP.
The Foundation Years
Mercedes bought Brawn, expecting that the team would be able to successfully defend its title. But the unsustainable nature of Brawn’s wins had left very little focus on the car for 2010. Mercedes did not properly factor for this, as shown by it significantly reducing Ross Brawn’s initial budget proposal for 2010. They still maintained a degree of performance, with the car being an evolution of what was ultimately a championship winning car. The team managed to claim three podiums during this season, but the car was not on the same level of performance as those fighting for the championship. The team would eventually finish fourth in the constructors’ championship, well short of its championship aspirations.
This would not deter Mercedes in the slightest, as the team set its sights on forming what would prove to be its period of dominance. Having already signed a lucrative title sponsorship deal with Malaysian fuel brand Petronas, worth $30 million per year, combined with the car manufacturer’s already vast resources; Mercedes pushed forward with developing its current car while also focusing its resources on a set of major regulation changes that would be coming in for 2014.
The 2014 Regulations
In an effort to revitalise Formula One through making the sport more sustainable, the 2014 sporting regulations changes were arguably the biggest set of rule changes in the history of the sport. These changes mainly revolved around the introduction of a brand-new engine formula, these being 1.6 litre V6 turbocharged hybrid engines with an 8-speed semi-automatic gearbox to replace the 2.4 litre V8 naturally aspirated engines that had been previously used since 2006. This came alongside a new Energy Recovery System (ERS) to replace the old Kinetic Energy System (KERS), which would generate energy by converting the heat produced by the new turbos and using it to give more power to the cars, managed by an engine management computer. This combined with a number of major aerodynamic and car body changes gave these new regulations the power to severely shake up the competitive order of the Formula One grid. Mercedes knew this, choosing to heavily invest in the regulations, even making a prototype engine after the FIA initially proposed inline-four turbo engines at the end of 2010. Andy Cowell, who became managing director of Mercedes High Performance Powertrains at the beginning of 2013, who stated in an interview with The Race, that Mercedes had been making a ‘conscious effort to start as early as it could’ on the development of these engines, even when the regulations themselves were changed and pushed back to 2014, as they knew the value such a change would have on the competitiveness of the grid.
Mercedes had been investing in hybrid power from the early days of the regulations being announced due to former managing directors Ola Kallenius and Thomas Fuhr, but it would be Cowell who would be the one to lead the development of Mercedes’ engines for this new era. Mercedes was confident enough with the old KERS technology that it was prepared to develop both the ERS and the turbo technology in-house. This was one facet of how Mercedes was able to make its car for 2014 in complete synchrony, with its chassis, engine and electronics all being designed to specifically work with each other, giving Mercedes a developmental edge that none of the other teams truly had. If one department required changes from another department in order to extract the best out of what they were developing, those changes would be made.
The development of the actual engine itself was ingenious, the idea for its development coming from Andy Cowell himself. Three engines were built; one which was very heavy and incredibly reliable that was used to develop performance; an engine that was very fragile which was used to understand developing reliability; and a third which was described as a ‘marriage between the two of them’ where findings from both engines were applied. It was this third engine that would be the one that Mercedes would use for the season. It was an incredibly labour-intensive method, with staff having to significantly increase their working hours over the winter of 2013, but it gave Mercedes a massive advantage, allowing it to individually focus on performance and reliability instead of having to develop both at the same time with one aspect hampering the other, a method that was adopted by other teams.
While a very competitive car is required in order to dominate the highest level of motorsport, it also requires two elite drivers to extract the maximum performance from the vehicle. Mercedes had entered into F1 with the driver pairing of Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher. While Schumacher had seven world championships to his name, by 2010 everyone knew who the better driver in the team was, as Rosberg easily had the better of him during all three of their seasons as teammates. Rosberg was highly rated in the F1 paddock, having previously spent time being unable to fully display his talents while driving uncompetitive machinery for Williams. Billed as a future world champion if he was driving a car worthy of his talents, Mercedes already had one world class driver in its team. Schumacher, however, was clearly not at his previous best and, having only scored one podium during his return to the sport, announced his retirement at the end of 2012, leaving Mercedes with the task of hiring a replacement driver. Luckily for them, a very promising opening in the driver market was making itself clear just at this time.
Lewis Hamilton had, to this point in time, spent his entire career racing for McLaren, winning a world championship in just his second season in 2008. But come the 2012 season, he had become increasingly frustrated with the team. McLaren had on average the fastest car that season, but was constantly hampered by operational errors at pit-stops and poor reliability. Case in point, at the Singapore Grand Prix of that year, Hamilton had achieved pole position, and was leading the race until lap 23, when his gearbox failed and forced him to retire for the third of five times that year. In a season in which he should arguably have won the championship, Lewis finished fourth, 91 points off first. With Hamilton’s contract at McLaren expiring at the end of the year, Mercedes saw a big opportunity to sign a world-class driver.
A key individual in the pursuit of Lewis Hamilton, was ex-world champion Niki Lauda, who was working for Mercedes as a non-executive chairman at the time. Lauda conversed with Hamilton several times throughout the season, including after the aforementioned Singapore Grand Prix, pitching the idea of driving for Mercedes. A big part of his proposal to Hamilton was the level of investment that Mercedes had been putting into the new regulations for 2014, and that it was worth joining what was at the time seen as a less competitive team, if it meant being with them when they became the most dominant team in the sport. His frustrations with McLaren and the proposal given to him by Mercedes proved too good for Hamilton to refuse, and a week after the Singapore Grand Prix, he was confirmed to have signed a three-year-deal with Mercedes. Rection to the news was strong, with several believing that Hamilton had made a mistake in turning down a proven race winning team in McLaren to join a team which had only won a single race up to that point.
The importance of Mercedes signing Hamilton cannot be overstated, as Mercedes now had a world-class driver who, at 27 years old when joining Mercedes, was about to be entering the prime of his career for the foreseeable future, whilst also weakening another top team. Pairing him with Rosberg would give Mercedes the best driver pairing on the grid for years to come, especially when a rivalry between the two ensued, causing them to push each other into raising their performance levels to new heights.
The Turbo Hybrid Era
After nearly three years of development, the 2014 season finally arrived for Mercedes at the Australian Grand Prix in March, and with it the beginning of Mercedes’ domination of the turbo hybrid era. It started with a sign of things to come, as Lewis Hamilton would take pole position convincingly during qualifying and, despite Hamilton then losing an engine cylinder at the start of the race, forcing him to retire, Nico Rosberg would go on to dominate the race and win by a convincing margin of 25 seconds. Not a single team or driver could come close to Mercedes in 2014, as it took 18 pole positions out of a possible 19 (the outlier was taken by Williams, who were using Mercedes engines). This was combined with 16 wins throughout the season, with eleven ‘one-two’ finishes as Mercedes cruised to both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
A specific example of how Mercedes were simply on another level to the rest of the grid in 2014, would be in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. At a track known for producing the highest average speeds from the cars on the calendar, Lewis Hamilton put Mercedes on pole, over 1.3 seconds faster than the next fastest non-Mercedes powered car (Fernando Alonso in a Ferrari), whilst also having an average speed across his lap that was 3.8kph faster. It also goes to show that the other teams who were using Mercedes’ engines in their cars all enjoyed considerable competitiveness (when taking Mercedes themselves out of the picture), with each of them finishing on the podium at least once that year.
Mercedes had created for itself the best possible platform to launch a dominant period of success, and dominate it did as during the next two seasons, out of a total of 40 races, only 5 of them would end without a Mercedes driver finishing in first place. By the time other teams had got close enough to the performance level of Mercedes to regularly challenge for wins, Mercedes had become a well-oiled machine, and was able to overcome any serious threat to its success and maintain the team’s period of dominance.
The Failure of Other Teams
While it is inarguable that Mercedes is responsible for its own period of domination, it can be argued that the missteps and failures made by other teams on the grid during the turbo hybrid era were just as responsible for Mercedes’ continuous winning as the German manufacturer’s investment and innovation. There were several teams which had the potential to topple Mercedes’ grip on both championships after the 2014 season, but for numerous reasons, Mercedes was able to keep ahead of the competition.
Red Bull Racing entered into the turbo hybrid era as the pre-eminent team in F1, having won the last four drivers’ and constructors’ titles in their own period of domination. The final of these championships in 2013 was the most superlative, with Sebastian Vettel winning the last nine races of the season to win the title in convincing fashion. However, this run of form was caused by a decision Red Bull had made mid-season which would prove to be a mistake going into the new regulations for 2014. After Lewis Hamilton took his first win for Mercedes at the Hungarian Grand Prix, Red Bull believed it needed to work further on its car than it had to in order to win the championship, despite a sizeable thirty-eight-point lead over second place. While this further work resulted in the aforementioned dominant end to the season, it also resulted in Red Bull spending less time and resources on its car for the regulations changes the following year.
This caused Red Bull to be far behind Mercedes at the start of the turbo hybrid era. Red Bull also suffered more development issues as, while Mercedes enjoyed the luxury of developing both chassis and engine in-house, allowing for perfect synchrony between the two, Red Bull had a customer deal with Renault for its engines, forcing it to adapt its chassis to incorporate the engines that were being supplied to them. Renault had also struggled to develop its engines for the new regulations, resulting in it having significantly worse performance and reliability compared to Mercedes and Ferrari. These problems caused Red Bull to leave Renault, after its relationship deteriorated, for Honda in 2019, in a full-works deal that allowed the same in-house engine development that Mercedes had. It was only after this that Red Bull could seriously challenge Mercedes for the championship in 2021.
Ferrari is the most successful team in the history of Formula One, having vast resources and, at the time of the 2014 regulation changes, were the only team along with Mercedes which developed its engine and chassis together. This meant that, in an ideal world, Ferrari should have been competing at the same level as Mercedes. However, the Italian car manufacturer succumbed to ultimate failure in the turbo hybrid era. It began with the team not finalising its engine concept for 2014 until much later than other engine manufacturers, leading it to be well off the pace for that season, resulting in the departure of team principal Stefano Domenicali and star driver Fernando Alonso. Ferrari was able to improve from this error in the 2015 season, managing to take three wins with new driver Sebastian Vettel in a faster car, albeit one that was still far off Mercedes.
Following a winless 2016 season, new aero rule changes for 2017 brought with it a bigger leap in performance, and Ferrari could now regularly challenge Mercedes across the season, especially in tracks with a high number of low-speed corners. Despite five wins from Vettel, it ultimately was not enough to dethrone Mercedes. However, 2018 was arguably the season that Ferrari should have become the team that ended the Mercedes dominance. As opposed to the previous season, Ferrari’s car was a stronger ‘all-around’ package, resulting in it actually being faster on average than the Mercedes at the start of the season. After winning the first two races, Vettel engaged in a title battle with Lewis Hamilton, the peak of which being Vettel’s win at the British Grand Prix, ahead of Hamilton, to take an eight-point lead in the championship. However, Vettel crashing out while leading in the very next race at Germany marked the beginning of the end, as it preceded numerous driver errors from Vettel as well as issues faced in trying to further develop the car. This resulted Ferrari falling behind Mercedes, and being soundly beaten come the end of the season.
McLaren had begun the turbo hybrid era with Mercedes engines. However, it had already been announced that it would switch to Honda engines for 2015, in a works deal that would see the engine developed alongside the chassis. This was expected to bring McLaren back to the race winning form it had enjoyed for most of the previous decade. But these intentions were shattered by Honda’s woeful output from its engine, which was both underpowered and highly unreliable. The partnership lasted until 2017, when McLaren ended it after a period that was described as a ‘proper disaster’ by McLaren’s team principal Eric Boullier. A switch to Renault engines was expected to begin the path that would bring McLaren back to challenging for wins, but it only exposed a huge error made on the part of McLaren itself. While the Honda engine garnered the majority of the blame for McLaren’s performance troubles, the car’s chassis and aerodynamics package were praised for its nimbleness when, in actuality, it was severely lacking compared to other teams on the grid.
2018 revealed this issue, as with an engine that was capable of winning races with Red Bull, McLaren only finished the season 7th in the constructors’ championship, with the second-worst car on the grid at the end of the season. These setbacks firmly ended any hope McLaren had for beating Mercedes in the turbo hybrid era, with the team continuing to attempt to recover from these disasters for the rest of Mercedes’ dominance.
Simply put, there are a multitude of factors that contribute to answer the question as to why Mercedes was able to dominate and maintain their dominance in Formula One. I would argue that the most crucial aspect of it all was the long-term investment that Mercedes made into the 2014 regulations. Without the large and continued investment into developing for the turbo hybrid era from as early as 2011, Mercedes would not have had such a superior package compared to the other teams on the grid for 2014, something which was crucial in starting Mercedes’ domination. This does not lessen the impact that other factors also had on Mercedes’ success, such as the innovations their engineers developed for their car; or the world class drivers who were put in place to extract the highest level of performance from the cars. It is fair to say, nonetheless, that these factors alone would not have made as big a difference as they did, had Mercedes not made that long-term investment.