By Tom Rubython
Michael Schumacher is back, but is he quick enough to turn Mercedes GP into a winning team? We preview the new Formula One season.
Can Michael Schumacher cut it again? Is Jenson Button going to be outclassed by Lewis Hamilton? Will Fernando Alonso fall out with his new team (again)? You guessed it, Formula One is back, with German manufacturer Mercedes set to clean up this season.
Virtually unnoticed in the financial chaos of the Formula One off-season was that Mercedes-Benz emerged as the dominant motor manufacturer in the sport, subtly taking advantage of the demise of Honda, Toyota and BMW to make Formula One its very own playground. It now owns its own team for the first time since the 1950s and has arguably the best placed privateer team, McLaren-Mercedes on its books, making it the only serious manufacturer left in the sport still spending serious money to achieve success.
Many top pundits believe Mercedes is now set to dominate the sport for many years to come. John Hogan was Marlboro's commercial supremo for 30 years before retiring five years ago. Now he is a top sponsorship agent and the man behind many of the Formula One's biggest deals. In terms of commercial influence, he is probably second only to Bernie Ecclestone.
So when Hogan says the battle for the 2010 world championship is already a foregone conclusion, one should take note. Hogan believes it is a fact that Mercedes will be the constructors champion.
He is confident because Mercedes-Benz has the driving dream team of Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton on its books. They are without doubt, Formula One's two best drivers. Hamilton has already proved the new McLaren Mercedes to be a quick car in testing while Hogan is particularly voluble about Schumacher, who he believes will be quick from the very first race.
There are few doubts that the two drivers will likely dominate and in all probability race each other for the title. Ross Brawn, head of the Mercedes GP team, certainly has no doubts. "We have absolute belief that Michael is going to perform," he says. "I don't know if it will take a race or two to get to the level he will want to achieve. I personally don't think so. I think Michael will perform at a very high level straight away." Hogan supports this: "Look, he is a quick driver and quick drivers are always quick."
Despite being firm favourites, life for Hamilton and Schumacher are not without clouds. Both drivers' personal lives are currently under close scrutiny following the fallout from the Tiger Woods meltdown.
Journalists are taking a look at the private lives of every major global sports star and the two F1 stars are vulnerable if the glare of the media gets too severe. Schumacher and Hamilton are not only the fastest drivers in the world but also arguably, alongside Roger Federer, the two most sponsor-friendly personalities on the planet. Mercedes-Benz will do anything to ensure it stays that way.
Aside from the drivers, the new Mercedes-Benz team is maturing fast. The financial worries of the past have been removed and the Germans have big plans for its future. It is now guaranteed to get the very best technical support from the Mercedes Formula One engine facility, 40 miles away in Northamptonshire.
In fact, it is Mercedes-Benz's long term ambition to merge its race car and race engine factories together to create a facility on one site that will also manufacture high performance sports cars in the same way that Ferrari does. The German carmaker wants to create a Ferrari-type situation and get maximum image transfer from racing especially to its sports cars.
Certainly Mercedes, like Ferrari, now considers that it will be permanently involved in Formula One racing and that it will become part of its DNA as it is with Ferrari. Ferrari's secret has long been that its Formula One involvement means it has to spend hardly any money on advertising or marketing. Mercedes-Benz, as a brand currently spends more than $1bn a year on advertising and marketing. Mercedes marketers think it will be able to substantially cut its advertising budget once the Formula One DNA takes root in the consumer's mindset.
Norbert Haug, Mercedes motorsport manager, and the principal architect of Mercedes-Benz's Formula One involvement says simply: "We want to promote our products." Questioned more closely he admits: "Our plan is to melt the two companies close together, the engines and the team."
For now, Haug says it is all about what he calls "creating efficiencies." But efficiency and Formula One have never been synonymous with eachother. Still, he insists: "Our target is to save even more money in the future, and some functions of both companies will be brought together to avoid redundancies. So there will be an efficiency programme."
He does admit that Mercedes is only at the start of its Formula One programme and hints that he considers the years spent as a McLaren partner largely wasted in terms of marketing benefit, especially when compared with what it can get from owning its own team: "Since November I think we accelerated in a very good way and a very good direction, but of course there's much more to come."
Mercedes-Benz is now actually running two teams cheaper than it previously ran one. Its cash involvement with McLaren has now ended and it is merely a technical supplier. Few have understood the substantial financial support Mercedes lent to McLaren in recent years as Haug confirms: "We will save a lot of money compared to what we have had five years ago, so all is going in the right direction, unless we should not be competitive. Then it's a different story. We want to compete for very good results on a regular basis. But this will be a tough championship, probably tougher than even before, but our setup should be alight and I'm quite positive about all of it."Of course, BMW is looking on aghast at all this activity. Finely tuned to what Mercedes is doing, it exited Formula One last year only to see its great rival take a reverse view and step up its involvement. It is a decision BMW must now be bitterly regretting.
That is not lost on Norbert Haug who says: "You can see the commitment from our house. You can see that the street cars are very much focused on formula green and we want to promote these products via motorsports. Especially in the emerging markets who are passionate about F1. And so we think it's a great tool."
For the rest of Formula One, the story is not so rosy as it is for Mercedes-Benz. Ferrari has a competitive car but there are inevitable doubts about its race pace and the team's depth of management.
Despite that, the Italians will be the closest competitors to the Mercedes-Benz teams. Ferrari's secret is its car designer, arguably the most successful in Formula One history.
The only other remotely competitive threat will come from the Red Bull team. Its designer, Adrian Newey is the only one in Formula One who stands comparison with Ross Brawn.
The team will undoubtedly have a chassis equal to that of the Mercedes teams but will inevitably be let down by the engine as it was in 2009. The team's weakness is its reliance on a customer engine from Renault. Red Bull would dearly have loved to buy the Mercedes engine for 2010 but for reasons that are clearly obvious this did not happen.
So four teams will contest the 2010 championship and the others will be lucky to even get on the podium. The Renault team is a shadow of what it was just two years ago. With Flavio Briatore gone, the commitment is no longer there from the Renault car factory and the team is suffering accordingly. It is now a partnership between Renault and external investors but this will only hinder its progress. It is an organisation that has lost direction with an owner that now has other priorities. Renault chairman, Carlos Ghosn has never liked Formula One and this season will see it spend as little as possible with a continual eye on the exit.
As for the rest of the grids it is all makeweight. Peter Sauber has taken over the BMW team he used to own but has no real budget to run it. It will simply make up the numbers.
The Williams team is continuing its long decline so reminiscent of what happened to the old Tyrrell team in the 80s. It is struggling with budgets, management and has made the strange choice to return to the Cosworth engine for 2010.
The Toro Rosso team is also in a peculiar situation running the same chassis as the Red Bull team but with a different engine. Its role is as a marketing platform for Red Bull and has no chance of any success.
When Formula One was looking particularly shaky mid-way through 2008 promoter, Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, conceived a plan to rescue it by creating three new teams and inviting entries. That was extended to four teams. The plan, however, was made before Mercedes-Benz rode to Formula One's rescue and no longer needed. Still it remains and the regular grid will now be boosted by four new teams. Despite efforts by Mosley and his successor Jean Todt to reduce budgets, the plan is misconceived.
The four official new teams all have one thing in common, they are desperate for cash and none has a budget to complete the full season. All four new teams, Virgin, Campos, USF1 and Lotus are running on air. They are all surviving on money being paid by drivers to rent the cars, a well known recipe for disaster.
USF1, the team created by Peter Windsor is regarded as a joke inside Formula One. Campos, the Spanish team, has already had three owners and is unlikely to survive for long.
The Virgin team is still setting a fill budget, small as it is. Lotus is arguably the best funded and best managed team but the survival odds are still long and it has no real sponsors.
Ironically, the best funded new team is Stefan GP but it doesn't have an official entry. The team, which is run by Serbian entrepreneur Zoran Stefanovic, has applied for an entry and may well get one if some of the already entered new teams don't make it. It has been assembled from the remnants of the old Toyota organisation and will run its 2010 cars provided the FIA grants it an entry. Former world champion Jacques Villeneuve will drive the car.
In mid 2008 things looked very bleak for Formula One as the financial crisis struck. Now things are looking up financially and with the return of Michael Schumacher and the maturing of Lewis Hamilton, with Mercedes-Benz now bankrolling the show, it could be one of the best seasons for years.