I should start this article by holding my hand up and admitting I am a big Mercedes fan; in fact, I am almost as fanatical as a full blown Tifosi is about Ferrari. Despite this I have a dawning realization that perhaps the current period of Mercedes’ dominance since 2014 may be damaging the sport. We have seen periods of dominance by other constructors, notably Red Bull and before that Ferrari, but the sport has rarely seen the level of dominance that allows a team to score five consecutive 1-2 finishes at the start of a new season. Since the introduction of the V6 hybrid engine in 2014 the numbers make stark reading. Mercedes have won five consecutive Driver and Constructor World Championships. They have won 78 of the 104 races during this period or just over three quarters. Even more starkly there have been only six races during this period during which they did not make the podium.
Mercedes cannot be blamed for dominating so utterly. They are a race team; this is their raison d’être, but is this dominance damaging the sport? Toto Wolff has openly admitted that he thinks that it does, stating in a recent Racefans.net interview that “If you look from outside us, does long term-dominance of the team damage the spectacle, yes it does”. The dominance of one team almost certainly makes it much harder for other teams to compete as it will not just impact their motivation knowing that victory is probably out of grasp but also their ability to attract sponsors and the money vital for development that would allow them to close the gap.
Interestingly the popularity of the sport does not seem to have been damaged as viewing figures in the UK have remained stable year on year although there has been a slight swing to pay-for-view according to Overnight.tv figures for 2017 – 2018. There has been a decline in viewing figures decade on decade, but this would seem to be related to wider trends in tv viewing habits. Race attendance also seems stable with Silverstone attracting over 240,000 fans over the course of a weekend; there are still some races that struggle with attendance but this is often due to much more complicated factors than simply how many people would want to go and pay to watch a race.
There has always been a tension in Formula 1 between a pure approach to racing at the pinnacle of motorsport with teams allowed to innovate competing on merit and generating an exciting spectacle that will draw the fans to watch, driving sponsorship and therefore the revenues that are required to keep F1 at the pinnacle of motorsport. DRS, whilst not universally popular, has undoubtedly increased overtaking but I reject that ideas like Fan Boost and winners’ ballast, as seen in other formulas, as being outside the spirit of Formula 1. Moving away from Formula 1’s DNA would damage the sport more than the extra fans attracted by the gimmicks.
Formula 1 has been here before and whilst few teams have dominated by the margin that Mercedes has these periods of dominance were ended by a significant change to the rules controlling the formula, allowing teams to catch and even overtake dominant teams in the period of intense innovation that these changes drive. Such a change is planned for 2021 and this looks to be one of the most comprehensive in recent years. I believe so long as paddock politics are not allowed to interfere too much that this will be the shot in the arm the Formula 1 competitiveness requires. The changes are not only significant, but very much aimed at creating a more level playing field for the smaller teams. The bigger teams will also benefit as they openly admit if they can spend money to gain an advantage they will, but would welcome being saved from themselves sometimes.
It would seem that whilst Mercedes’ dominance is bad for the sport, that this period of dominance is likely to end come 2021 and that it has not caused a major decline in support for the sport. The question then for me as a self-confessed Mercedes fan is can Lewis Hamilton win seven Drivers World Championships before 2021?