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Mercedes: Back to work and hungrier than ever

30 Jan 2015

Given the unprecedented scale of their achievements last year, Mercedes enter 2015 with an extraordinary set of expectations and pressures. In setting the standard, the world champions have also become the target - and their rivals have worked tirelessly over the winter to catch up. So while pre-season testing is yet to get underway, on Thursday the team headed to Silverstone for the first 'shakedown' of their new F1 W06 Hybrid. went along to get an exclusive look at the team's preparations...

"How do you put everything into a fresh season, a new championship? Well, we don't take anything for granted. We know what losing feels like. And we know we start with zero points, just like everyone else. So we have to go out there and earn it all over again."

With those words, Paddy Lowe - Mercedes' executive director (technical) - offers a perfect summary of the team's position and outlook heading into 2015.

For the Silver Arrows, the achievements of last year are exactly that - past accomplishments. A new season is now officially underway. On a cold but dry morning at Silverstone, months of painstaking work and pioneering developments were realised as the F1 W06 Hybrid took to the track for the first time. 

The team had pushed into the night in order to have the car ready. Their reward came as it ran without fault, with both Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton taking spells behind the wheel - at least until a blizzard stopped play late in the afternoon.

A combined 18 laps of the national circuit were completed - a small total, but enough to achieve what they wanted. 

"This wasn't about performance - even without the snow, with mileage restricted and demo tyres [as per filming day regulations] you are never going to learn much," Lowe reflected. "So this was a systems shakedown, a chance to see if there were any issues in order to hit the ground running for pre-season. Boxes ticked."

The car itself is visually different to its all-conquering predecessor. As photos from the shakedown highlight, there are obvious differences with the nose tip and how it feeds into the chassis. The nose itself has been modified, with Mercedes opting for a shorter solution than those seen on the new McLaren and Ferrari. The size of the shark fin has been increased, while the rear packaging has been reshaped, particularly in front of the rear wheels.

According to Lowe, however, the real changes occur underneath the bodywork.

"There is a lot of novelty on this car, absolutely," he explains. "We have found performance in a number of areas. 

"Overall it is an evolution of last year's car because the rules aren't too different, but here or there we've been able to make minor revolutions. Aside from the nose, which has been one of our big topics for our winter aero programme, people looking at the car won't see enormous differences. Underneath though, there is a lot of change.

"We needed to achieve that because our competitors will have done the same. You only have to look at your old cars to realise how quickly things can age in F1. That's the nature of innovation and development. So you have to keep pushing in every single area - and sometimes we surprise ourselves."

Crucially, gains have also been made in the area Mercedes arguably enjoyed their greatest successes last year - the power unit.

"The regulations allow for an awful lot of development in the close season, so every single manufacturer will have done that," says Andy Cowell, managing director of Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains.

"But while it's important to never be complacent, it's also important for us not to start looking over our shoulder, or worrying about where the opposition are. We haven't lost our sense of ambition - we worked hard over several years to become champions, and we want to maintain that.

"There's an argument about the law of diminishing returns: that it's harder for us to improve than others. But you do development work and break those barriers. Sometimes it feels like you're working very hard and not making much progress, and then all of a sudden the barrier drops and you find good gains. So we've continued battling, never saying there is a maximum, and as always you stumble across some pleasant surprises.

"The shakedown is one part of that process. We do an awful lot of simulation, and this is our first chance to check it matches reality. It's the little things really: does the clutch control work, does it idle properly, does it run sweetly on full power?

"Does it give us a head start? I don't think so. But these power units are very complex, especially marrying them with a new car layout. So it was a big milestone, a lot of boxes ticked. If it means we can hit the ground running in Jerez, and maybe gain a few hours of extra running over the 12 days total in Spain, perhaps that starts providing an advantage…"

In truth though, Mercedes aren't wasting time or effort looking at other teams - not yet at least. On a day when McLaren unveiled their evolutionary MP4-30, the Silver Arrows' focus is entirely upon their own approach. 

"Other people try and get rumours from other teams and so on; I tend to ignore all of that. It is just meaningless," Lowe explains. "Whether it was last season or any season, this time of year I'm neither depressed nor confident - just tense. All you can do is feel you have done your best, and keep on digging deep.

"I don't remember coming out of Jerez [in 2014] feeling particularly confident we had the best car. The data is still ambiguous. Even as we came out of the [final] Bahrain test last year I wasn't thinking we were going to run away with it. So we don't assume anything - and we work like we weren't winners last year."

After their remarkable success in 2014 then, Mercedes aren't about to take their foot off the pedal. Matching the level of their success in 2015 might prove difficult - but staying ahead of the game is a challenge everyone at the team is relishing.

"It's going to be an interesting season," 2014 world champion Lewis Hamilton reflects at the end of the day at Silverstone. "Honda are back, which is pretty cool given their history with McLaren. I'm excited to see how Williams get on - it's great to see such an iconic team back up there, and I'm looking forward to hopefully fighting with them again. And of course there's Red Bull and Ferrari.

"Unfortunately for those guys, it's going to be hard to match what we have. There are so many areas we can improve and be even better from last season, which is hard to believe after such a dominant year. But I know this team. I know how amazing we can be."

In almost exactly 10 months' time, the destination of this year's F1 world championships will have been decided. And while snow and sleet might have cut short the first day of Mercedes' bid to retain both titles, the overriding message was emphatic: the Silver Arrows are back at work and fired up for the fight.