Mercedes has won seven titles in a row and 100 races since Formula 1’s current engine era started. We’ve all had enough time to come to terms with the team dominating but those numbers are still phenomenal. And there are probably plenty out there who hope they won’t get much bigger.
Those holding out for the Mercedes era finally coming to an end might cling to the idea that Lewis Hamilton really is going to leave F1 after the 2020 season. The world champion has been in an unusually ambiguous mood over his new contract in the last two weeks – which some take to be just a negotiating tactic, while others think he is genuinely unsure what he wants to do in the future.
For what it’s worth I think Hamilton returning for 2021 with Mercedes is about as certain as anything can be in F1. But I’m not convinced he wants the new three-year deal he was talking up a few months ago. That might be because he is finally running out of steam, or that he is eyeing other goals with every meaningful F1 record soon on his CV and a major rules change coming in 2022. Maybe he’s not totally convinced by the idea of racing for a team not under Toto Wolff’s day-to-day leadership.
Whatever it is, I think Hamilton’s new Mercedes deal will probably be his last, whether it’s for one, two or three years. And that, coupled with the potential for Mercedes to finally be overthrown as a team, means a changing of the guard is coming – even if it’s not imminent.
Red Bull’s ongoing development of its 2020 car, while Mercedes has switched focus to 2021, means Max Verstappen has been able to get closer and closer to the Mercedes drivers of late and he was a real thorn in their side at Imola. OK, Valtteri Bottas was carrying an apparently massive downforce loss with a Sebastian Vettel Ferrari endplate lodged in his card, which maybe flattered Red Bull a bit.
But there’s no denying the gap has closed. The question is which philosophy for 2021 will pay off: is Mercedes going to have a better grasp of the rules that have hacked away at the rear of the floor and cut rear downforce? Or will Red Bull maintain its momentum with fundamental progress ahead of an otherwise stable set of rules from this season to 2021?
Based on recent history you’d have to side with Mercedes and this is just a classic Red Bull accordion – get closer at the end of one season and fall back at the start of the next. But we can hope, right? Surely Red Bull and Adrian Newey have learned their lesson this time?
That’s an important question for 2021 but also 2022. With Ferrari still on the backfoot (and having its reputation saved time and time again by Charles Leclerc’s heroic), plus McLaren and Renault facing a sizable gap even with a major rules overhaul coming, the best hope for F1’s next-generation of cars has to be Red Bull and Verstappen.
Whether Hamilton’s around or not, Mercedes is still capable of producing a mega car. Bottas would probably be world champion this year (and 2019) without Hamilton. And he seems to be improving still, pushing Hamilton extremely hard on Saturdays if lacking a bit too much on Sundays. Plus, we can’t write off whoever Mercedes would choose to replace Hamilton with, whether that’s in 2021, 2022 or 2023.
Mercedes’ rivals can’t just rely on Mercedes’ talisman to retire to end the team’s domination. After all, it’s not Mercedes’ fault it is dominating – the other teams not doing a good enough job is part of the problem.
Imola was another reminder of the immense quality of driver that the likes of Red Bull and Ferrari have. But Verstappen and Leclerc need a car good enough to take the fight to Mercedes – whether it’s driven by Hamilton or not. Then we can seriously think about this incredible era of success coming to an end.