Mercedes have been celebrating their third consecutive Constructors’ World Championship. Quite right too, it is a major achievement. But it is also a feat that many have achieved before them and I suspect that their ultimate aim is to become the most successful F1 team ever.
Back in 1999 I wrote a series of case studies about the most successful F1 teams. The motivation was to use them on the Cranfield MBA strategy course to look at the topic of sustained competitive advantage. In F1, of course, achieving a sustained winning streak is not easy or desirable, particularly in terms of audience ratings. But back then there were only three examples of teams winning the Constructors’ World Championship consecutively for three or more years. The first was Ferrari from 1975 to 1977 – the period during which Niki Lauda had his terrible accident and managed to recover to challenge James Hunt for the driver’s World Championship. Lauda lost the battle for the driver’s title in 1976, but Ferrari won the Constructors’ which is based on the combined performance of the two cars entered by the team. This was followed by McLaren in the four year period from 1988 to 1991. All those who are currently complaining about the dominance of Mercedes should know that in 1988 McLaren won 15 out of 16 Grand Prix, now that really was dominance! This was then followed by Williams who were able to take the Championship in consecutive years from 1992 to 1994.
So we had three instances of competitive advantage and three different teams. The really interesting thing for me was that each team created advantage in a different and distinct way. For Ferrari it was based on their flat twelve engine which provided them with the antidote for the dominance of the Cosworth DFV; for McLaren it was the combination of using the two top drivers of the time – Prost and Senna along with the power of the Honda engine (sound familiar?) which they had tempted away from Lotus and Williams to become their sole power unit provider. For Williams it had been their use of the Renault power unit along with bringing together many ‘driver aids’ – such as active suspension and fly-by-wire throttle control – each technology often developed by another team, but brought together in that practical way that was the signature of the Williams philosophy. So each team dominated F1, but each had a different approach.
The case study was well received by students and became incorporated in a number of strategy text books, including the best-selling Exploring Corporate Strategy (now called Exploring Strategy). But of course F1 doesn’t stay still and I was soon having to update the case study further. Ferrari managed the all-time record of six consecutive championships from 1999 to 2004 – and I feel that this may be where Mercedes are focused in terms of their ultimate aim. This organisation was very different to the Ferrari of the1970s and their distinctive focus was on the integration of the engine, aero and chassis to get the best overall car, along with a specific focus on one driver – Michael Schumacher. In the period from 2010 – 2013 Red Bull Racing secured four consecutive championships. Again a different approach, a focus on developing driver talent (the reason why Red Bull decided to buy a team in the first place) and the design talents of Adrian Newey dominated when engine performance was effectively neutralised through regulation. And now Mercedes AMG F1 with three titles from 2014-2016, the interesting question is what is distinctive about the Mercedes approach. To be honest I don’t see it as being much different to that of Ferrari in the period 1999-2004. The fact that Ross Brawn was present in both may be more than a coincidence. The Mercedes approach is also about integrating all the elements – optimising the whole system to work as one. The only real difference is that on the driver side, while Ferrari was based totally around Schumacher, Mercedes have a more detached relationship with their drivers – for which we can be thankful as it generally means we see more racing, albeit the same cars at the front of the grid.
So will Mercedes achieve more? Well with major regulation changes in 2017, along with other power unit suppliers catching up with the Mercedes advantage, you would say this is less certain than it was in 2016, but I suspect that Mercedes are committed to not just winning a few titles, they would like to become the most successful F1 team ever, to do that they will need to keep winning the Constructors’ Championship through to 2020. I suspect that if they lose their winning streak they will then switch resources to Formula E – where they have reserved a place in 2018/19 – it’s always important to spread your bets. Who knows, but whatever happens it will be interesting!