April 17th, 2014
06:05 PM ET

What's the secret to Mercedes' F1 success?

The Chinese calendar says it's the year of the horse. Some commentators were convinced it was going to be the year of the prancing horse when Kimi Raikkonen joined Fernando Alonso at Ferrari.

But they were wrong, 2014 is the year of Mercedes.

After a clean sweep of wins for the Silver Arrows in the first three races of the season, next up it's the Chinese Grand Prix.

The venue, the Shanghai International Circuit, is known as something of an engineering marvel - built on 40,000 concrete pillars to stop it sinking into the marshland.

But the circuit won't be the only spectacular feat of engineering on display this weekend.

This year’s Mercedes has left the rest of the paddock trailing in its wake with its speed and capabilities under the new rules and regulations.

Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton have dominated the early rounds of the championship, sitting first and second respectively in the drivers’ standings.

The duo have also dominated the time sheets, taking pole positions and setting fastest laps at each of the first three races.

So how have they done it? As the others do all they can to catch up, we thought we'd try to find out by visiting the Mercedes bases at Brixworth, Brackley and Stuttgart for the first edition of "The Circuit."

But despite being armed with a flip chart, some marker pens and an inquiring mind, any hopes of being let in on the secrets of Mercedes’ success were quickly shattered.

When I asked the head of the team’s engine unit Andy Cowell what they're doing that Renault and Ferrari aren't he replied, with a wry smile, "I don't know what the others are doing. It's been a journey of two and a half years of hard development."

It was always going to be a tough start to the season for the teams. We’re in the first year of new engine regulations, with the sport changing from the traditional V8s to a smaller, more efficient V6 turbo.

As Red Bull designer Adrian Newey told me in December: "There are three engine providers – if ours (Renault) gets it right, we'll have a fast car. If they don't, we won't."

It turns out Mercedes have got it more right than their competitors.

But there were no guarantees. Cowell admitted there were lots of ideas that ended up on the Brixworth bonfire – and that his team weren't particularly confident heading into preseason testing.

It was only in November that they pulled all six key engine components together, athough Renault didn’t manage to do that until mid-December.

Even after a relatively positive test in Jerez, Cowell confessed that you never really know how the engine will perform until the racing starts.

"It’s competitive engine-making - you don’t know where you are until you’ve crossed the finish line. There are concerns about reliability – how often are you going to have to change engine through the season?"

As well as the strength of the engine, the German team has the added advantage of making both power unit and car under the same umbrella.

“From a car and a power unit perspective it’s about making a fast race car – the fastest Silver Arrow we possibly can,” said Cowell.

“You can bounce things about - having all the data on the table and being able to talk in an open way really helps.”

Of course Formula One is a continuous development race. And while there's not much time for mass overhauls by the engine manufacturers or teams between the first few races of the season, Mercedes are well aware that they're the target in the crosshairs of the other teams.

"As soon as you start track testing … there are photos taken through garage doors, there are images out there,” added Cowell. “They learn about what we’re doing, and we learn about what they’re doing - that’s the nature of the sport."

The bad news is that despite an hour in Cowell's company - and some decent diagrams on a flip chart from the master himself - I'm still not really any closer to discovering what has given them the edge.

We know there are six key power unit components - the V6, turbo, compressor, 2 generators, and the battery - but it's within that simple breakdown that the tiny details make the big differences.

And that's the challenge for the rest with 16 races left to run. The answer is there somewhere. Somewhere within the 10,000 separate parts.

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How to watch "The Circuit" on World Sport

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soundoff (2 Responses)
  1. Roy R.

    Actually, the emblem of Stuttgart, DEU, the home of Mercedes headquarters, is a rearing stallion on a yellow background. So maybe the Chinese had it right......

    May 4, 2014 at 10:26 am | Reply
  2. Prof M H Settelen

    The key question after, the just before Easter UN Green Commandment & the White House Environment Declaration is that are Detroit's High Performance Engineers learning as much from NASCAR, as Mercedes, Renault & Ferrari are from the new stringent Green parameters of Formula 1?

    May 11, 2014 at 5:51 pm | Reply

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