Visions of Mercedes cars tearing to victory after victory are seared into the retinas of F1 fans and rival team principals who have tried and failed to end their dominance.
With Lewis Hamilton’s win at Imola they secured a record seventh double championship in a row. In the turbo-hybrid era, this win was their 100th in 134 races.
When Hamilton broke Michael Schumacher’s wins record, it started a debate about whether he is the sport’s greatest ever driver. The next question is whether this incarnation of Mercedes should be regarded as the sport’s greatest team. Making comparisons across eras is an imprecise art — but by examining statistics, innovations and reputation we can assess where this team stand in the constructors’ pantheon.
For Mercedes, we have taken this to be the team from 2014 onwards, as this marks the start of the turbo-hybrid era and it takes in Toto Wolff’s leadership of the team and only three drivers. The same criteria applies to the other teams we are considering.
Toto Wolff has led Mercedes to unprecedented levels of success
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Who are they? Most recently, Red Bull (2009-2013), with four consecutive double titles, with Sebastian Vettel leading them to domination and glory in his Adrian Newey-designed and Renault-powered cars.
Arguably the previous benchmark for modern teams, Ferrari (1999-2004), helped Michael Schumacher to match and then break longstanding wins and title records on their way to six double championships in a row.
Williams (1991-1997) had their first run of success in the 1980s, but it was in the 1990s that they took their status to the next level with four drivers titles, along with five constructors’ championships in six years.
McLaren (1984-1991) delivered six contructors’ sand seven drivers’ titles in eight years, in their Marlboro-livered cars, which included the MP4/4 — the most dominant car in a single season.
And then there’s the Colin Chapman-led Team Lotus (1963-73), whose innovation helped them become the premier F1 team at a time when they were changing face of the sport, picking up 11 titles in total from 1963-1973.
Statistical greatness — racing records
The longevity of all these teams makes them greats. However, nobody can touch Mercedes when it comes to statistical greatness.
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Lotus’s long-term success in the 1960s and 1970s is impressive but their figures are the worst of the five. Looking at win percentage, pole percentage and championship percentage, Mercedes rank first in all. They have won a staggering 74.6 per cent of all races since 2014, have taken nearly 80 per cent of all poles since then, winning every title.
Their opposition has been fairly weak, but you can only beat what is in front of you and Mercedes have done that, comfortably, for seven years. Their winning margins in each year have been enormous, too.
What is perhaps most impressive about Mercedes is that after a blip in 2017 and 2018, when their dominance had eroded slightly, they have come back stronger than ever. This year’s W11 could end the year as statistically the greatest F1 car of all time by win percentage in a season, ousting the McLaren MP4/4 of 1989.
Innovation — the hallmark of greatness?
Are Mercedes among the most innovative teams of all time? Probably not, though perhaps much of that is down to the more hidden nature of F1’s technical challenges today. But how do they stack up against the other great teams we’ve so far considered, though? Not as well.
Chapman’s Lotus are synonymous with innovation, albeit not without risk. His ideas changed the sport.
Take the Lotus 25’s stressed monocoque which was lighter and stiffer than its predecessor; the Gold Leaf Lotus 49 with its aerofoil wings; the Lotus 72 with radiators in sidepods and an overhead air intake — modern designs which endured. F1 would not be where it is today without Chapman and Lotus.
Even after this period of dominance the innovation continued well into the 1970s with the huge success of the 78, which used ground effect to great effect or the active suspension of the Lotus 92.
Chapman with Graham Hill in 1967
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McLaren and Williams epitomised the change in F1 in the 1980s. The teams, led by new and disruptive figures like Frank Williams and Ron Dennis, would go on to dominate for the next two decades.
McLaren’s dominant period began with the MP4/2 in 1984, which helped Niki Lauda to his third drivers’ title and Alain Prost to his first a year later. It was a car which has influenced F1 design to this today, particularly when it comes to the “Coke bottle” shape of its rear end. This was the work of John Barnard, who a year earlier had designed the first carbon fibre chassis car in F1. Steve Nichols — who designed the MP4/3 and the most dominant car in F1 history, the MP4/4, as well as being the originator for McLaren’s 1997 "brake steer" system — took over after his departure.
Williams can beat that though. Much of the work for the 1991-1997 period was done in the years before, as they pioneered some of the most novel technologies in the sport.
It culminated in the FW14B, a car that stormed to both championships, helping Nigel Mansell to a then-record nine wins in a single season. It was fitted with a variety of technical devices — developed, abandoned and improved over time — such as active suspension, paddle-shift semi-automatic transmission and traction control.
The 1992 championship-winning Williams FW14B
Credit: Paul-Henri Cahier /Paul-Henri Cahier
As F1 became bigger and budgets expanded, pure innovation has become less important. In the 21st century, a greater emphasis on ultra-professionalism has taken precedence. The scope for clear innovation has lessened, as regulations became tighter and the cars more alike.
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It is hard, then, to see anything from Ferrari or Red Bull that comes close to what has been already mentioned, though Ferrari’s periscope exhausts — introduced in 1999 — and Red Bull’s blown diffusers on the RB6 and RB7 and flexible front wing show that there was still some room for manoeuvre.
The same could be said for Mercedes, although their neat split turbo design on the W05 was brought in in the first year of the new regulations in 2014. It helped them not just to power unit superiority but to an aerodynamic one as well because of how it was packaged.
Then you have the Dual Axis Steering system used on the W11. It is not the vital ingredient to their success in 2020, but here it was, unveiled to the shock and amazement of everyone in pre-season testing.
Personnel . . . and reputation
Ross Brawn was a key part of Ferrari's successes in the early 2000s
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Success is made by people and not by accident. Mercedes have created a team that has few limitations and great depth. Even the weakness in their driver line-up — not having two superstars — is a strength.
They have Hamilton, a man about to become the most successful driver of all time, Wolff, who has overseen this success with determination and grace and fine technical minds in people like James Allison and Aldo Costa and previously Paddy Lowe.
This Mercedes team are up there by this metric, though the scale of what they can do with the number of employees they have as well as a gigantic budget should be taken into account. Competition has been lacking, too. Their success is to be applauded but they have rarely faced a prolonged threat. This, combined with their relentless brilliance has made it look a little effortless.
Still, the names they are competing against here are too storied and legendary for it to be a fair fight. There’s Chapman and the array of driving talent he had for him at Lotus: Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt. The Ron Dennis-led McLaren had the likes of Barnard, Nichols, Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
McLaren had great success in the late 1980s with Senna in the team
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In the 1990s, Williams’ superb technical staff was led by Patrick Head, Adrian Newey and Paddy Lowe with some great drivers at the wheel. Ferrari’s technical and strategic superiority came about by employing Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne, James Allison, with Michael Schumacher’s nous carrying them along. And Sebastian Vettel and Adrian Newey (again) at Red Bull was an incredibly potent combination.
There is a trend. The longer ago, the more memorable the team is, the greater its reputation and more recognised its achievements are. As it stands, the modern Mercedes cannot compete on a raw emotional level — but even so, they are unlikely to ever be as revered as many of F1’s other great teams.
F1’s greatest ever team?
Hamilton has enjoyed plenty of success with Mercedes
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Their sheer dominance makes it hard to argue against it. As a winning machine they are unrivalled. The greatest ever, though?
There is still plenty of doubt, perhaps caused by the lack of serious and sustained competition. Like the best driver argument, it is possible to argue that the early pioneers are far greater, more important and have left a bigger legacy than Mercedes could ever hope to.
F1 has become more technocratic in the last two decades and the dominance of Mercedes has come at a time when the sport is less accessible. The age of the independent F1 team is almost over and Mercedes are part of that movement. There is no escaping that.
Perhaps, though, all this does is make their glory more fitting: looking at the other teams we have considered, their periods of success embody the characteristics of their era. Mercedes are no different. They might never be the most-liked team of all time but are they now the greatest? Quite probably.
Are Mercedes F1’s greatest? What makes a great F1 team? Which other teams should we have included? Tell us in the comments section