Mr. Mercedes

The Silver Arrows have enjoyed a brilliant start into the new F1 season. F1 legend Niki Lauda is the man pulling the strings.

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Niki Lauda has seen it all – he gave his F1 debut at his Austrian home race, he signed a deal with legendary Enzo Ferrari, he survived a massive fire accident at the Nürburgring, he won three F1 titles, he was hired by German TV channel RTL as their F1 expert, and he saw his racing career filmed in motion picture sensation “Rush”. But the 65-year-old has neither failed to surprise experts and fans nor ever shied away from taking on a challenge. At the end of 2012, the man with the red baseball cap was asked by Mercedes boss Dieter Zetsche, whether he was ready to take over at the helm of the struggling F1 outfit. Niki agreed and Zetsche, Chairman of Daimler AG, was quickly impressed by the turn around effects. The Benz boss is certain that his Silver Arrows will battle for Silverware in the 2014 season. “Formula One is a global platform and we have assigned a significant sum of our marketing budget to be part of it. But because many people are following the sport, they quickly depict, whether we are successful or not and whether the results meet our expectations. For a brand like Mercedes, these expectations can only be fighting for victory in every race. As we did not meet our goals, we had to make some changes”, Zetsche explained. “These changes have now been made and last season was quite promising. Therefore, I am confident that we will be highly competitive in 2014”, he added.

Thirst for success

When Mercedes announced Lauda was appointed as non-executive chairman of the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team in September 2012, the news came as a surprise, as many had expected Ross Brawn to move up the ladder. However, reconsidering that it was Lauda, the move quickly became less surprising. For long, Lauda’s relationship with the German car manufacturers had been a good one, so the Mercedes bosses addressed the no-nonsense businessman and grid insider, to help their struggling F1 outfit. Quickly, some questioned Lauda’s motivation for getting involved in F1 management after the difficulties he faced at Jaguar F1 in 2001 and 2002. Jaguar Racing was formed from the purchase by Ford of Jackie Stewart’s Stewart Grand Prix Formula One team in June 1999. Ford renamed the team Jaguar Racing as part of its global marketing operations to promote its Jaguar premium car company. The team hired 1999 world championship runner up Eddie Irvine to partner former Stewart driver Johnny Herbert, but the results did not match those that Stewart had been able to achieve in 1999. Wolfgang Reitzle, then head of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, stepped down and he was replaced by American racing champion and team owner Bobby Rahal for 2001. Results did not improve and Niki Lauda was appointed mid-season, which even worsened team morale, with the team sliding further back in the field. Lauda’s abortive attempt to bring design guru Adrian Newey to Jaguar further destabilised the team and conflict between Rahal and Lauda led to the American’s resignation. 2002 was even worse with results only improving later in the year.

Ford’s board of directors did not see the parent company brand featured positively and massively reduced funding for 2003. Lauda and 70 other staff were made redundant. Regardless, Zetsche was convinced the Austrian was the right choice and to further ensure Lauda’s commitment, he made him buy team shares. To show his determination to give all he can in his new role with Mercedes, Lauda chose to step down from a management position at Air Berlin only a few weeks later. Lauda took over from Norbert Haug, who departed as Mercedes motorsport chief at the end of 2012 after 22 years in the role. Haug oversaw Mercedes’ return to Formula 1 in 1994, initially as an engine supplier with Sauber and then McLaren. Mercedes returned as a full constructor in 2010 when the manufacturer bought the then world champion Brawn GP team. However, lack of success in the Silver Arrows second spell in Formula One cost him his post. In the team’s comeback season, Rosberg posted three podium finishes, in 2011, the performance worsened and Michael Schumacher’s fourth place in Canada was the season-best.

Lewis and Nico exchange their thoughts, provide our engineers with excellent feedback, and are doing a great job together.

Bringing in new faces

Lauda restructured the team, exchanged personnel and has gradually led the team to success. One of his first moves was to install fellow-Austrian Toto Wolff as the team’s new executive director, poaching him from Williams F1. He also installed former McLaren technical director Paddy Lowe as struggling Ross Brawn’s assessor, which finally led to Brawn’s officially deliberate departure. “Now Toto Wolff, on the financial, and Paddy Lowe, on the technical side, have to fill big holes. But, don’t worry, I am going to kick them like you do not believe – and hopefully, we can keep on going up,” Lauda welcomed the pair at the official press conference in his typical manner. At the end of the 2013 season, Brawn, one of the most successful and respected figures in the sport after winning a string of world championships with three different teams, handed over his responsibilities to Wolff and Lowe.

“The most important consideration in my decision to step down was to ensure that the timing was right. With a new V6 turbo engine being introduced in 2014 and significant changes to the regulations, now was the right time to go to begin a new era of team management”, he said. Lauda rejected all claims that he saw no slot for Brawn in his team restructuring saying: “When you consider the step that has been made from finishing fifth in 2012 to the second place that we have secured this season, he has been the architect of this success. He put the plans in place to recruit key people since early 2011, and the performance this season shows that the team is on the right track. We have had long discussions with Ross about how he could continue with the team, but it is a basic fact that you cannot hold somebody back, when they have chosen to move on.” From the outset, Lauda was convinced that Wolff and Lowe would “manage to breach the gap. They may use other means to do so, but they have to and they will.” And Wolff was delighted about his new post. “Working with Niki is great. I have known him for quite a while. He is an F1 icon and can open a lot of doors.” Lauda has managed to silence all internal Mercedes critics at the German headquarters, who had condemned the marque’s return to the grid in 2010.

Luring Lewis

His masterpiece, however, was luring Lewis Hamilton from McLaren to Mercedes to form the most promising driver pair on the grid with the Brit alongside Nico Rosberg. And he has revealed that he had to sneak into Hamilton’s hotel room at two o’clock in the morning for secret talks before last year’s Singapore Grand Prix. “I had to see him in his room between two to four in the morning, which was also a first-timer for me. But it worked out.” And while the 2008 F1 champion was first laughed at for his decision to opt for the struggling Germans instead of his high-flying countrymen, it soon turned out that Mercedes was gaining power and McLaren was on a downward drift.

For long it was thought the major factor was Hamilton’s fury at boss Ron Dennis’ handling of contract talks and his own desire for a fresh challenge. But Lauda revealed, “Lewis was pragmatic and direct. He wanted the quickest route to success. He asked me, why he should leave McLaren as he was still winning races for them. I said ‘if you look at it like that, you are right, you shouldn’t leave. But I can tell you one thing: if you drive for Mercedes and you are successful after Schumacher [wasn’t] you could be a bigger name and bigger legend than he or I’ve ever been – even after burning my ear, crashing nearly to death and making my comeback. If you don’t want to take risks then stay with Ron and McLaren. Maybe you will have more success but it must get really boring.” Hamilton was convinced.

Bending the rules

“When we won in Monaco last season, it was quite something. Everyone knows winning Monaco is as famous as winning the world championship. It has the same glamour, PR and media. But on its own, it is not enough of an achievement. The target has to be to get a world title”, the F1 legend said. To move in on dominating Red Bull, Lauda also reached into his bag of tricks. He held a secret testing session with the revamped 2013 tyres at the Circuit de Catalunya and consequently, Mercedes had to face a tribunal of the sport’s governing body the FIA. The German team was banned from the forthcoming young drivers’ test at Silverstone and officially reprimanded for running its 2013 car and race drivers in a secret test with Pirelli at Barcelona. “There was no rule violation. We got a warning — not even a yellow card which could lead to a red card. We were excluded from the young driver test, which is a judgement that we can live with absolutely.” Red Bull had demanded a USD 100m fine and hefty points deductions for Lauda’s team but to no avail. “Red Bull went with this story very aggressively interpreting everything that could be interpreted into it. The paddock is a snake pit but the FIA tribunal is a court, which clearly decided that it was not a rule violation, but a different interpretation of various regulations.” Regardless of how controversial this test was, it helped. The Silver Arrows finished second only to Red Bull in the constructors’ championship after being fifth the previous season with Nico Rosberg winning two races and former champion Hamilton one.

The early bird

Coming second in the constructors’ in 2013 has left expectations high in Stuttgart. Wolf acknowledged, that they had to do well saying: “Now the expectations are very high, and we have to manage those expectations because winning a world championship is not an easy task. It is very difficult.” The team’s “Secretary of State”, as Lauda is dubbed by Wolff and Lowe, added that “winning a championship was entirely different to winning races because you have to put everything together.” Mercedes may have an early starter’s advantage on their engine development, but according to the non-executive chairman, the team still has a lot to learn in the title push in 2014. “We are constantly learning new things,” Lauda said, who was present personally at several test sessions, which his Silver Arrows passed with flying colours. According to the former Ferrari and McLaren ace, the secret to Mercedes strong start in 2014 is that “we have been best with the new engine regulations. Last summer, when Red Bull was still focusing on the 2013 season, we were already developing our new car.” The 974 laps of the W05 car without any major troubles demoralised the rivalling teams and the season-opening race in Australia confirmed the preseason impression. Thanks to their superior power unit, the German marque looks all set to dominate the 2014 season. Hamilton stormed to the first pole position of the year in Melbourne, while teammate Rosberg enjoyed a run-away victory at the Australian Grand Prix.

Perfect planning

For the new season, Lauda made Mercedes up their Formula 1 budget to allegedly EUR 500m in the quest of chasing down the sport’s top teams, despite the RRA (F1′s voluntary resource restriction agreement). The Austrian defended this move by claiming that he only countered the other big guns’ disregard of the agreement saying: “The budget under the dictate of the RRA was not respected in practice. The Mercedes executive board understood that we were fighting a losing battle with the resources we had available, because McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull were not respecting the RRA limits,” added Lauda. But the Austrian regarded the investment necessary as “the team has to deliver this season. We have a massive opportunity and we must take this chance. We want to win the title this season.” Lauda is in favour of the massive regulation changes, “because all of them bring our series much closer to serial production. Especially as hybrid engines are the most discussed topic in car manufacturing these days.” Speaking of ‘close’, the new Mercedes boss is very close to the team. He rings Wolff several times a day to be informed comprehensively.

And after Hamilton retired at Albert Park “I hugged him (Hamilton) and said ‘This was only the first race. In 1984 I also failed in the first race, but I was world champion in the end’,” Lauda recalled. The winner of 25 Grands Prix is well aware that his driving duo are not best friends but doesn’t see any trouble arising because of it. “Thank God they are rivals. I believe, Hamilton and Rosberg are the best pair you can have in F1. They were already successful last year and made no mistakes. It will be the same this season. There are no real friends in F1 once the visors are down. But Lewis and Nico exchange their thoughts, provide our engineers with excellent feedback, and are doing a great job together.”

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