On Sunday, when Lewis Hamilton was steering Mercedes to its fifth straight double of driver and team titles in Formula 1, a likeable Brazilian in a green T-shirt watched from the team garage, a knowing smile adorning his face. The only other time any team won five straight doubles in Formula 1—a sport where technology can reward or ruin in dramatic measures—Rubens Barrichello was in one of its cars.
That was Ferrari and Michael Schumacher between 2000 and 2004, and Barrichello played second lead in the Schumacher show.
Watching Hamilton drive home, Barrichello might have been struck by the parallels between Ferrari then and Mercedes now.
Both teams were anchored by a driver who was arguably the best at the time, and was capable of rousing and rallying a large unit: Schumacher and Hamilton. Both teams took time to reach this place of dominance, but once they did, they were relentless in expectation and clinical in execution.
Equally, there are two crucial differences in the way Ferrari and Mercedes earned their titles.
While it is difficult to compare sporting performances across eras, those two differences add extra sheen to the current exploits of Hamilton and Mercedes.
The first difference is Schumacher never battled his teammate. That was a time when a top driver like Schumacher, despite being a cut above, could demand the team be built around him. Everything else, including the other driver, became subservient to his interests. Despite being a co-occupant of the best car on the grid, Barrichello came second in the driver’s championship only twice. Even then, he trailed Schumacher by 23% and 47% in points. Schumacher was a far superior driver, but it didn’t always seem an equal fight.
Mercedes, on the other hand, has largely been a place and time of equal opportunities. In the first three years, the two Mercedes drivers, Hamilton and Rosberg, fought a championship battle that receded from amiable to animosity.
In F1, strong teammates squaring up is a compelling storyline.
That spectacle was seen thrice in the Mercedes years, with the hostilities blowing over in 2016. Between 2014 and 2016, the Mercedes drivers finished 1-2, with the difference in points reading 17%, 15% and 1%—much more competitive and closer than the Ferraris (charts 1a and 1b).
Schumacher never trailed his teammate on overall points. However, in 2014, Hamilton trailed Rosberg on 12 occasions.
In 2016, Rosberg was behind Hamilton on four occasions.
For all his accomplishments, Hamilton is tagged with the rare occurrence of losing a driver’s championship to a teammate.
The second difference between the two eras is that Schumacher and Ferrari did not have to fight a driver and team in the way that Hamilton did against Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari in 2017 and 2018.
On both instances, Ferrari had the stronger package, and both driver and team maximized it well till the halfway mark of the season.
However, after the turn, as the pressure built, Hamilton’s driving became more resolute and the Mercedes team dug in. On total points, Hamilton trailed Vettel on 11 occasions in 2017 and six occasions in 2018. It’s fair to say that Hamilton and Mercedes had a role to play in Ferrari falling off.
By comparison, in his five years, Schumacher had two instances of a close fight, in 2000 and 2003. In each, though, in a better car, he seemed to have a measure of the task. In 2000, he trailed Mika Hakkinen on four occasions in the middle.
In 2003, a rule change, introduced ostensibly to quell Schumacher’s dominance, increased the points for the second-placed finisher from 6 to 8. It worked. Schumacher won five races, but not once did he finish second. Kimi Raikkonen won just one race, but finished second seven times and led Schumacher on seven occasions.
Schumacher shepherded Ferrari’s renaissance in F1, bringing the pieces together in the four years preceding this golden run.
He was a heavy-lifter for Ferrari, more than Hamilton has been for Mercedes. Schumacher delivered 65% of Ferrari’s points in those five years, against 55% for the top Mercedes driver (charts 2a and 2b).
What Schumacher and Ferrari did then was akin to what Satya Nadella did at Microsoft: Give new wings to an old organization. What Mercedes is doing now is akin to HDFC Bank: A new bank that acquired solidity, and top value, in quick time.
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