ONLY ONE TITLE REALLY MATTERS
quiz. Who won the 1958, 1973, 1976, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1994, 1999 and 2008 world championships?
Correct. Mike Hawthorn (Ferrari), Jackie Stewart (Tyrrell), James Hunt (Mclaren), Keke Rosberg (Williams), Nelson Piquet (Brabham), Alain Prost (Mclaren), Michael Schumacher (Benetton), Mika Häkkinen and Lewis Hamilton (Mclaren).
Yet also wrong. You could also have said “Vanwall, Lotus, Ferrari (in ’76, ’82, ’83, ’99 and ’08) and Williams: all these teams were big winners in the years their drivers didn’t win.
We’re talking here of the constructors’ championship, the dampest – and richest – squib in all of sport. The championship that isn’t about the racing.
We saw it in some of the closing races of 2015. With both titles won, Mercedes operated purely as a team. They provided two very nice and very equal racing cars for Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, but set tighter limits than we’d seen for most of the year: the first corner kind of decided it; there was no room for the other Mercedes driver to adopt a revised strategy born of superior tyre, fuel and/or brake wear (or not). Beyond that, as I mention in my analysis of Lewis Hamilton on page 42, a strong Nico in 2016 will make it substantially harder for Lewis to beat Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel (assuming the new Ferrari is on a par with the Merc W07).
I get the Mercedes policy. Having managed Williams for a while, I know how hard it is to win an F1 race – never mind finish one-two. If there’s no need to play around, the last thing a team wants is to jeopardise a one-two finish in any way. With Nico leading from the pole, but Lewis on a longer middle stint, who knew what could have transpired in the closing laps?
Nothing is of itself, however. There are always bounce-backs. For every race in which Mercedes do not deviate from the straight-and-narrow, there will be days when they will have to do so to beat a Vettel or perhaps a stray Red Bull. And the more they run as two equal number ones in pursuit of constructors’ points, the harder those switches will be. Like Jackie Stewart, and Niki Lauda in the Ferrari years, Michael Schumacher redirected the energy of his team. He requested a quick driver for the other car – a Rubens or a Felipe – while he, Michael, maximised any points that would be scored on any given day. Seb Vettel has more or less duplicated this system by running with Kimi in the other Ferrari. Kimi is still good enough to score points and to win a race or two; he isn’t, though, going to nibble into Seb’s slice of road. Lewis, meanwhile, has first to beat Nico. And vice versa.
So here’s the big question: if running Seb and Kimi means that they won’t win the constructors’ championship in 2016, will Ferrari nonetheless be satisfied if Seb wins a fifth drivers’ championship? Conversely, what will be the mood at Mercedes if they win the constructors’ title but Lewis and Nico are individually beaten on points by Vettel? Answers: ‘Yes’; and ‘Dark’. Get it? The constructors’ title isn’t up there with the drivers’, despite what they tell you in the press statements. Yes, it earns money for the team. But if you’re Ferrari or Mercedes, that money will at least be matched by the global rewards of producing a championshipwinning driver. Obviously the object is to win both titles. Given one, it has to be the drivers’.
None of this is new: there have been disconnections between the two championships since 1958, when the latter was introduced (eight years after the first drivers’ championship was instigated). Mike Hawthorn became the tragic hero of British motorsport in 1958/9 but it was actually Vanwall, featuring Stirling Moss, Tony Brooks and Stuart LewisEvans, who that year won the constructors’ title (or ‘Manufacturers’ Championship’ as it was then known). Hawthorn-collins was
not too far away from Vettel-räikkönen; Moss-brooks, though, was much more in the direction of Hamilton-rosberg. And on it goes.
Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson snatched points from one another in 1973 to win the constructors’ title for Lotus, but in so doing lost the drivers’ title to Jackie Stewart (who dominated within Tyrrell). What a thing it would have been for Lotus to have run, say, Tim Schenken alongside Ronnie Peterson in 1973. Almost certainly, Peterson would have won the drivers’ title – just as Emerson would have won another championship had Wilson Fittipaldi raced the other Lotus 72.
Constructors’ title already clinched, Williams in 1981 nonetheless fielded four cars (two racers, two spares: equality for all!) in the drivers’ championship finale in Las Vegas. The complexity of the operation cost them the title. And while 1976, 1982 and 1994 were accidentand/or incident-filled anomalies, 1983 was no fluke: Nelson Piquet won the drivers’ championship while his team, Brabham, finished third in the constructors’. Three years later, Alain Prost calmly led Mclaren to the drivers’ title, while Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell squabbled at Williams.
Mercedes are thus in a difficult position. Their two drivers – despite pitwall exhortations – could still easily run into one another, given enough pressure. Equally, given the intensity of the race between Lewis and Nico, one driver’s ability to beat the other will inevitably be compromised by the importance of both of them being given an equal chance. The truth is that nothing is equal in racing – or in any form of athletic endeavour. Lewis’s strong points aren’t the same as Nico’s, and the same can be said of their weaker sides.
When F1 was really dangerous, and the odds of finishing the year with the same drivers were small, the constructors’ title made sense. These days, I think the choice is clear. Assuming equal-ish cars amongst the top few teams, the Stewart/lauda/michael/seb system is the way to go: the drivers’ title is everything; the constructors’ championship, by contrast, a mere measure of points won… and lost.
“The constructors’ championship is the dampest – and richest – squib in all of sport”
All eyes are on the main prize
Lewis Hamilton has to beat a strong teammate in Nico Rosberg to win the drivers’ title, potentially compromising Mercedes’ chances of winning the constructors’ championship. But Seb Vettel will be untroubled by solid team-mate Kimi Räikkönen, which, conversely, could boost Ferrari’s chances of winning the constructors’ title