Mercedes’ dominance is ruining Formula 1 for drivers and fans
On Sunday November 3rd, otherwise known as the worst day of my life, Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton won his sixth world championship, his third world title in a row, and his fifth in the last six years. But this victory is not a cause for celebration. The Formula 1 governing body announced this week that it is attempting to make radical changes to resolve the failing competitiveness of the sport for future seasons, proving that the Hamilton dominance, while amazing for him, is ultimately degrading for the sport.
Hamilton, who drives for the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 team, has only lost in the last six years to his Mercedes-AMG Petronas teammate Nico Rosberg. Hamilton, a 34-year-old British native, won both the 2018 and 2019 titles in the nineteenth race of the twenty-one races in the Formula 1 calendar, meaning that the drivers will have to continue racing for several weeks despite the title having already been won. The pointlessness of this is exasperating for any Formula 1 fan, and a drain on the circuits, who desperately need fans to attend the races in order to earn revenue.
Hamilton won his sixth world championship on Sunday at the end of the 2019 United States Formula 1 Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. Formula 1 is the fastest form of motor-racing in the world and the most elite form of race-car driving. The competition has existed since 1950 and today features ten teams with twenty drivers, two on each team. The winner of each race, or Grand Prix, receives 25 points, while the second place finisher receives 18, third place earns 15, and down the line until the tenth place finisher, who earns 1 point. Anyone who finishes behind tenth does not earn points. Prize money is awarded to teams based on their overall points at the end of the season, which means top teams like Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull earn over $150 million a year, while the lower teams are expected to produce the same high quality car with a third of that amount. The drivers are paid salaries based on how well they can negotiate, so Lewis Hamilton is currently the highest paid driver, earning around $57 million per year.
Coming into the United States Grand Prix, the Mercedes-AMG Petronas team had already secured enough points to win the team title (or the Constructor’s World Championship) two races previously. Mercedes has won the team title for the past five years in a row. Hamilton only needed to finish in the top eight in order to win the Driver’s World Championship.
Hamilton started out in fifth position for the race on Sunday. Seventy-one laps later, when his new teammate Valtteri Bottas crossed the finish line in the first place, all eyes were not on the race victor but on Hamilton, who finished second, securing his sixth world championship. Hamilton won with 381 points, with Bottas in second with 314 points. In third position in the current standings is Charles Leclerc, a Ferrari driver, with 249 points. Hamilton and Bottas now have too many points for any other driver to mathematically pass them in the driver’s standings. The 2019 Formula 1 season still has two races left; the Brazilian Grand Prix and the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Hamilton addressed the glaring fact that there is no real point in the competition anymore in his post-win interview, where he stated that the team will “continue to fight and continue to push” for the remainder of the season. But the sweeping dominance of Mercedes remains a glaring issue for Formula 1, where every season seems to already be decided before it even starts. Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton have an uphill battle when it comes to keeping the audience’s attention.
The first issue is Lewis Hamilton himself. Hamilton is not the most popular driver in the sport (a 2016 fan survey proved Alfa Romeo driver Kimi Raikkonen to be far and away the most popular) and has faced backlash in the media for making fun of his nephew for wearing a princess dress, spending time on yachts with Kendall Jenner, snapchatting during required press conferences, avoiding paying taxes on his private jet by using an Isle of Man scheme, making sexist jokes about inviting models back to his hotel room, and for taking selfies while driving. It should be noted, however, that Hamilton is the only black driver currently racing in Formula 1, a sport that remains decades behind the rest of the world when it comes to inclusivity and awareness.
Aside from driver likability, Mercedes itself lacks the appeal of teams like Red Bull or Ferrari, which repeatedly outsell Mercedes in merchandise sales. Red Bull has a rugged-ness to them that they have never grown out of, and Ferrari’s wild Italian passion and pride has never faded. Mercedes, on the other hand, with its steel-silver paint, feels artificial and coldhearted next to the rest of the field. Mercedes also has a habit of sandbagging– pretending to have issues before the race to give the other drivers false confidence. While some teams seem warm and inviting, Mercedes feels like a metal trap where its employees drown in money and lose all personality.
From 2014 until 2016, each year was a Mercedes-teammate-battle between Rosberg and Hamilton, whose rivalry grew steadily more bitter as the years wore on. Rosberg’s 2016 victory was refreshing, but the rivalry ended when Rosberg announced his surprise retirement a mere five days after finally winning his hard-fought world championship. Rosberg’s official reason for retiring was in order to be a present father for his two young children, but the mental and emotional toll the championship battles had taken on his psyche was obvious. Rosberg and Hamilton had grown up together as karting buddies from the age of 5. However, by 2016 the two were struggling to remain cordial in front of the cameras and had declared their friendship officially over.
Following Rosberg’s shocking retirement, Valtteri Bottas replaced Rosberg at Mercedes, but Hamilton’s turned his focus instead to Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel. Vettel is perhaps the only other driver on the grid who can match Hamilton’s arsenal of victories and world records. Vettel is the youngest driver to ever win the world championship, and won four championships in a row, his last in 2013.
However, any hope for a true battle for the championship between Mercedes and Ferrari died halfway through the 2019 season. Vettel only won one race, and was repeatedly beaten by his teammate Charles Leclerc or Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, neither of whom are consistent enough to take the fight to Hamilton. It got to the point where, after getting up at 5am to watch a race and enduring 50 laps of Mercedes back and forth, I would shut off my TV and go back to bed if it looked like Hamilton was just going to win again. The repetition is exhausting. There are only so many times I can hear the British national anthem before I need to barf.
On the November 3rd race, Vettel proved Mercedes’ dominance again. Ferrari was slow at the start and Vettel was overtaken by three cars in the first lap before his suspension suddenly broke and his car crumpled beneath him. He limped pathetically into the gravel and any hopes of a riveting race sputtered out with his engine.
Lewis Hamilton’s record as a six-time world champion means the only other driver in the world who holds more titles is Michael Schumacher, who won seven world championships with Ferrari from the 1990s to the 2000s. Schumaher is the most decorated driver of all time, but suffered a traumatic brain injury in a skiing accident in 2014, and has not been seen in public since. Hamilton encroaching on Schumacher’s records while he remains unable to bear witness feels profoundly unfair and like a karmic injustice.
Hamilton also said on Sunday that he feels “fresher than ever,” despite being, at 34, at a popular age of retirement for drivers. A huge part of me is aching for his retirement just to see some different faces on the podium, but a larger part of me wants to see some other team actually rise to the challenge and squash the pretentiousness of Mercedes; to see Mercedes actually lose when they are really trying their best.
But the money disparity in Formula 1 is the biggest obstacle for providing these outcomes. Mercedes has the most money, and therefore can spend the most money on parts for their cars, on aerodynamic testing, on hiring the best mechanics, and on paying the fastest drivers. Other teams like Racing Point and Haas are expected to do the same with a fraction of the money, and therefore can never climb in the rankings. The only teams that can light a candle to Mercedes are Red Bull and Ferrari– Red Bull because it won four constructor’s titles in a row from 2010-2013, and Ferrari because it has produced the most world champions at 15.
The Formula 1 governing body has noticed these issues and is taking action. Last week official statements revealed changes will be made for the 2021 season. The cars will be constructed so they “can race more closely,” and spending limitations will be introduced that will cap each team at $175 million. Restrictions are also being set on mid-season car changes to prevent a “less competitive grid.” I sincerely hope that these changes bring a breath of fresh air to the sport, where famous teams like Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Renault, and Williams aren’t just floundering around for scraps, and where drivers are actually racing on the edge, giving it everything they have. Everyone likes an underdog, but it is also nice if the underdog is allowed to win every once in a while.