Tit For Tat: The Gloves are off at Brackley

By The Fat Hippo

Written in association with Missed Apex Podcast. Listen in the player below the article and please don't forget to comment.

Spanners's note: In an earlier version of this article, The author used a word that was flagged as a racial slur, that is not communally recognized as such outside of the UK and was not known to be offensive by the author. It has been removed. Apologies for any offence caused. 

Andreas Nikolaus Lauda (vulgo: Niki) is a peculiar man. I once described him thus: "How is he supposed to know what he thinks before he's heard what he just said?"

Lauda personally courted Lewis in 2012, and finally succeeded to woo the Briton after his McLaren had packed in while leading the Singapore GP. Lewis was frustrated and gladly took the bone that Lauda threw him. He was disappointed by having the fastest car on the grid, yet the title was contested between Vettel and Alonso, because his McLaren wouldn't stop going boom, and when it didn't his team botched the pitstops. 

What looked like a really clever idea by Lauda was actually a blatant disregard of an age-old wisdom from the world of romantic relationships. Never go out with someone who cheats on his or her partner, because you are the next he or she cheats on. 

Translated to the situation at hand, using Lewis's frustration to lure him to Mercedes might have looked like a good idea at the time, but everyone knew back then that Lewis doesn't do disappointment well. Just three weeks earlier, in a po'ed huff, Lewis had posted confidential telemetry data, including vital setup data like ride height measurements, on his Twitter account. The competition was only too happy to reverse engineer the raw stuffing out of it.  A man of Lauda's experience must have known that they either had to make sure that Lewis never ever gets frustrated, or they had to expect that this part of the champion's personality would come back to bite them in the arse.

From day one the Mercedes camp was quite obviously divided. Both Lauda and Toto Wolff never even tried to hide what their preferences were. Wolff is the ultimate team soldier, for him the team result is the only thing that counts, the drivers are just vicarious agents, employee numbers in the HR records. In those rare cases he had to make a decision pro or contra one of their drivers, the Austrian usually took Nico Rosberg's side with the notable exception of Spa 2014.

Lauda on the other hand never made a secret of it that his first and foremost priority was keeping Lewis happy, to the point that, especially in 2013 and 2014, he publicly questioned Nico's ability to challenge Lewis at all. Being a commercially rated pilot, he even went as far as personally flying Lewis home in the Briton's well-known red Bombardier Global 5000 while the rest of the team went home together on a regular flight, as happened for instance after the 2014 Chinese GP. 

Everybody with the faintest idea about common workplace practices will agree that such familiarity (perhaps even outright favouritism) between a direct superior and one of his charges is not only a tricky conflict of interest, it also leads to divisions within the business unit and more often than not it opens rifts that will prove too difficult to bridge after some time.

And we are in the front row seat, seeing exactly that happen right this moment. Confirmation that there were 'we vs them' tendencies within the camp came from Mercedes themselves when three people from Lewis' engineering team were switched over to Nico and three of Nico's lads are now working on Lewis's car. 

The most blatant sign of trouble within Mercedes, however, is the complete change of allegiance by Lauda that culminated in him calling Lewis a liar in public. He went from being Lewis's part-time personal pilot to becoming the champion's most vocal critic this year. And that's where we enter the realm of speculation and reading tea leaves. 

Theory I: Mercedes wants a German Champion

That is the pet theory of those who think the mere thought of Lewis being beaten by a mere mortal is like saying England could be thrown out of a tournament by Iceland. It’s an awfully convenient theory too, because that allows them to entrench themselves in their theory that Mercedes had it all planned from the start and deliberately gave him the wrong strategy whenever Lewis isn’t the first to cross the finish line.

This theory has a major weakness though. Having Rosberg as world champion would be of absolutely no PR value for Mercedes because he is not very popular in Germany, and most Germans don’t even accept him as German at all. If they really wanted a German champion specifically for whatever reason, Wehrlein would be sitting in that car, because he’s actually popular over here, especially with the woman folk, which always struck me as a surprise. It’s not like he can hold a candle to the rugged rural charm of the Hippo.

Mercedes is a global brand, and they don’t really need to court the German market. Mercedes cars are an automatic sale over here. If you’re a taxi driver or over the age of fifty, you buy a Mercedes. If you know the faintest thing about cars you buy a BMW, and if you’re a massive bellend, don’t have the money to buy a BMW, or you wake up one morning and think ‘Yes, a pet elephant is much more fun than a dog’, you buy a souped up Skoda with an Audi badge nailed to it. No amount of Le Mans wins or F1 championships is going to change that.

... and then he said in 2016 I'll finally beat you...

... and then he said in 2016 I'll finally beat you...

In my point of view that whole theory holds less water than a colander.

Theory II: It’s because of the mechanics switcheroo before the season

Oh I love that one to bits, because this is the preferred weapon of the more spaced-out conspiracy theorists. They wield it like a weapon, which they load, grinning at you smugly, and then they take aim and blast a whole round of ammo into their own foot.

First of all, only three (as in amount of fingers on a sawmill worker’s hand) mechanics were switched from either side, so for all intents and purposes, the engineering teams on either side of the garage are largely the same as they’ve been in 2014 and 2015.

And let’s just pretend that would really make that much of a difference. Wouldn’t that automatically mean that Nico has been hampered by substandard mechanics for years?

My verdict: Completely outlandish.

Theory III: There has been a falling-out between Lewis and Lauda

This is the theory I think probably comes closest to the actual truth.

People who have watched too much Top Gear (back in the day when it wasn’t shite), hearing or reading the name Mercedes-Benz, think of utterly bonkers AMG SLKs and SLSes, or perhaps even more bat-shit crazy ‘Black Editions’, who leave elevenses from Berlin all the way to Amsterdam if you accidentally give the loud pedal the slightest of shoves.

But those supercars are mere drops in a veritable sea of dreary busses, trucks and a myriad of old-man’s cars that Mercedes make the most money from. Daimler-Benz is an utterly conservative, if not to say bass-ackward company.

In their world the woman belongs in the kitchen, and the only acceptable reasons for her to leave it are doing the laundry and looking after the children. Said children are expected to have no fun whatsoever, other than studying for school and reading the bible. And once they are old enough (thirty) they will of course not have any sex other than for the express purpose of procreation, and only if they are married. And it goes without saying that the spouse in question will have to be of the opposite gender.

And now sit back and think for a while how Lewis is supposed to fit into a stuffy world like that? And then compare that to Nico Rosberg, who lives a relatively secluded life, is married, has perpetuated the species already, and the wildest, most thrilling thing he’s ever done was eating a bowl of Spaghetti while wearing a white shirt.

I'm convinced that Merc signed Lewis to get rid of their antiquated image, but what they have at hand is the EU referendum. They got much more than they bargained for. They wanted to appeal to a younger audience, but not that much. Just like it happened in Britain. Nobody really wanted out. Everybody expected to slap Cameron across the face, but expected to end up with a narrow remain victory. Now a couple million idiots, slightly more than half the population, cannot get their head around the fact that they've just ruined their own country. Merc wanted a bit more party, but what they got was full on rap battle.   

Wicked, man...

Wicked, man...

You have to give Mercedes a lot of credit though, because they gave Lewis a lot of slack since 2013. While Rosberg, like a good company soldier, slaved away in the simulator, stared at data till his eyes bled, and for the rest of time went home to be a model husband and generally invisible to the media, Lewis was mostly on an Instagram snogging with B-celebrities or breaking up and making up again with his girlfriend two times a week. It was bound to go boom at one point.

And one should never underestimate that all the constant partying and relying on his natural talent was bound to go down not very well with someone like Lauda who was known for his almost obsessive work ethic.

I think the thing that broke the camel’s back were Lewis’s shenanigans after the Austin GP last year. In a region as stuffy and ultra-conservative like Baden-Würtemberg, where Mercedes’ headquarter is situated, in a region where not parking your car exactly parallel to the one in the next space is considered hooliganism, having your most prominent employee being dragged through the media for clattering into a stationary car with a two-million pimp mobile is unspeakable. Especially if said employee is advertised as one of the best drivers in the world.

I’ve been in many an argument with Hamfosi and the airborne excrement usually collides with the primitive rotating air-conditioning device, when I dare mention Lewis’s rather liberal attitude to instructions given to him from behind the pit wall. You have to understand that the local phrase for working for Mercedes-Benz is to this very day: “Ich schaff beim Daimler.” It translates to “I work for the Daimler”, and the Daimler in this case isn’t the company, but Mr. Gottlieb Daimler himself. Mercedes is in essence a monarchy with Zetsche as the currently reigning King. The only acceptable response to the order “Jump off that bridge” is “splash-dive or header?” I invite you to guess how long the big-wigs back in Stuttgart will accept that their highest-paid employee is repeatedly being seen and heard on live TV, second-guessing or flat-out disobeying direct orders from his superiors.

Conclusion

While I think theory III is probably the most likely, it could of course be completely wrong, I’ve been wrong most of the time actually, but I think there must have been something afoot, and things will not exactly become better, as Lewis and Nico have now put their employer between a rock and a hard place.

Smile, I said, both of you. That's a team order...

Smile, I said, both of you. That's a team order...

If Mercedes impose team orders they will be blasted for ruining F1 even further than they already do with their suffocating dominance. If they only slap them on the wrist, they’ll be ridiculed as weak and lacking in leadership, and if they fire the really big cannon and suspend one of them, they’ll have a riot at hand from either fan base and the respective press of either England or Germany.

So whatever Mercedes do, it will be the wrong decision. They are in a no-win scenario and sooner or later something or someone has to give at some point. With Lauda’s putting Lewis in the stocks publicly, the gloves are well and truly off at Mercedes.

Let the fireworks commence... 


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