Mercedes’ Formula 1 rivals continue to seek a breakthrough that will finally end its dominance. A hit of downforce points, extra horsepower, a suspension trick – anything to make a Red Bull or a Ferrari the pick of the bunch again.
The problem for Mercedes’ rivals is F1’s all-conquering team is not on top because it found a silver bullet. F1’s V6 turbo-hybrid era thrust it to the front, but something much more deep-rooted has kept it there.
Mercedes’ biggest weapon is a not-so-secret one. It’s displayed proudly for all to see, it’s one that others cannot just copy, and it’s found within this quote from Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff last year, describing leadership.
“It’s all about hiring and developing the right individuals, forming a culture and the team spirit around them, and then defining the core objective,” says Wolff.
“Once that is defined, we leave it to each other in our respective fields to deliver on the core objective.
“That is something that you can’t simply put on a PowerPoint, but it takes many years to actually live it.”
Wolff has talked effusively about culture in his time as team boss, overseeing its unprecedented success, and even jokingly referring to it as Mercedes’ tree-hugging mentality. Others have discussed it too. They needn’t hide it. Partly because it is evident in several moments, big or small. Partly because it’s damned hard to replicate.
This is not something rival teams can fashion a like-for-like replica of or attempt to recreate its performance in the windtunnel. It’s an abstract concept, one that many teams want to embrace – and think they already do – but don’t necessarily extract everything from.
A good culture is a fuel for ingenuity and a weapon against complacency. It fosters confidence, which empowers people to take responsibility, take risks, and challenge one another. It demands mistakes are understood and learned from, but never apportions blame. Above all else it creates trust: a short word but one that carries a lot of weight, even in an F1 team.
“If you have a team where people feel afraid to make mistakes, or afraid to try for fear of how they might be viewed or, even worse, whether they keep their job, those things promote a culture of conservatism in design and approach to problems” :: John Owens
That adds up to an environment in which better cars are built and better practices are perfected. This reveals nothing in Mercedes’ car design process or any specific ingenuities that make it F1’s best team. But the ethos that courses through is at the heart of its success.
“Culture’s everything,” Mercedes’ chief designer John Owen tells The Race.
“If you have a team where people feel afraid to make mistakes, or afraid to try for fear of how they might be viewed or, even worse, whether they keep their job, all those kinds of things promote a culture of conservatism in design and approach to problems.
“I think the team’s done a really, really good job in making sure everyone feels protected. We want to learn from the mistakes that we make. But the team’s very, very good about those, there’s no blame. And I credit a lot of this to Toto as a figurehead, who stands in front of the team and says the right things.
“Pointing a finger at people and saying they’re to blame for something is verboten in our world” :: James Allison
“I remember in Baku [in 2018] when Lewis’s headrest came out, Toto said ‘I will not identify any individual’, which is exactly right. Because my department could have designed something that couldn’t have been possible to be put in wrong, or someone could have double-checked it – there’s so many reasons why something happens. And to sort of try and single out one person, it’s just not our culture.
“We don’t do that to people. We all support each other. And I think now we’ve got that level of reassurance and confidence to trust each other.”
A ‘no-blame culture’ is the epitome of that dynamic. It is something that you may have read or heard a lot over the last two years with Ferrari under Mattia Binotto’s leadership: trying to rid the team of a long-standing tendency to point fingers and turn people into scapegoats.
At Mercedes, says technical director James Allison: “Pointing a finger at people and saying they’re to blame for something is verboten in our world.”
Whether Ferrari can ever truly adopt the culture it wants is a difficult question to answer. A no-blame culture is a simple one to understand from a rational perspective but avoiding a very human tendency to shift responsibility for a problem onto someone else and relieve pressure from oneself is much harder to put into practice.
That’s a process Ferrari is still in the early stages of, yet it’s one that Mercedes has mastered. It was already on an upward curve in terms of creating a more cohesive working environment, but when Wolff joined Mercedes, taking up his role initially at the beginning of 2013, he had a mandate to instil his vision at both the Brackley and Brixworth organisations. Not for nothing does Mercedes insist on hosting off-site days during the busy pre-season period dedicated to bigger picture thinking and problem solving.
“I realised you can only actually live by your own standards and by your own objectives every single day. Then slowly but surely this will cascade down in the organisation” :: Toto Wolff
But Wolff had to push through initial scepticism for it to be embraced completely. When he joined Mercedes, in his first briefing to the team he insisted Daimler was committed to the project but that he himself planned to be around for a long time. He told the team that Mercedes would be successful. Afterwards, a long-time team employee is said to have remarked: “Nice words, we’ve heard them before.”
“I realised you can only actually live by your own standards and by your own objectives every single day,” says Wolff.
“Then slowly but surely this will cascade down in the organisation. And everybody’s gonna follow your lead, and the lead of my colleagues that are the heads of departments, all the layers through the company.
“Every single year, it’s important to align to this core objective.”
Allison is an emphatic proponent of this act of leading by example – living the culture the team needs to buy into. Allison, in an appearance on the At The Controls podcast, says Wolff “has set the standard there”.
“You put a lot of effort self-consciously into trying to say what your values are, but culture is a sticky thing,” Allison says. “And it only really sticks if you’re prepared to, having made that intellectual effort, go out and do it.
“And you have to do it 100 times right for every half a time you might slip, because people will remember the slip far more strongly than the 100 times where you lived your values.
“Lots of people say they have a good culture but they kind of don’t. And I think probably if there’s one thing this team has as a unique thing, it’s that.” :: John Owen
“But if you do have a critical mass of people on the leadership side of the team, that are telling and retelling that story, and acting in a way that backs up the claim, then boy oh boy is it a weapon by the time the whole organisation buys into that.”
The net result, says Allison, is an “extraordinarily good environment to work in”. This is someone who has been at the forefront of technical structures at other race-winning entities in F1. Trust him when he tells you the difference between a good team and a great one.
Those differences are hard to determine on the surface because grand prix racing is immensely competitive and there are more similarities than differences between the 10 teams. And none of the other nine are trying to create a bad place to work. However, as culture is quite an abstract concept, turning it into something tangible is not easy.
“Lots of people say they have a good culture but they kind of don’t,” says Owen.
“And I think probably if there’s one thing this team has as a unique thing, it’s that.
“People who join us find it a really, really great place, a really inspirational place almost to the point where they sometimes don’t believe it’s true for a while. And it takes them quite a number of months to really settle in and think, ‘no, you really are in a safe environment’. And I think people that leave get a bit of shock.”
But what does a culture mean in practice? Allison says it’s everybody standing up for their team-mates “in a way that feels very supportive and open”, and a desire to “to embrace failure as an opportunity to get better”.
“It sounds cliche, but it really is super important that we do that,” says Allison. “And we try also to ask team-mates who are quite low down in the hierarchy to take quite large amounts of responsibility.
“Because we think that the more brains and the more people we can get onside in our championship the more powerful we are as a group, and that’s the thing that is really done very, very well in this team.”
That is only possible if people are empowered to take that responsibility on. That means being good enough to do it but also believing they are good enough to do it and also being believed in.
A good culture also helps with spotting potential weaknesses, too. When everyone buys into the same direction, more people are working to higher standards but also boosting those around them as well – while also being encouraged to speak up if they think something can be improved.
“If you have a culture where failure, if you’ve done something like DAS, would be seen as a big negative for the people involved, why would they ever try anything else?” :: John Owen
Thus, F1’s all-powerful machine makes itself stronger with each passing year, patching up vulnerabilities and packing itself with ever-more capable individuals – who are also encouraged to be bolder with their ideas. It’s the mentality of always striving to be better, and never believing things are good enough, that breeds something like the dual-axis steering system in 2020, a year of stable regulations, with six consecutive titles already banked.
“We can have those tough conversations,” says Owen. “We can attempt those difficult things.
“We did the DAS system this year that many people have talked about. It could have been rubbish, quite honestly, couldn’t it? It could have been really bad.
“But the team would have known if they’ve done the experiment, they’d advanced all they could in simulation, then they had to make one. And they’d have said ‘OK yes, we like it’ or ‘no, we don’t like it’. But that would have been another thing we learned, and that would go away and be put back on the shelf as something we’d learned and that would help with the next thing we do.
“If you have a culture where failure, if you’ve done something like that, would be seen as a big negative for the people involved, why would they ever try anything else?
“That’s sort of reinforcing the wrong behaviour, to be negative about people who try.”
At this point, we are deep into the realms of behavioural psychology. In a sport often determined by ones and zeros, something so conceptual feels very alien.
But at the heart of everything in F1 are the people. An F1 team is the sum of interaction of human intelligence, behaviour and relationships. Andy Cowell, the former Mercedes High Performance Powertrains boss, tells The Race: “We’re not robots, we’ve got this chemical computer and a heart.
“There’s this perverse side to our competitiveness, there’s an element of human nature that wants to criticise others as a way of knocking them down in order to make the person throwing the criticism look better” :: Andy Cowell.
“If we’re well motivated, if we’re encouraged to try new things, the human race has shown incredible ingenuity over the last several hundred years. We’ve got a natural restlessness and natural desire to question what we’ve just done because we can see improvements, and a natural desire to pioneer and that means doing things new.
“And if it’s genuinely new it’s going to go wrong. Because you won’t have thought of everything.”
In a world like F1, where development is key and an old idea is usually a bad idea, most things are new. Which means, to use Cowell’s logic, most things go wrong. That can be as common as simulation work not quite correlating with reality, or it can be a fundamental car item backfiring and turning a theoretical world-beater into a shed, or it can be that the tools that are used are undermined by a human error – such as the inaccurate spreadsheet input that led to Mercedes’ 2019 cooling dilemma in Austria.
“You need an environment that doesn’t piss you off when you drive into the car park.” :: Andy Cowell
Mercedes’ working practices are most important on the rare occasions things go badly. Because a high-profile setback is when the no-blame culture is tested most.
“There’s this perverse side to our competitiveness, there’s an element of human nature that wants to criticise others as a way of knocking them down in order to make the person throwing the criticism look better,” says Cowell.
“That’s an inbuilt, bad aspect of every single human being, and we all do that now and again. But we probably do it less than others.
“And we do encourage people to have a go, we do encourage people to try something new, we do encourage people to put a split turbocharger in an engine or to do a wacky steering system on the front of a racing car, and all the things that you don’t know about. And we encourage people to make it work.
“It is just having that humility that at the end of the day you question what you’ve just created, what you’ve just learned, and the human creativity to ponder through the evening and in the shower in the morning and on the drive into work, and then the tenacity to put that into action through the next day, and to keep doing that.
“And to keep having the hunger to do that, that does need a good environment. You need an environment that doesn’t piss you off when you drive into the car park. You need an environment that you sit down, and you just want to do work. And you need departments adjacent to you where you look at them you go, ‘well yeah, that’s impressive’.”
Mercedes has been winning for so long now that parts of its team will know nothing but triumph and ecstasy. Senior figures who know better than that can remain grounded because they know what it’s like to lose. But Mercedes’ culture is the best chance to ensure others don’t get carried away or cocky.
“Sometimes it’d be fun almost to be last, back at the grid and see if our culture would prevail” :: John Owen
No doubt winning makes it easier to trust the process. But is it a case of success breeding success? That’s a slightly lazy way of viewing things. If that was the case, empires would never fall. But Ferrari’s empire fell in 2005. McLaren’s not won a title since 2008. Red Bull has repeatedly failed to reclaim its throne since 2014.
That’s what makes Mercedes’ success so remarkable, that it has been sustained and, realistically, shows no sign of ending. It rises to every challenge, hits every curveball, sets new benchmarks, every single year.
“Sometimes it’d be fun almost to be last, back at the grid and see if our culture would prevail,” says Owen. “I’m not sure any of us want to volunteer for that! But I think that’s the challenge of how do you build back stronger?
“It’s one of the most important parts of this team.
“I don’t like hearing the word dominant, it sounds like something that’s a bit evil really. This team’s actually very, very supportive.
“It shows a lot of humility, and everybody here is very curious and innovative and wants to do things better and would never consider themselves arrogant or have any sense of entitlement to what the team’s achieving.
“They just want to work better, be smarter, do a better job.”
The motivation is simple. The culture, in its most rational form, is simple. Replicating it is anything but.