When the cyclone cleared Mercedes was still standing, and by the end of the weather-worn Japanese Grand Prix Formula One’s pre-eminent team emerged with a sixth world championship and another record broken.
The completion of the serial sextuple had been ordained from the team’s early-season domination, but anticipation makes the result no less remarkable – Mercedes, in only its 10th year of team ownership, had matched the benchmark for championship domination set by Ferrari between 1999 and 2004.
What’s more, with Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton taking the chequered flag in one-three formation, they had scored enough points to eliminate all but themselves from drivers championship contention. With Mercedes guaranteed the individual title, the Silver Arrows will have the outright record for consecutive team-driver championship doubles, smashing the previous record of five by that same Ferrari team with Michael Schumacher in 2000–04.
Even the strongest teams tend to wilt after too long at the top. Personnel change, enthusiasm declines after summiting the mountain so many times and key drivers retire.
But not so Mercedes, which shows no such weaknesses – indeed it’s hard to imagine the end of the silver reign.
“If I were to sum it up, it’s the people,” team boss Toto Wolff said. “The group of people that are working on the project each giving it all, playing the best game in their respective position and the strength of the pack has made us win these championships.”
Wolff is quick to diffuse the credit, but the culture the racer-turned-principal has instilled into the team has been central to keeping personnel not only energised but untempted by offers to join rival teams, who entice to import expertise as much as to disrupt the opposition.
The proof isn’t in the races the team has dominated; the grands prix Mercedes haven’t won have been the most instructive.
Its comprehensive defeat at the hands of Ferrari at the 2017 Monaco Grand Prix triggered substantial soul-searching just as the sport was asking whether the Italian team was at the dawn of a new dominant era.
Mercedes famously embarked on 10 days of 24/7 analysis to understand its problems and routed the competition at the following race in Canada.
Last year the team’s poor showing in Belgium, where title contender Sebastian Vettel comfortably dispatched Lewis Hamilton, looked like the turning point in the Ferrari driver’s campaign, but then too Mercedes worked to understand its problems and went on to win six of the remaining eight races.
“It’s about the marginal gains,” Wolff added. “It’s about putting everything together and not leaving one stone unturned; having a no blame culture; empowering, even when it’s difficult sometimes, when you would rather control things.
“I think the strengths go very deep – values that are engrained in the teams that you can’t put on a power point and say now we are empowered. You need to live it in the difficult moments, and that has made the strengths of the team.
“We had many hiccups over the last years and we were always able to collect ourselves, understand why we haven’t performed well and come back even stronger.”
There are few territories left unventured by the all-conquering Mercedes team. Next season it has the chance to take the outright record for consecutive titles, while star driver Lewis Hamilton is well on track to be a reigning six-time champion in 2020 and gunning for Michael Schumacher’s record of seven crowns.
And then? Will Mercedes’s stranglehold on the sport ever end?
After six titles and almost 100 victories, the question isn’t whether Mercedes is beatable; it’s whether anyone is bold enough to think they could take on the best and win.
On current form, it’d be very bold to think indeed.