Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Melbourne, 2014

Fear of rules change led Mercedes to run dominant 2014 engine in “idle mode”

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Mercedes’ former technical director has revealed the lengths the team went to disguise the scale of their superiority at the beginning of the V6 hybrid turbo engine era.

Paddy Lowe, who was Mercedes’ executive technical director when the current power units were introduced in 2014, explained why they did not use its maximum power mode for the majority of that season.

Lowe said the team realised how far ahead of the competition it was towards the end of pre-season testing in 2014. Its engine chief Andy Cowell was initially concerned about the performance and reliability of their new PU105B V6 hybrid turbo.

“I’ve seen Andy’s descriptions of it, much of which we didn’t really know at the time because they were busy with the work, not telling everyone what their problems were,” Lowe told the official F1 website. “It was a very, very tough period and they had absolutely no confidence.

“But I think as we got to the first test, certainly into the second test, it became more clear that some others were in desperate disarray, mentioning no names, and that we were in reasonably good shape.

“Then we came with another upgrade in the Bahrain test, which was literally a bolt-on extra that was suddenly another seven or eight tenths in horsepower. That was an enormous day. And we knew at that point that we were in some quite special territory.”

Despite the huge gain, Mercedes only beat Renault-powered rivals Red Bull to pole position for the first race of the year by three tenths of a second in a rain-hit session in Australia. Lowe said senior figures in the team, including Mercedes’ motorsport head Toto Wolff, had grown concerned that if they the full extent of their dominance was known, F1 might introduce rules changes to slow them down.

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“It was exciting but you had other stresses,” he said. “So imagine the scene: You’ve got Toto and the board of Daimler who are worried about the negative politics of looking too good.”

Before the season began F1’s chief executive Bernie Ecclestone had vehemently criticised the new power unit regulations.

“You’ve got Bernie running around ‘saying this is all a nightmare, these engines are terrible’,” Lowe recalled. “Well, the thinking was if Mercedes had looked ridiculously good, then something would be done about it.”

Mercedes therefore decided to disguise their advantage in qualifying by reducing the power on both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg’s cars. Lowe said they did so not only in Q1 and Q2, where they could expect to easily out-pace their slowest rivals, but also in Q3, which typically set their final starting positions.

This led to “a lot of tension” on the pit wall, said Lowe. “In qualifying, we would never turn the engine up for Q1 and Q2. It was run in a sort of idle mode.”

The team would then consider whether they needed full power to take pole position, which Wolff often argued against, Lowe recalled.

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“The debate would then be how much to turn the engine up for Q3. I’d be getting it in the ear from Toto: ‘That’s too much, that’s too much’. And I’m thinking, ‘but if we don’t get pole, we’ll look like a right bunch of mugs’.

“So what number to pick that would do the job and knowing you didn’t want to err on the wrong way? So that was a big part of the discussion on Saturday afternoon. Nice chat to have.”

“Actually that went on quite a long time,” he added. “Through most of 2014, that engine was never on full power for qualifying.”

Mercedes took pole position at all bar one of the 19 races held that year. They only missed out in Austria, where the Mercedes-powered Williams drivers swept the front row after Hamilton and Rosberg made mistakes in Q3.

Lowe said the W05’s power unit was only one part of the reason for its dominance. “It was a good car as well,” he said.

“It wasn’t just the engine, we had terrific aerodynamics as well, better than anyone actually, which we used to track because we would engine-correct all of our data. And that car was better than any car, quite apart from the engine.

Mercedes took another 18 pole positions from 19 races in 2015. It took until the 13th race of that season, in Singapore, for Sebastian Vettel to give Ferrari the first pole position for a V6 hybrid turbo powered by anything other than a Mercedes. In 2016 Mercedes took 20 pole positions from 21 races.

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116 comments on “Fear of rules change led Mercedes to run dominant 2014 engine in “idle mode””

  1. This just confirms that the worst thing FIA did with hybrid engines was the instant development freeze with token system.

    1. Finally they admit it!

      I remember Bahrain 2014. Great battle for the lead between Lewis and Nico. But clearly the pit wall had forgotten to turn the engines down because not only were they fighting, they were pulling two seconds a lap from the opposition!

      Fair play to the tech teams but they’ve dominated the hybrid era while playing games with power and chassis performance. Even with their “difficult” cars they always found that little bit extra to win the titles by a margin that doesn’t upset the FIA too much.

      1. (Sorry I meant to post that as a comment on its own)

      2. @David If I recall correctly, both drivers used their engine modes in that race to fight each other without authority from the pitwall. I seem to remember them being stopped from doing that again unless instructed. It almost gave the game away it seems!

        1. @binaryslave

          you are incorrect, only Rosberg used prohibited engine modes in Bahrain.

          1. steph manger
            28th April 2021, 15:44

            actually, it appears to be you who are incorrect. After Rosberg used strat-6, Hamilton’s engineer told Hamilton that they would mirror that strategy. You can check the radio communications logs, they’re somewhere on this very website.

    2. Wasn’t the token system abandoned before it would have started 2015?

      1. @hunocsi definitely not. It ran for three years and was only dropped for the 2017 season. It basically locked Mercedes advantage in for a few years.

        1. Really? I was sure of it, might need to get my memory checked…

    3. Does this also confirm that the customer teams might not have gotten actual works spec engines? Seems like its advantage could have been figured out that way as well, but in a more round about fashion.

      1. Well, the year Massa and Bottas were both grabbing poles in the Williams says maybe there were close. They probably would have been languishing with either a Renault or Ferrari engine in the back.

      2. You’re right Nick. Whilst the engines would have been the same specification, customer teams don’t seem to have access to all modes like the works Mercedes do. We have no real confirmation from any current customer teams, but Lotus in 2015 only had access to a higher mode once in an attempt for Grosjean to overtake Vettel at Spa.

      3. Does this also confirm that the customer teams might not have gotten actual works spec engines?

        Well I believe everyone got the same hardware, but up until 2017 (if I remember correctly), Mercedes and every works team could have an advanced software for their engine to access higher engine modes. Every other customer team got the standard software.
        In the 2015 Belgian GP, Grosjean (Lotus-Mercedes) was fighting Vettel (Ferrari) for 3rd. Then on the last laps, someone from the Mercedes’ crew advised the one in Lotus on how to access these higher engine modes. They did and Grosjean finished on the podium.

        1. With software being part of the engine, I think that it is fair to say that the works team don’t get the same engine if they don’t get the same software (modes).

      4. They did. Massa used close to the full power once in Monza after nagging his engineer for it.. The Williams Mclaren and Force India were horrible chassis looking back on it.

  2. I mean, hardly shocking news to anyone following the sport, their ability to suddenly find several tenths in qualifying every season other teams got closer post 2017 showed as much.

    It is what it is and I’m glad that time appears to be behind us. Qualifying is so much more fun now that it’s a fight to the tenths and even hundreds of seconds again.

    1. Just wait until Merc stop playing games this season. We saw at the end of the Imola GP that Lewis has massive performance at his disposal. Toto is playing with Christian before breaking his heart again…

      1. Did he really have ‘massive performance’? While he might have set the fastest lap, that owed a fair bit to getting DRS at the best time – it was why some fans started demanding that drivers should not be allowed to get the fastest lap bonus point if they had DRS at the time.

        1. I mean, obviously Lewis was a bit faster than anyone else on the grid, bar Max, and that much was obvious by how he cut through the field after his mistake and red flag.

          Anyone that believes Max, 20 seconds ahead of the 2nd placed driver, was driving full beans with an engine at full power, however, is probably deluding themselves.

          1. Yeah, Max was just driving to keep the gap stable at that point of the race, while saving the engine, gearbox etc, as you say @aiii. It certainly was not an indication that Lewis and / or the Mercedes was the fastest car on sunday in Imola.

    2. @aiii the fact that they didn’t even open up the engine in Q3, instead spending time how much HP would be “not too much” to run in Q3, that’s definitely news.
      I mean, I always assumed they held it back in Q1 and Q2 and opened it up in Q3. Now we know their lead was so incredibly big that even in Q3 they ran in some kind of a conservative mode.

  3. Though having a car much faster than the rest is not the most entertaining way to win a race – I can’t help but marvel at the engineering prowess Mercedes exhibited (and tried not to!). I’m hoping in a few years time we learn more about the Mercedes first wave Hybrid-era car, fingers crossed for a documentary piece or a TV special that reveals the full info on how devastatingly awesome the Mercedes package was.

    I’m glad that such a high level of dominance seems to have ended, but I also completely appreciate the work that went into gaining it and applaud the engineering staff who designed and developed the thing. It was an absolute beast!

    1. G (@unklegsif)
      28th April 2021, 10:36

      How refreshing, a reasoned, balanced, and sensible comment regarding Mercedes dominance of the hybrid era, rather than the usual WTF1 / Reddit style of criticism and complaint

      Thanks @geekzilla9000

    2. Top comment right there, I will be waiting with baited breath for the same @geekzilla9000

    3. An absolute engineering masterpiece.
      Waiting for that documentary too.

    4. Dominic Smith
      29th April 2021, 22:07

      I for one dislike the artificial nature that the cars have been closed up this season. My preference is for the return of the engine modes and let the others catch up.

  4. So not using full power in QLF was another reason lap times were pathetically slow for F1’s standards in the early-hybrid era, albeit mostly still down to aero (on tracks such as Circuit de Catalunya), and an extent, the PUs being raw.

  5. Well everyone has closed up now, so lets hope we don’t have another major rule change soon and end up back in this same situation. :)

    1. Well the next big rule change is based around aero.

      The last time there was a whole new aero formula (2009) the field was very close. Hopefully it will be the same case again.

      1. Dave (@davewillisporter)
        28th April 2021, 11:42

        2017 was a pretty radical aero change but the top 3 remained the same so wouldn’t hold your breath!

        1. yes, big changes in 2017, Ferrari closed most of the gap and challenged for the title

      2. Yeah, 2009 was super interesting. The field was really mixed through, and the old Top 3 (McLaren, Ferrari, BMW-Sauber) stopped being Top 3. I would love to see something similar next year. Maybe seeing Alpine or McLaren or even Williams on the Top.

  6. And the name of the “desperate in disarray” team that Paddy did not want to mention is of course: Ferrari.
    The bit I like is Merc themselves feeling uneasy about such a huge gap between them and the rest, because then it is no longer competition but a steal. It gifts to whoever sits in that car assured wins and championships without number. Which is what we’ve had all these Lewis/Mercedes years.

    1. I’ve been reading here that it was all Hamilton’s superior talent…. Is that not correct after all?

      1. @S, one of the biggest myths of motor sports….

        1. Dave (@davewillisporter)
          28th April 2021, 19:57

          I’d advise anyone throwing around opinions about Lewis to listen to Paddy Lowe on the latest F1 Beyond the Grid podcast:

          “His 9 podiums in his first 9 races was the best I think I’ve ever seen”

          and Mike Elliot, Merc’s new technical director who observed Lewis during testing at McLaren in 2006:

          “A test engineer said he was the fastest he’d ever seen”

          Pedro De La Rosa ” I saw his speed and knew eI didn’t have a chance for that seat”

          People think Lewis’s career started at Mercedes. It didn’t!

          15 out of 20 wins in GP3 to win the championship then GP2 champion then leading the F1 championship for the first half of 2007 where Ferrari were every bit a match and then some and his team mate was the reigning two times world champion, would have been the first rookie champion but for a stupid McLaren strategy leaving him out on down to the canvass tyres hoping for rain.

          The guy has always been a meteoric talent from carting to date. Just accept it.

          Is it any surprise the most talented driver since Schumacher replaced Schumi and has maintained his position in a team that could have signed literally anyone from 2014 to date but have never replaced Lewis? It’s also no coincidence he went straight into the top seat at McLaren instead of “doing time” (in other words getting up to speed) in a back of the grid team.

          He IS that good.

          1. Hamilton didn’t shine in the red bull era, he won some races and sometimes the mclaren was very competitive but unreliable\bad operationally, like in 2012, alonso did better every year there with often times a slower car.

            What you hamilton fans don’t seem to be able to accept is that one can like hamilton’s 2007 season (I did and think he’s the most deserving of that title out of the contenders) and still think he wouldn’t have achieved much without that super mercedes, he said so himself, that he’d still only have 1 title at mclaren, only a couple months ago or so.

      2. Nobody who recognises Hamiltons brilliance also doesn’t ignore how strong the car was from ’14 though ’16, the difference is, most of us normal people also recognise everything he’s achieved as a whole, through out his time in F1. Not just a select couple of seasons.

        Have a nice day.

        1. Hamilton is a God-tier driver who gets more out of the car than most other drivers can, the combination of one of the greatest F1 drivers of all time in one of the greatest cars of all time was pure magic.

      3. Really? I think the superiority of the Merc has been mentioned a few times over the last few years. You may have missed it?
        And I think you will find ‘but he needed the car to do it’ has been applied to just about every champion since the sports inception. Including Hamilton.

    2. And the name of the “desperate in disarray” team that Paddy did not want to mention is of course: Ferrari.

      Could also be Renault/Red Bull who were struggling to do more than a few laps at a time during the pre-season test’s that year.

      The Renault engine at that point was by far the worst on the grid as it not only wasn’t producing the performance but was also horribly unreliable. And from memory RBR had also got the cooling package wrong so were suffering more reliability issues than other Renault teams.

  7. When the rules are as prescriptive as they are, there’s little that anyone else can do to catch up.

    I wish F1 would stop specifying engines and let manufacturers design their own.
    Everyone is against spec chassis, but spec engines seem to be acceptable…

    1. G (@unklegsif)
      28th April 2021, 11:01

      If they are “spec engines“, why have there been / why are there so many different iterations and performance levels?


      1. @unklegsif Linear (or near-linear) curve of performance.
        If you give 10 people the instructions of what they need to make, you’ll end up with 10 things that may look about the same, but they’ll be done with varying levels of skill and accuracy.
        Get them to do it 100 times, and they’ll all get better at it. Some may have done better at the beginning and got a head start on everyone else…

        1. But if you give a lot of technically-minded people the same problem, it stands to reason they’re going to come to the same conclusions, hence why Ferrari and Honda have gravitated towards the split-turbo system system..?

          1. @optimaximal
            Possibly. The caveat to your statement is “…if you give a lot of technically minded people the same problem” and constrain them in various ways including years of a token system, outlawing certain areas of development, and outlawing radical ideas, “it stands to reason they’re [likely] to come to [similar] conclusions.”

            And I think part of the reason that all engines tend to look the same a few years in is only partially because they are the “best” solutions. But also partially because one team tried it, it worked, so it’s easier to follow a known path than to keep spending time and money looking for another one.

            But I think part of the original point was that the extremely tight constraints force teams down very particular paths. It may be impossible, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if teams were given a box with constraints (like X HP, X torque, X RPMs) but how you get there is up to you. I know there are a lot of potential problems with that idea as well, but I would like to see some of the constraints be higher level than at the nut and bolt level.

    2. I would set a limit of 100hp and let team deasign whatever engine they want. V8 for low budget teams if they want. Electric for Honda if they want. Mercedes can keep their engine. Let the best man win. You can chuck out a thousand pages of rules. The FIA would monitor power output like they do now in Formula E. Penalties for going over 1000hp. very simple and you can explain it in 2 minutes.

      Imagine how cool it would be to watch teams changing batteries in pitstops or whatever strategies they would come up with. We would have innovation and probably at a lower cost. Plus you are guaranteed that everyone will have a competitive engine, whatever their budget.

      1. I meant 1000hp of course!!

      2. Setting a hp limit wouldn’t regulate the power as teams would be looking for more torque while maintaining the max hp. I would rather see fewer engine regs but just reduce the amount of fuel to keep a check on speeds. Surely this is the way things should be progressing

        1. G (@unklegsif)
          28th April 2021, 20:09

          That’s kinda what they did… reduce the max fuel allowed and max flow… trouble is, they had to introduce something else to make up the defecit… which, happened to fit with the manufactures desires for hybridisation as well

        2. Rob, its actually much easier to measure and regulate torque. No problem there.

      3. Totally agree on the concept. Have said so many times.
        Unfortunately it will never happen in F1. Too much social politics and manufacturer involvement in the regulations now.

  8. It was the car.

  9. In reality it wasn’t that they were so good, it was the fact that the other two, particularly the one starting with R were so bad.

    At least the other team in disarray actually put some effort in to catch up.

    One can really only admire the skill and expertise that went into the Mercedes PU. I take my hat off to them for developing it in the first place and then continuing to maintain its advantage for as long as the did.

  10. The W05… what a car. This is arguably still the car that holds the highest pace advantage delta over the next fastest car over a season. Or does the Mp4-4 rival it?

    1. @krichelle Time delta is one thing, but race win percentage ultimately determines how dominant a car is, and in this area, MP4/4 is #1.

      1. Ouah race win percentage Mp4-4 definitely wins that, and the W07 is probably 2nd on that list. But, I am also interested in pace advantage delta over the next fastest car over a season. In hindsight, it looks like the W05 is the winner in this category, but I am not sure if it can be contested by other dominant cars.

    2. @krichelle the MP4-4 exhibited a higher pace advantage, at least in qualifying it did. It averaged a qualifying pace advantage of little over one second on Saturdays, the highlight being over 3 seconds faster at San Marino.
      The W05 had an average qualifying advantage of 0.6 seconds, twice having a pace advantage of more than one second with 2.1 seconds in Belgium being the highlight there.

      But given what we read in this very article one can of course question what the W05 could have been or done if it hadn’t been deliberately held back, since they were aiming to have “just enough, but not too much”. When we see what happened in Bahrain, where they opened up a gap of 24 seconds in 12 laps, while battling…

      But when talking about biggest pace advantage we probably need to go back to the early years of F1. In 1950 Alfa Romeo got pole and won every race, often with ridiculous margins – qualifying pace at some point being 10 seconds faster, and on most tracks lapping even their closest competitors.

      1. Holy…. you are right. I thought it could have been one of the famous dominant cars, but in fact 1950 Alfa Romeos were really that fast. It would be nice to see with accurate time measurements like today to get the exact times.

      2. Yes, at the time it was insane, I think the most dominant car ever was considered according to mathematical models the 1961 ferrari, back then you had 3 drivers per team and they were all pretty bad drivers and dominated, I think it said the dominance would’ve shown very clearly had there been top drivers there.

    3. Separate but related, was pole percentage.

      Three other cars tied with the 1988 MP4-4, the 1989 Mclaren and the 92 and 93 Williams (all were 15 of 16). The 2011 RBR and the 2014 and 2015 Mercs were a step up (18 of 19). And the 2016 Merc was 20 of 21.

      For win percentage the closest two both missed 2 races instead of the 1988 MP4-4’s 1. Those are indeed the 2016 Merc (19 of 21) and the 2002 Ferrari (15 of 17).