The news that Paddy Lowe is leaving McLaren means that the focus is once again on Mercedes AMG F1. If McLaren’s technical director is moving to Mercedes, what will be his role, and who will be shovelled out of the way to make room for him?
At the moment the Mercedes AMG F1 telephone box is filled with Supermen and rather overcrowded: the cast (in no particular order) are Niki Lauda (non-executive chairman), Toto Wolff (executive director), Ross Brawn (team principal), Nick Fry (chief executive officer), Bob Bell (technical director), Aldo Costa (engineering director) and Geoff Willis (technology director). Lowe’s presence is likely to result in a number of the above being squeezed out, as the intention appears to be to have him running the whole show.
The problem with this idea is that the team needs stability and continuity right now because Lowe cannot join until the start of 2014. By then the 2014 car must have been designed; and the 2013 project must have been developed as much as possible to keep Lewis Hamilton interested.
That is going to take some mighty juggling.
However there is more than a little logic in what is being done.
By bringing in Wolff, Daimler boss Dieter Zetsche has created a situation in which Mercedes can either enjoy the glory of success, or quietly switch the ownership to a different entity and slip out of F1 team ownership, almost without anyone noticing. Mercedes can continue to be a successful F1 engine supplier, a role at which it proved to be very successful, notably with McLaren and Brawn GP, before the decision was taken to become a full-blown team owner, which has not been a great success.
Wolff is perfect as he is a shareholder and the deputy-chairman of HWA, a privately-owned firm that acts as the full service provider to Mercedes in the DTM, in addition to manufacturing and servicing all Mercedes Formula 3 engines and the Mercedes SLS AMG GT3 racers. The Wolff announcement said that he and Niki Lauda had “signed a letter of intent” to acquire stock in the F1 team. It did not say that they had parted with any cash, but it did open the way for the team to get new ownership. That is now easy enough to do. Mercedes AMG F1 can easily became AMG Mercedes F1 and from there it is just a skip and jump to hand over the running of the operation to HWA, with similar arrangements to the DTM teams. Then Mercedes could pull back and be just an engine manufacturer again.
What is really interesting is the appointment of two directors to the board of the team. Joachim Schmidt, who was the chairman, has been re-appointed as a director. He is joined by Wolfgang Bernhard. The former is an ally of Zetsche, the latter is widely seen as the man who will be the next chairman of Daimler AG. Zetsche has recently had his contract extended, but only for three years, when he was hoping for five. Thus he will be replaced at the end of 2016.
Bernhard has been an important player at Mercedes from 1990 onwards. Before he joined the firm he was in charge of management consultancy McKinsey & Company’s activities with Mercedes. McKinsey recommended that Mercedes acquire AMG, which up to that point had been independent of the main company. He then joined the firm and after some years cost-cutting, he was made the head of Mercedes-AMG GmbH. Or to put it another way, he has close links with Hans Werner Aufrecht, the founder of AMG, and Wolff’s partner in HWA.
In 1999 Bernhard was sent to America to help Zetsche run Chrysler. For a while he was talked of as a possible head of Mercedes-Benz road cars, but he fell out with Schrempp in comprehensive fashion and left to join Volkswagen as the head of the VW brand. That lasted just two years, by which time Schrempp had been kicked out at Daimler and Zetsche was in charge. Bernhard returned to the fold and in 2010 joined the management board and became the heir to the throne once again.
Aufrecht and Wolff must now be rubbing their hands at the idea that an F1 team might end up in their lap… This would mean Mercedes would have a team that it could control without having to take the blame for failure, while Aufrecht and Wolff would have a cheap way to get into F1.
Where this leaves Lauda, Brawn and the rest of the gang remains to be seen.