Paddy Lowe, who worked as the executive technical director at Mercedes when the hybrid turbo power units were introduced in 2014, explained why the team had to hide the real power of their engine and run it in lower power modes for the majority of that year. Lowe said that Mercedes realised how far ahead of everybody they were by the end of the pre-season testing, although the engine chief Andy Cowell was initially afraid about the performance as well as reliability of their new V6 engine.
As Lowe said in an interview for F1.com: “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. 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.”
Because of this, the senior figures at Mercedes, including Toto Wolff, were afraid if their rivals realised the full potential of their new engine, fearing that F1 might introduce changes in the rules in order to slow them down. During the first race of that season, Mercedes beat the Renault-powered Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo by only three tenths of a second in the wet conditions.
As Lowe said: “It was exciting but you had other stresses. So imagine the scene: You’ve got Toto and the board of Daimler who are worried about the negative politics of looking too good. You’ve got Bernie running around ‘saying this is all a nightmare, these engines are terrible’. Well, the thinking was if Mercedes had looked ridiculously good, then something would be done about it.”
Lowe explained that in order to disguise their advantage, they would turn down the power both on Lewis Hamilton’s and Nico Rosberg’s cars for all of the sessions of qualifying, and run them in the so-called “idle mode”, which led to a lot of tension on the pit wall.
As he said: “In qualifying, we would never turn the engine up for Q1 and Q2. It was run in a sort of idle mode. 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.”
He added: “Actually that went on quite a long time. Through most of 2014, that engine was never on full power for qualifying.”
It is crazy to imagine that such conversations occurring at the pit wall, especially knowing how dominant the Mercedes car was and is, not only during 2014 but especially today. In 2014, Mercedes took 18 pole positions out of 19 races. In 2016, it was 20 out of 21. In 2020, they scored 15 out of 17 pole positions. The advantage build by the team over the years is definitely paying off for them, and due to their incredible performance they became one of the most successful teams in F1’s history.