March 27, 2015

SEPANG, Malaysia (AP) Mercedes dominated the 2014 Formula One season, they swept to a one-two finish in this year's season opener in Australia, and the team is fully expected to do so again at the Malaysian Grand Prix. How have they managed to leave the previous power teams like Red Bull and Ferrari in their wake? Here's four reasons why:

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THE CUSTOMER IS RARELY RIGHT

Mercedes is one of only two teams in F1 to be fully owned and backed by an automaker, with Ferrari being the other. That delivers the major advantage of total integration of development of the two main parts of an F1 car: the engine, and the chassis plus aerodynamic parts.

All the other teams are customers of the four engine suppliers: Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Honda.

As much as those customer teams and their engine suppliers co-operate and share information, to some degree the engine and car are developed independent of each other.

The left hand does not always fully know what the right hand is doing. That advantage of integration was at its most pronounced in 2014 when the sport switched to V6 hybrid-power turbo engines. Knowing that change was coming, the Mercedes F1 team had been working with the Mercedes engine developers years ahead of the big 2014 change.

The engine crew came up with an innovative plan: putting the turbo compressor at one end of the engine and the turbine at the other, rather than together.

Knowing of this plan, the car designers then knew the gearbox could be repositioned to improve balance, and the coolers could be smaller to enable tighter bodywork. The Mercedes customer teams - Williams and Force India - received the same engine, but not before they had already committed to a car design which could not fully exploit it.

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RUNNING TO STAND STILL

The above explains why Mercedes had such an edge in 2014, but how have they maintained it this year, when the other engine-makers knew their secret, and the teams could design their cars accordingly?

In a sport where teams spend and develop furiously just to keep up - running to stand still - Mercedes have used that same period to improve even more.

''We all had the same amount of time, and provided we pushed at the same speed as everyone else, we should have stayed ahead,'' was how Lewis Hamilton summed it up going into this weekend's grand prix.

However this year's dominance may not be as entrenched, because F1 has re-introduced engine development during the season via a complex `token' system in which the engine makers can `spend' their allocated tokens on piecemeal changes to various parts of the power-train: internal combustion engine (ICE), turbo, and batteries which store power harvested from braking and exhaust.

That will allow the rival engine-makers to catch up, but will it be enough, and will it be in time?

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MERCEDES HAS TALENT

As technical as Formula One is, ultimately its people that make the difference, on the track and off, and Mercedes spent lavishly on personnel to become the sport's dominant force.

They lured Lewis Hamilton away from McLaren, which had nurtured him since childhood, with a lucrative contract. A new deal is currently being negotiated and some reports have put its value at $60 million per year, which would make him the highest-paid driver in the sport by a long way.

He and teammate Nico Rosberg represent something of a yin and yang in F1 terms. Hamilton is a brilliant and aggressive driver, whose prior weakness was using up his tires too quickly.

When tire supplier Pirelli switched away from its high-degradation rubber to a sturdier design, Hamilton was the key beneficiary; it was no surprise to see him utterly dominate the latter part of the season.

Rosberg plays the Alain Prost to Hamilton's Ayrton Senna. The German is as good a qualifier as Hamilton, but more controlled during races, seeking constant updates from the pit-wall about car performance to try to manage the race perfectly.

Mercedes was as committed to getting the right talent off the track as on it. The amount of off-track heavy-hitters was remarkable: now-departed former team principal Ross Brawn, current commercial chief Toto Wolff, current racing boss Paddy Lowe, ex-Renault boss Bob Bell, former Ferrari technical director Aldo Costa, and ex-Red Bull technical director Geoff Willis, all under the watchful eye of non-executive chairman Niki Lauda.

It was a line-up that was probably too top-heavy, and has been pruned for 2015, but gave an indication of Mercedes' no-expense-spared approach.

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NOT A LOT TO BEAT

As well-organized and well-funded as Mercedes is, the team's edge owes just as much to the underperformance of its rivals.

Red Bull, the prior regnant power in F1, has been undone by a frankly poor Renault power-train. Sebastian Vettel, who won four straight titles from 2010-13, found last year's model so difficult to drive that he was soundly beaten by his less-experienced teammate Daniel Ricciardo, and jumped ship to join Ferrari this year.

Lotus, which had won races with Renault power in 2013, had a horrendous 2014 and switched to Mercedes engines this season and early indications are it is much improved. Ferrari also had a year to forget last season.

Never a team to tolerate losing for long, the Prancing Horse went through three team principals in 2014, and ace driver Fernando Alonso also exited to make way for the arriving Vettel.

Early-season signs are that the team has an improved car and engine package this time around, and will likely battle Mercedes-powered Williams for best-of-the-rest status.

That's a lot more than can be expected from McLaren, which has gone from perennial title contenders to also-rans. The team took the bold but ultimately misjudged decision to go for a complete re-design in 2013 - the last year under the old engine regulations - while most other teams chose conservatively that year and put all their development efforts into the new 2014 designs.

Consequently behind the eight-ball, McLaren was off the pace last season, and put its eggs into the 2015 basket and the return of old engine supplier Honda. Given the highly successful past they shared, it would be unwise to count them out in the long-term, but it will take time.

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