Mercedes’ F1 programme is set for significant change after it was announced today that Motorsport Director Norbert Haug has left the company after 22 years at the helm.
Haug recently celebrated his 60th birthday, so there is a sense that his time had come to move aside and let a new generation take over.
However there is more to it than that.
It is a major moment for Mercedes and signals a change of direction and of culture. Haug, a former motoring journalist turned corporate player, has been at the helm since 1990 and brought Mercedes into F1 in 1993, initially with Sauber.
He worked alongside Ron Dennis during the McLaren Mercedes years and then played his part in splitting from McLaren to buy out Ross Brawn and run Mercedes’ own team.
That project has not delivered the expected results, despite investment and commitment from parent company Daimler and it is clear in Haug’s parting words that he recognises that his head was on the block as the results were not good enough,
“Since 1991, we had tremendous achievements and wins, for which I want to thank all of my colleagues,” he said. “Unfortunately, with one victory in 2012 since founding our own Formula One works team in 2010, we couldn’t fulfil our own expectations. However, we have taken the right steps to be successful in the future.”
This is corporate speak for, “We failed and I take the blame.” It’s sad for a long career like this to end in failure, but its surprisingly common.
The whole Mercedes project has shifted emphasis and tone since the curious decision was taken by Daimler’s board to hire Niki Lauda in an “overseeing” capacity. Lauda will not be based at Mercedes F1 in Brackley, but will stick his oar in and throw in the odd hand-grenade when he feels like it.
This structure has “trouble” written all over it and one wonders how long Ross Brawn will tolerate such an influence on the programme.
The flip-side of this point of view is that since taking over from world champions Brawn GP at the end of 2009, Mercedes has not got close to building a championship winning car.
Brawn and his team appear to have lost the winning touch and Haug has looked a marginalised figure at races, often sitting by himself, not hands-on with the racing. Taking that view, clearly Mercedes felt change was needed. Lauda helped to broker a deal with his old friend Bernie Ecclestone, which gave Mercedes the revenue and status it felt it deserved and thus he has proved his usefulness.
But can they become a winning force in today’s F1? Is it possible for a corporate company like Mercedes to do what Toyota, Honda and BMW all failed to do? Only Renault in recent times has come in and won world titles, but they did it by sticking close to the Benetton model laid out by Flavio Briatore.
Mercedes has laid a lot of ground-work. The wind tunnel was upscaled this year, the pieces are in place to compete and the engine facility is second to none. Great hopes are pinned on the new generation 2014 engine.
But the competition is ferocious; Mercedes has to be as sharp as Red Bull, as cunning as Ferrari and as fast-developing as McLaren to win something in F1, even with the fastest driver now under contract. Hamilton has lost a close ally at the heart of the team, but there are other familiar faces around and anyway he has a direct line to the chairman if things get difficult or political.
Haug was a great survivor and managed to come through many storms unharmed.
But his time has now passed.