89 Not the most significant number of them all, but certainly one of the most prevalent in Formula One as the latest news hits the press.
Why? Because that is the amount of races Mercedes have won since the beginning of the V6 hybrid era in 2014. The Brackley-based team had already been on the rise in 2013, but the arrival of the turbo-charged era paved the way for six of the most utterly dominant seasons in sporting history. With those 89 wins have come 12 championships – six drivers’ and six constructors’ and, particularly last season, themselves and now six time world champion Lewis Hamilton looked unmatchable.
It does not take a genius to figure out what the key to this almost unprecedented success was. New engines means a completely different way of thinking, a different way of working; a different way of racing.
The V6 hybrid department has been led from the start by Andy Cowell – the brilliant mind that helped power Stewart Ford to their maiden victory in 1999. That team’s name now? Four time Constructors’ champions Red Bull.
He has been part of the Mercedes family since 2004, working on the Mercedes Ilmor engines – originally designed for IndyCar, but later used by McLaren and Sauber (now Alfa Romeo) in Formula One.
As his career progressed, he worked his indispensable magic on the V10s and then the V8s. His work on the brand new for 2009 KERS system, in which the kinetic energy from the brakes provided an electric speed boost at the drivers’ command, was revolutionary. Although Brawn GP did not use KERS that season, they did use Mercedes engines, and Cowell’s brilliance had slyly guided another team to glory in the pinnacle of motorsport.
Throughout nearly the entirety of the V8 era, Cowell was responsible for building the Mercedes drivetrains. These engines also helped Lewis Hamilton to championship success in 2008, and powered Michael Schumacher in his three-year return to the sport with the Mercedes factory team.
Then came 2014. Cowell’s almost unparalleled genius produced one of the finest, fastest and the all-conquering hybrid engine that has brought copious race wins for Mercedes, as well as helping to temporarily lift Williams out of their slump, pushing them to 14 podiums between 2014 and 2017.
Cowell’s work and engineering excellence has been one of the defining factors of Mercedes’ relentless success during the hybrid era, so just how big a loss will his departure be?
Well, another brilliant brain in the Formula One paddock, Jock Clear – formerly of Mercedes and now of Ferrari, gave a veracious account in 2016 of just how different these current cars are compared to their V8 predecessors. He remarked on the way that the engine and the chassis need to work as one package, rather than as two separate entities.
This means to say that there is a phenomenal and integral spine to the Mercedes team that has produced an incredible chassis, and incredible engine, and made them work in perfect harmony for six tremendous years.
With that being said, one person leaving from the engine department may not be such an issue – particularly with exceptional talents like Lewis Hamilton and his team mate Valtteri Bottas, who succeeded 2016 champion Nico Rosberg at this now dominant, highly decorated presence in Formula One.
But we saw what happened to Red Bull and Renault. Having achieved 68 wins in the nine seasons prior to 2014, Renault power was one of the most dominant forces in the sport. Since the arrival of the hybrids, Renault power has achieved 12. This pales into insignificance compared to Mercedes’ remarkable 89.
This, of course, is not strictly down to the engine. The aforementioned harmony between driver, engine and chassis is more vital now than ever before, so the lion’s share of the responsibility has to fall to the teams themselves, but it is certainly no secret that Mercedes power has blown away its competition since 2014, and this is down in no small part to Cowell.
So with McLaren moving to Mercedes engines for the 2021 season, Cowell’s departure leaves a void that needs filling, as well as a huge question mark as to who takes the reigns now, and what direction Mercedes decide to take in the engine department in the wake of Cowell’s absence.