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Mercedes fights for F1 title off the track, not on it

The only thing that could keep Mercedes from running away with the Formula One title again this year lies off the track, not on it.

Last weekend’s season-opening race in Australia showed what everyone had suspected; Mercedes’ dominance from 2014 has not been eroded and may even have increased.

Even before Lewis Hamilton led Nico Rosberg to the checkered flag in yet another one-two finish, the critics were out, denouncing the race as boring and the season ahead a fait accompli.

The complaints were loudest from the Red Bull team, which had a disappointing weekend in which its Renault engines had a slew of problems and local favorite Daniel Ricciardo finished sixth, unable to even catch the modest Sauber ahead of him.

With no chance of catching up to Mercedes on the track this season — even allowing for engine upgrades which have been re-introduced to the sport — Red Bull sought to peg its rival back politically, urging immediate but unspecified changes to the rules to inhibit Mercedes.

Red Bull even invoked the option of withdrawing from the sport altogether.

“If we are totally dissatisfied we could contemplate an F1 exit,” said Helmut Marko, the on-track point-man for Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz. “The danger is there that Mr. Mateschitz loses his passion for F1.”

It was a self-serving argument, promoting precisely the kind of ad-hoc regulatory change that Red Bull decried when it was the clear leader in the sport during the time Sebastian Vettel won four straight drivers’ championships.

However, it is also an argument that must be taken seriously, given F1’s intensely political nature. Red Bull was even given the backing of the sport’s commercial leader, Bernie Ecclestone, who publicly sympathized with the team’s complaints.

Ecclestone does not control the rules of the sport — that role is controlled by governing body FIA — and that is arguably a good thing considering some of his past advocacy for ideas like artificial rain and short-cut lanes.

However, Ecclestone still has a lot of pull to get things going his way, so Mercedes team leader Toto Wolff will be aware he will have a fight on his hands for months to come to prevent the rules from being changed in the middle of the season.

It looms as a straight fight between the power and influence of Horner and Mateschitz on one side, and Mercedes on the other. The latter may have the edge given that Ferrari — the tiebreaker in all such disputes in F1 — has little appetite for a political fight at this stage. With Vettel finishing third in his team debut and showing more promise this season, rocking the boat seems to make little sense.

“Our job is to attack Mercedes on the track,” Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said, “not to change the rules.”

While few regarded Red Bull’s post-race complaints as anything other than trying to advance its own cause, there is validity in the need to take steps to prevent the now-established pattern of one team utterly dominating a season.

From the Schumacher-era of Ferrari, to the Vettel-era of Red Bull and now to the Hamilton-era of Mercedes, the template is of a single team cruising to the championship and sucking all the suspense out of the season.

Meanwhile, there may not be a German Grand Prix this season because plummeting attendances are making it difficult for the owners of both the Hockenheim and Nurburgring circuits.

There are serious problems that need addressing when the country that produced Schumacher, Vettel and Mercedes — with Red Bull just across the border in Austria — cannot generate enough fan interest to put on a race.

While the hierarchy of F1 considers that predicament, the next round of the championship will be in Malaysia on March 29, and few will be expecting anything other than another Mercedes win.

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