In the third part of ESPNF1's season review, we analyse how fourth-placed team Mercedes got on and look ahead to what can be expected from it in 2012
Championship position: 4th
Best finish: 4th (Canada)
Best qualifying: 4th (China)
The Belgian Grand Prix was always going to be a strong race for Mercedes. The long straights and low-drag setup played to the strengths of the W02 and for Michael Schumacher there was an added incentive.
Roughly 20 years earlier he made his Formula One debut as a substitute for the jailed Jordan driver Bertrand Gachot, and the anniversary coincided happily with one of his best performances of the season. On Saturday the team held a well-attended party in its motorhome and the beer flowed freely even though - or perhaps because - Schumacher had qualified last thanks to wheel coming loose on his outlap in Q1. Even so, there was no sign of a hangover on Sunday and the 42 year old powered his way through the field to fifth place.
Nico Rosberg looked strong early in the race and led at the end of lap one after a lightning start from fifth on the grid. He attempted to mix it with the Red Bulls and Ferraris, but ultimately came off worse after an ill-conceived two-stop strategy left him out on track on worn tyres. As a result he lost out to Schumacher, who was on a stronger three-stop strategy, and settled for a solid sixth place.
Apart from an identical result in India it was the team's biggest points haul of the season, but more importantly it was proof that, 20 years on from his debut, Schumacher is still a force to be reckoned with.
From the outside things were looking up as Michael Schumacher topped the final pre-season test at Barcelona, but behind the headline times Mercedes was discovering some pretty fundamental flaws with the W02. The team had pinned its hopes on a huge upgrade package, and although it brought a boost in performance, it also highlighted some serious concerns ahead of the first round in Australia.
"We had some cooling issues at the beginning which were unexpected," team principal Ross Brawn admitted later in the year. "We had some problems with rear-wing performance which I remember particularly seemed to affect Michael, and some other fundamental issues with the car which cost us a lot of time in the first half of the season because we had to get all those things sorted before we could start running properly."
One of the fundamental issues was that the W02's exhaust-blown diffuser, with side-exiting tail pipes, was quite clearly no match for the system being pioneered by Red Bull at the front of the field. Eventually all of the top teams, including Mercedes, developed their own versions of the Red Bull layout, but morphing the rear of the car into an RB7 lookalike wasn't simple and cost the team precious development time early in the season.
On top of those headaches the drivers were struggling to find a setup that worked in qualifying without chewing the rear tyres up in the race. Brawn revealed towards the end of the season that the W02's short wheelbase meant the car needed a taller fuel tank and that was having an undesirable knock-on effect on car setup.
"One of the main problems is when the car is full of fuel, because the fuel tank's shorter and higher and that doesn't help," he explained mid-season. "We're finding that we're having to balance between what we choose for qualifying and what we choose for the race, we're having to find more of a compromise between the two. Obviously what you ideally want is a set-up that works in qualifying and you can just take straight into the race, because these days there are very few changes you can make between the sessions. But we don't seem to have hit that sweet spot in terms of the position of the fuel when the car's full of fuel."
Ultimately, the problems that arose at the final test played havoc with the development of the car in the first half of the year. From then on Mercedes never looked capable of catching the top three.
Driver v driver race
Nico Rosberg - 8/10
No other driver has outscored Michael Schumacher for two seasons in a row while driving for the same team, but despite another very solid season Rosberg is still waiting on his first F1 victory.
Most impressive in 2011 were his qualifying performances and he only failed to make Q3 once (in Japan due to a hydraulics failure), while managing to break into the top six on six occasions. Over a race distance he found things tougher and if there was a black mark against Rosberg's name this year, it was that he often didn't manage the Pirelli's degradation as well as Schumacher
"We are too hard on the tyres," he said at the Canadian Grand Prix. "When others do 60 laps on the hard tyres, I can do 15 or 18 and that is not a good ratio!"
For the most part he was able to make up for the extra pit stops or compromised strategy with his scintillating pace but at a few races, such as Monaco and Korea, he lost out on points because of it.
Michael Schumacher - 7/10
In 2011 there were brief glimpses of Schumacher back at his best and, on the whole, the year was a big improvement on 2010. Starting from scratch alongside everyone else on the Pirelli tyres seemed to work in his favour, and more often than not he was at least a match for team-mate Nico Rosberg on race pace. His season highlight came at the Canadian Grand Prix when he very nearly took his first podium since 2006 in the kind of mixed conditions he's always enjoyed.
However, his qualifying pace was lacking and on seven occasions he found himself being dumped out of the top ten by slower cars. It could be argued that he made up for that with a number of fantastic starts throughout the year, but there were also times when his grid position put him under unnecessary pressure in the race. Turkey was a particularly bad weekend and he was made to look like a rookie as he collided with Vitaly Petrov and Adrian Sutil as he desperately attempted to defend his position.
Mercedes is F1's sleeping giant. Over the past two years fundamental design flaws with the W01 and W02 have scuppered the team's progress and held back two of the best drivers on the grid. Breaking into the top three in 2012 will be tough, but the team has boosted its chances with a recruitment drive over the past 12 months to put together arguably the strongest technical team in the business.
Geoff Willis, Aldo Costa and Bob Bell have all worked as technical directors at race-winning teams in recent years and now they will be united under Ross Brawn - the most successful technical director of the past 10 years. It will be a formidable line-up and its formation is reminiscent of the gathering of talent under Brawn and Jean Todt at Ferrari in the late 1990s.
ESPN verdict - 6/10
Expectations were high ahead of Mercedes' second year back in F1, but if anything it made a step backwards. By the end of the season its points total was 49 short of 2010 and it failed to score a podium after three visits to the bottom step last year.
Instability as the team changed ownership was a legitimate excuse for Mercedes' failings in 2010, but there was no hiding from the mistakes in 2011. The team spent the first half of the season chasing its tail after fairly fundamental errors were found with the car during testing (see low point), and by the end of the season Ross Brawn admitted the car had fallen six months behind the top teams in terms of development time.
Next season will be about starting on the right path and avoiding the unnecessary backtracking that has been so costly in the first halves of the last two campaigns. If it can get that right then Mercedes has a race-winning operation behind it with one of the fastest pit crews in the paddock ... not to mention the best strategic mind in F1 on the pit wall.