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Could Mercedes walk away from team ownership?

A recently released investor's report has confirmed the ever shrinking hold that Mercedes have on their own Formula 1 team.

Mercedes has had a huge impact on Formula 1 over the past decade since the German marque returned to the sport as a constructor. Having been involved as a successful engine supplier through Ilmor and McLaren from 1995, the opportunity for Mercedes' parent company Daimler to become a constructor in its own right was simply too good to turn down when the Brawn GP team came up for sale in 2009. Daimler threw money at the project, turning the former BAR/Honda/Brawn team into a behemoth. Crucial signings such as Ross Brawn, Niki Lauda, Michael Schumacher, Nico Rosberg, and Lewis Hamilton, as well as the arrival of the already successful businessman Toto Wolff slowly established the competiveness of the team throughout the next few years until the end of 2013. Of course, we all know the story from there. 2014, and the introduction of the contentious new hybrid regulations, saw Mercedes explode into dominance, and that dominance has been scarcely challenged throughout the entire regulation cycle since. However, there has been a changing of the guard through that cycle. Daimler have been majority shareholders over the course of that decade, under the watchful eye of Dieter Zetsche, a mustachioed German who was the chairman of Daimler AG from 2006. A keen motorsport fan, Zetsche was responsible for bringing the marque back into Formula 1. The Mercedes F1 team represented a factory effort from Daimler, with a 60 percent with the rest of the shares owned by Toto Wolff (30 percent) and Niki Lauda (10 percent) until 2018. Lauda tragically passed away that year, with his shares effectively reverting to Daimler's control shortly after. Lauda's passing was quickly followed by the announcement that Zetsche would step down from his role as Daimler's Chairman, to be replaced by Ola Kallenius. Almost immediately, rumours began circulating that Kallenius and Wolff didn't see eye to eye, a rumour that only gathered momentum as Wolff's contract as team boss began to wind down and his name was linked with the position of Formula 1 CEO, a position since taken by Stefano Domenicali. In early 2020, the Mercedes F1 team announced the signing of British petrochemical giant INEOS as a principal partner, the company owned by British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe. This deal saw INEOS take prominent branding on the cars. This was a particularly interesting signing, as INEOS, just months previously, had completed the purchase of French Ligue 1 side OCG Nice. They also bought out British cycling Team Sky in 2019, as well as backing the British America's Cup sailing team. Ratcliffe has cited a desire to build up a sports franchise for INEOS alongside his petrochemical interests, and Formula 1 does fit nicely in with that, particularly if you don't have to start from scratch.. A few months after INEOS' arrival at Mercedes, F1 announced some changes to its entry structure. An entry fee of $200 million is now required to be paid by prospective entrants, meaning it's now cheaper and easier to buy out an existing team (provided a favourable deal is struck) than it would be to pay that entry fee as well as put all the relevant infrastructure, equipment, R&D and personnel in place on top of that. With Wolff's contract at Mercedes almost at an end in December 2020, the team finally announced the Austrian would stay on for another three years as Team Principal, as well as releasing information revealing a new ownership structure at the team as well. Wolff increased his stake from 30 percent to 33.3 percent, with Daimler reducing, significantly, their stake from 60 percent (70, including Lauda's) to 33.3 percent and INEOS coming onboard as an equal shareholder with 33.3 percent. That three way ownership remains in place after Daimler cashing in on their investment, but for how long? Ratcliffe was present at the Spanish GP, and is clearly enthusiastic about this new environment alongside Wolff. INEOS have also signed a deal to buy Daimler's Smart factory in Hambach, and manufacture the Grenadier 4x4 and Smart on behalf of Daimler. It's a cosy arrangement, but will Daimler seek to further reduce their stake in the team? As it stands, the increasingly restrictive budget caps introduced to Formula 1 should make the outlay required to go racing shrink, year on year in the medium-term, meaning that there's little financial damage being inflicted on Daimler now. If anything, F1 might even become profitable in the not too distant future. Daimler's Q1 2021 financial report, released at the end of April, revealed that the sale of their shares to reduce to 33.3% ownership is yet to be completed, meaning that these shares are still, officially, listed as 'for sale'. It's this description that appears to have caught out some media outlets reporting that Mercedes are selling their remaining stake in the team. But, for now, this isn't the case. Amusingly, the sale is listed on the document as being of 'minor importance' for Daimler. The sale of these shares is expected to be completed by the end of June 2021, meaning INEOS will then officially have equal rights to Daimler and Wolff in the who, what, where and whys of running the team. While Toto hasn't shown any desire over the years to want to rename the team in his image, it's quite likely that a battle over the team name could emerge between Mercedes and INEOS. After all, why would Ratcliffe shell out the same money as Daimler without getting the brand recognition he desires? Equally, Daimler aren't likely to want to spend that kind of money if their Mercedes brand isn't on the cars. For now, on the surface at least, everything remains as it has been in recent years. But the encroachment of INEOS onto Daimler's ownership, coupled with Kallenius' appointment as Daimler chair, could mean that Mercedes back away even further as a constructor in the not too distant future. But that doesn't mean the team aren't in safe hands..

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