GRR

INTERVIEW: Wolff says Mercedes F1 struggles are “like an on-off switch”

02nd April 2024
Ian Parkes

Without a doubt, Toto Wolff is facing the toughest time of his 11-year tenure as Team Principal at Mercedes. For eight glorious seasons, the Silver Arrows ruled the roost after taking the new 1.6-litre turbo-charged power unit regulations that were introduced in 2014 by the scruff of the neck and barely letting go.

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Red Bull has done so in a similar fashion since F1 switched to ground effect regulations in 2022, and now Mercedes – and by extension Wolff – are enduring a taste of the medicine they began to administer a decade ago, and which is clearly bitter.

When a team is as dominant as Mercedes once was, and when a fallow period then immediately follows, the pressure to recapture past glories is so much more intense, and the cracks are beginning to appear. When Mercedes confirmed at the start of this year that Wolff had agreed a new three-year extension to his contract to remain in charge through to the end of 2026, naturally, he was completely unaware of the bombshell he was to be handed weeks later by Lewis Hamilton.

A routine pre-season visit from Hamilton to Wolff's home culminated in the explosive news from his star driver, who he had helped become a record-equalling seven-time champion, that he had opted to exercise an escape clause in a contract he only signed last August and join Ferrari in 2025. Despite Wolff conceding that his natural pragmatism took control of the situation as it unfolded, it would be fair to suggest that deep down he would likely have felt the rug had been pulled from beneath him.

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As to Hamilton's deep-rooted reasons for wanting to move just six months after seemingly signalling his intent to finish his career with Mercedes, other than apparently realising a long-held dream to drive for Ferrari, can only be speculated upon. The suggestion is Hamilton was aware of what was looming over the horizon with the W15, and that the revisions made, notably to the chassis, would not be enough to challenge Red Bull this season, never mind for the title, but simply for race wins and pole positions.

In the early months of last season's W14, Hamilton bemoaned the fact he was not listened to when he informed the team that changes were required, notably its lack of centre introduced with the ‘zeropod’ concept in 2022, with the cockpit too far forward, resulting in an unstable rear, leading to a lack of confidence through the corners.

A year later, and with the requisite changes made, Hamilton has endured his worst start to an F1 season, his 18th in the sport, scoring just a measly eight points from the opening three grands prix, leaving him languishing in tenth position in the drivers' standings.

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Team-mate George Russell has only managed a further ten points, and Mercedes are fourth in the constructors' championship, already 69 points behind Red Bull. But for Fernando Alonso's 20-second time penalty incurred for his 'potentially dangerous driving' in the Australian Grand Prix that resulted in a penultimate-lap incident and a stricken Russell ending up on his side in the middle of Melbourne's Albert Park circuit, Mercedes would be a lowly fifth.

As the saying goes, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics, and the latter can always be read into to suit a narrative, but one win in the past 47 grands prix tells a story that has resulted in questions being asked of Wolff's leadership. The Austrian at least appreciates his position in the firing line, after all, he is the team's figurehead and the buck stops with him, but right now, Wolff is standing firm.

Suggested to him whether it was fair that his position should be questioned, he replied: “I look at myself in the mirror every single day about everything I do. If I believe that I should ask the manager question or the trainer question, I think it's a fair question.

“It's not what I feel at the moment that I should do. But if you have any ideas about who could turn this around, I would happily listen to them.”

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For Wolff, his trust has been placed in those below him to rectify the issues with a car on which hopes were pinned coming into the season given the changes made, with belief high it had finally grasped the regulations.

Wolff is adamant he has trust in those leaders, spearheaded by technical director James Allison who only 11 months ago returned to a role he had vacated for a wider-arching chief technical officer position, swapping places with former TD Mike Elliott.

"I would be the first one to say, 'If somebody has a better idea, tell me'," remarked Wolff. “I'm interested in turning this team around as quickly as possible, and I'll happily give my input on what that would be, or who that could be.

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"But we have a physics problem, not a philosophical or organisational problem, and we haven't swallowed a dumb pill since 2021. We just don't understand some of the behaviours of the car. In the past, we would have always understood.

"When I look at the positives, I think we took many potential root causes out of the equation. We weren't sure about our suspension, we weren't sure about the stiffness of our gearbox carrier, and we had a vibrating steering rack. All of those things have disappeared.

“But fundamentally, whatever we see in the tunnel doesn't correlate with what's happening on the track."

There is naturally 'no dogmatism', as Wolff puts it, inside the team. No one is blinkered to suggestions or closed off to the idea that mistakes have been made. Wolff is adamant, though, that his team is not "missing something", and instead it is "just a complication of what's happening with the car that we can't see. It's like an on-off switch.”

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Changes will be made, that much is certain. But it is a question of how much the team stripped out of its budget cap to put the current car on track, and what is left in the pot to ensure the aforementioned 'switch' remains on. Every penny counts, particularly as the car that finishes this season will carry over into next year when virtually all resources will be ploughed into the 2026 machine due to the introduction of new power unit regulations, and with it another revision of the chassis.

Rubbing salt into Mercedes' wounds is the fact it has now fallen behind Ferrari and McLaren. And when Hamilton was unable to make it out of Q2 in Melbourne, compared to a year ago when he started third on the grid just behind Russell, the scale of how far the team has fallen is again magnified.

Wolff makes no bones that what he is experiencing at present is "brutally painful”. Right now, there is no soothing balm to ease such hurt. So does he remain the right man to lead Mercedes? Never has Wolff undergone a more searching examination of that question than he has at present.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • F1

  • Formula 1

  • Toto Wolff

  • Lewis Hamilton

  • George Russell

  • Mercedes

  • Interview

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