Toto Wolff exclusive interview: 'I won't tell Lewis Hamilton to move aside for George Russell'

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Toto Wolff is hopeful Mercedes' season will get better from here on in - GETTY IMAGES
Toto Wolff is hopeful Mercedes' season will get better from here on in - GETTY IMAGES

Toto Wolff knows what is coming from the moment I begin to ask about the growing points difference between his two drivers. The Mercedes team principal has already started shaking his head before I get to the end of my question. “No,” he says. “100 per cent no.”

I have, of course, asked whether there might come a time, if Mercedes do get back into this championship battle, as their form in Spain last weekend suggested they might, and they need to claw back every available point they can, they choose to impose team orders on their drivers to try to help whichever one is ahead in the drivers’ championship. At the moment that is George Russell by 28 points.

“One hundred per cent we will allow them to race,” Wolff insists. “Until a driver is mathematically out of contention, we’re not making such a call.”

What if it were the other way around and it was seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton ahead? “It makes no difference,” comes the response.

Even if Mercedes’ lead driver ends up losing  ground to Ferrari and Red Bull as a result? “I think that then the constructors’ championship becomes the priority.”

The Austrian smiles. It is something he has not had much cause to do so far this year.

Lewis Hamilton - GETTY IMAGES
Lewis Hamilton - GETTY IMAGES

From the moment Mercedes’ car started bouncing up and down like a skittish kangaroo at the final pre-season test in Bahrain in March, the hatches have been firmly battened down at Brackley. It has been a chastening period for a team who have become accustomed to success.

Wolff, though, is confident the team have turned the corner now. After Russell finished third in Barcelona last weekend, and Hamilton roared through the field from 19th to fifth, with what Wolff described as the “fastest car in the race”, the Austrian publicly declared his team were back in the title fight, having ruled them out a month ago.

Was that adrenaline talking or did he really mean that? “Absolutely I meant it,” Wolff insists. “You know, ultimately I’m a pessimist by nature. For me the glass is half-empty, not half full. But [Barcelona] was the first time that I saw a performance of a car and driver like in the past years.

“When you look at Imola [last month, in what was the team’s nadir, with Hamilton eventually being lapped by race winner Max Verstappen] we got stuck in no man’s land, and we couldn’t overtake. In Spain Lewis was 30-odd seconds behind the last car in the field and he finished fourth [sic]. So that is a car that is capable of winning a race.”

It is unlikely to be this weekend if practice on Friday is anything to go by, with Hamilton complaining the porpoising was back to such an extent he needed “elbow pads in the cockpit” and was “f------ losing his mind”.

Again, Wolff smiles. He had already flagged up that Monaco might not be the track where they end their barren spell, with Mercedes’ record in the Principality relatively poor. “We might take one on the nose here,” he concedes. “Finish 10th and 12th. But it's not going to change my opinion that the car was quick in Barcelona and that is encouraging.”

Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton in action during practice - REUTERS
Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton in action during practice - REUTERS

Or that his star driver is back. Wolff is of the opinion that Hamilton will “never get over” what happened in Abu Dhabi last season, when he had a record eighth world title snatched from his grasp in cruel fashion following a late safety car and a “freestyle” reading of the rulebook. That experience, Wolff admits, probably contributed to Hamilton's early season travails.

“You know, I had dinner yesterday with the coach of Juventus, Massimiliano Allegri," he says, "and he started the conversation saying ‘None of us can believe what happened to you in Abu Dhabi!’ And we were like ‘Neither can we’. It is still so surreal. And that's going to stay with Lewis forever. Because in effect he won an eighth world championship.

“Then he finds himself on the back foot. And most importantly the car is a b---h to drive. And Lewis is like ‘Four months ago I competed for the world championship in a car that was great. And suddenly the car is undrivable.’ And that also needs recalibration of your own expectations. But I think he has that now.”

What about Wolff's motivation levels? In what was an extremely brave interview earlier this year, the Austrian admitted that he had suffered with depression at times in his life, racking up over 500 hours in therapy since 2004.

The Mercedes team principal gives an interesting response here, revealing for the first time that he is actively looking for someone to replace him as team principal.

“I'm running at 100 per cent [motivation-wise],” insists Wolff, who owns one third of Mercedes F1 and is contracted to stay on as team principal and chief executive until at least the end of next year.

“I'm actually really well balanced when I have problems to solve. What's not good for me is contentment. What's not good is boredom. What's not good is groundhog day. That's when I get really bad.”

Wolff pauses, searching for the right words. “In 2020 I wasn't good at all. I mean, Covid didn't help. But it was important at that time to reflect, is this my niche? Is this what I want to continue to do to the end of my business life?

Toto Wolff - AFP
Toto Wolff - AFP

"In the end, I came to the conclusion ‘I love this sport, I love the competition, I love the honesty of the stopwatch.’ That's why I couldn't believe what was happening in Abu Dhabi.

“But this is my team," he adds. "I’m a third shareholder. I don’t want to sell it. I want to run it in an executive function. Maybe I'll find a team principal that is better than me.”

Does he have his eye on anyone? “I wish I would come across someone that would fit into the organisation. It's not not necessarily whether I think someone is capable intellectually, or understanding the sport. It also needs to be fitting into the group. Because if you're parachuting someone in that isn't respected in the group, he's going to struggle. So far I haven't found anybody.”

What about Christian Horner, I suggest, tongue firmly in cheek. Wolff smiles one last time before getting up to leave. “I think that Christian is very capable,” he says of his Red Bull nemesis. “He's a really good racing team manager. But.. he wouldn't fit in the group.”

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