After eight years of reigning in Formula 1, Mercedes is in trouble this season. The director of the German team, the Austrian Toto Wolff, is but delighted with the work of his two drivers, the young George Russell and the seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton.
How do you explain the difficulties of Mercedes this season?
We had a difficult start to the season because the concept of our car was suitable for low flat bottom heights [pièce essentielle] of the car. But it doesn’t work in the real world. You can’t mount with a flat bottom too low to hit. In circuits like Barcelona, with the characteristics that suit us, we do not face this concern.
In F1, there’s an aspect you can’t change, and it’s the time it takes to develop the car. And when we start badly, as was our case this season, development takes place on the track. Every race weekend is a test for us. Even for a great team like ours, which has won eight consecutive constructors ’titles.
After Hamilton’s podium in Canada, is the British Grand Prix coming at the right time for you?
The car is believed to work better here at Silverstone than in Baku [12 juin] or Montreal [19 juin], because it is a smooth and fast track. We don’t want to be too sure that we will “destroy” everyone at Silverstone. We were there after Barcelona and were disappointed.
Who of Russell or Hamilton could win this weekend, what would be Mercedes ’first win of the season?
Oh, hard to choose. They both deserve a win. George, this would be the first of his career. Lewis, would make up for the bad luck he had this year. I could have counted at least two more podiums.
Are you surprised by the good coexistence that seems to reign within the team between your two drivers?
No wonder but I’m glad to see the great collaboration between the two. Normally, in a stable, everything is divided. Each pilot works with their engineers. However, the two work together for configuration. I’ve seen it before between Lewis and Valtteri [Bottas, le précédent coéquipier]. There is a real interaction. Sometimes they even try two different configurations and then choose the one that works best.
Can their rivalry remain latent if good results return?
They are smart, they know you have to find solutions for the car first. We double the speed of development if we collaborate. It is pragmatism. And I’m sure the mood will be just as good when the car is running well and the two are fighting for victory and the championship.
You know the qualities of George Russell. But does it exceed your expectations for this first season?
I am very impressed. His integration into the team suggests that he has been with us for ten years. He is very rational and pragmatic. Whether it ranks first or tenth, it debriefs in the same way. It’s not emotional. Uncontrolled emotions are bad for performance. George, you’ll never hear him in the race complaining on the radio or yelling at someone. Unlike others.
You mean the upbeat character of Max Verstappen (the reigning world champion). You mentioned George Russell’s intellectual approach. What does it mean ?
I wasn’t just referring to Max, there are at least half of the riders on the grid who don’t express themselves with composure. George is smart. So is Max. But they have two different characters, who express themselves and act differently. I’m not saying one is better than the other. If there’s a driver who wins the championship and calls me stuff on the radio, I’ll charge. It’s easier if that doesn’t happen.
Lewis Hamilton struggled to digest the result against him for the title last year. Do you think this can explain his difficulties this season, where he has often been dominated by his young teammate?
The most important thing with Lewis is the human aspect. As a friend, I want you to be happy and balanced. We will never digest the end of last season, but we have to accept that. I don’t think it has any influence on your performance. We saw that the car was going very badly and there were Grand Prix where Lewis would have climbed the podium without the interventions of the safety car [voiture de sécurité]. “It’s amazing how bad luck I have this year”, he told me. But it will return to normal. He is very strong in the head.
If Mercedes fails to return to the top level at the end of the season, can Lewis Hamilton decide to resign?
Lewis always said he would end his career at Mercedes. And it is our duty to provide you with a car that goes fast and can win races and championships. In the same way it is the driver’s duty to drive fast. But if we’re not sure, Lewis might be wondering whether to stay or not.
Your rivalry with Red Bull boss Christian Horner has become legendary. Do you play there?
Anyone can be the rival. He was a Christian for years, there is also Mattia [Binotto] and today Ferrari. But I am a competitor. If I go karting with a friend, he will be my opponent. And when I play tennis with my wife, she doesn’t talk to me anymore …
It’s F1, it’s entertainment, it’s not big politics. There are rivalries. We don’t do F1 to be friends, we can’t be. It is too competitive. The only one I like is Frédéric Vasseur [directeur de l’écurie Alfa Romeo]. He has been my friend and my only reference in the paddock for twenty years when my wife is not present.