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Wolff on Mercedes, mileage, and the rock-star driver

04 Mar 2016

With pre-season testing all but complete, Mercedes look set to mount a stout defence of their championship titles. However, Mercedes-Benz Motorsport chief Toto Wolff is taking nothing for granted. In an exclusive interview from Barcelona we quiz the Austrian on the Ferrari threat, on sacrificing engine advantage, and on managing two very different star drivers…

Q: Toto, how was the winter after all the laurels Mercedes collected in 2015?

Toto Wolff: Ha, it was a superb winter. We had some nice celebrations after the season finale in Abu Dhabi. The FIA prize giving is always something special, as it means the manifestation of your success. Then we had ‘Stars and Cars’ - an incredible event at Mercedes’ home base in Stuttgart with 36,000 fans attending and - as the name suggests - all our stars and lots of racing cars. And there was a very emotional Christmas party that was the perfect finale to an incredible season. Then the 2015 chapter was closed!

Q: There was a lot of talk about power units over the winter, with the ‘independent engine’ now seemingly off the table. As suppliers of the leading power unit, Mercedes are obviously key players in this arena - where do you stand?

TW: There is a decision being made on various levels of the F1 governance - the Strategy Group, the F1 Commission and the FIA World Motor Sport Council - as to where the technical regulations are today. Everybody expressed their opinion and the decision that was taken was to stay with the current engine architecture but to open up regulations to allow those behind - Honda and Renault - to catch up without triggering an avalanche of costs.

The steps taken are intelligent steps. There is no such thing as a ‘frozen’ engine any more. All four power unit manufacturers were pretty much agreed that an independent engine or a new engine concept would not make sense for us because it would mean that everything we’ve done over the last three years would be thrown away. We need a mid- to long-term perspective of where things are heading to. This is how large cooperation operates - and not on erratic decision making.

Q: You say that the ‘frozen’ engine is a thing of the past. Does that mean that you sacrifice a bit of your advantage?

TW: The answer is a clear yes. We might be giving up a slight advantage - because we feel responsible for the overall platform as well.

Q: Towards the end of last year Mercedes found themselves involved in another much-talked-about power unit story, with Niki Lauda having reportedly promised Red Bull’s Dietrich Mateschitz an engine supply…

TW: If you are not sitting at the table it is pointless to get caught up in interpretations of what was going on back then. Niki says that it was a discussion where nothing was agreed. On the decision-making level, we didn’t enter into discussion terms with them.

Q: So in reality it was never the intention of Mercedes to have Red Bull Racing as a customer…

TW: No, that’s not right - we decided to explore the case. Red Bull is a great brand and there are obviously marketing opportunities between the two parent companies which could have led to positive projects. But in the end there was much more to it, and more aspects to consider, and we didn’t even start that process.

Q: But the door is not closed?

TW: In Formula One I have learned that you never say never. But this was water under the bridge some months ago. Full stop.

Q: Mercedes’ symbol is a three-pointed star - and in Lewis Hamilton you have arguably the biggest F1 star. Is that the combination you would like to see succeed again in 2016?

TW: No, because we have two equal drivers! All points have been reset to zero - so may the best man win.

Q: Lewis seems to be one of the few drivers who understands that F1 racing is as much entertainment as it is sport - why is that?

TW: Ha, yes, F1 is part of the entertainment business and Lewis is a rock-star driver - but this is his life. He is authentic in that - he’s not just trying to project a picture for the entertainment bit. But everybody has to be how he is: one of our drivers is a bit more cosmopolitan, because this is what suits him, and the other one likes to keep it more quiet and be with his family. One is not better than the other. It is just understanding what is good for you - and both understand that pretty well. It is not our business to change one’s personality. We believe it is most important to be authentic - however that may look.

Q: Which is better for the Mercedes brand?

TW: Both cover different angles for Mercedes and both are equally important.

Q: You have a very interesting young driver in Pascal Wehrlein, currently with Manor. Many are already attributing star qualities to him…

TW: Yes, he is our little prince. But again, this is just how he is. Pascal was like this already in his early years in Formula Three and DTM. He is the current DTM champion - people might forget that too easily. He has a certain personality that shows in how he presents himself. Again, this is how he is and not something that somebody ordered him to be.

Q: Do you see anyone stopping you taking both titles again in 2016? Everybody says that Ferrari are very close. Are they very close?

TW: They are much closer. It is difficult to say how much closer, but the last couple of days indicate that. It seems they have done a good job over the winter, so it could boil down to a tough fight between them and us.

Q: You have done massive mileage in testing, apparently without any serious issues: are Mercedes the smarter team?

TW: The smarter team is the one that will win the 2016 championship! (laughs) Mileage is good for data collection and reliability, but ultimately it is about where you qualify the car and how many points you collect. Trying to conclude race results from test mileage… that would be completely wrong. I am cautiously optimistic that the tests are going as we expected - then let’s start the season!

Q: You always say you are not one for predictions, but Melbourne is not even three weeks away so you must have an opinion…

TW: Let me tell you something: probably I am a bit superstitious, but many times when you predict something it turns out completely the other way - and I don’t want to risk that! What the tests so far have shown is that Mercedes and Ferrari are ahead of other teams - but never underestimate Red Bull Racing nor Williams. This is my guess based on testing results.

Q: But you wouldn’t mind walking away with the trophies in Australia…

TW: We love trophies - and we love to walk away with trophies! (laughs)