Such has been Mercedes’ domination of the past few seasons that’s is easy to forget just how much has changed for the team since the end of last year - not just a heavily revised set of regulations, but also a new driver pairing and new staff and structure in the Silver Arrows’ technical line-up. So, with one pre-season test complete, how is it all coming together? We sat down for an exclusive chat with Toto Wolff, Head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport…
Q: Toto, instead of having the reigning champion in your car, you now have a driver who has never won a Grand Prix. Would you say this is a bit of a comedown?
Toto Wolff: Not at all. We trust in Valtteri. He has done 77 races with nine podiums for Williams and has excellent records in junior categories. I think he is grown up enough to step into Nico’s (Rosberg) shoes.
Having Lewis as a team mate is probably the most difficult task you can have as an F1 driver
Q: Did you feel a bit silly when your champion suddenly disappeared? Especially at a time when all other suitable prospects had already signed contracts…
TW: Are you calling us silly? (Laughs) The truth is you can’t look into people’s heads. Nico decided to retire, which is a decision I respected. Sometimes in life your qualities of flexibility are called upon to cope with the completely unexpected. It’s a bit like the Darwin principle: only the most adaptable species will survive! (Laughs)
Q: Was Valtteri the next best thing to Nico - are you hoping he is ‘Rosberg 2.0’? Both of them came to Mercedes from Williams having never won a race before…
TW: Ha, Valtteri is a Valtteri 1.0! But yes, the record looks similar. Both are winners in junior series - and both of them went through a solid education at Williams with some highlights, but weren’t in a position of winning races because of their cars.
Q: To unglue Bottas from Williams looked like a mighty big task…
TW: The discussions were hard, yes. Claire (Williams) is very much the daughter of her father, with a great commercial skill. That I respect a lot. It was important to accommodate the needs of all parties involved: Williams, Sauber and our interests - and achieve a win-win-win situation.
Q: What about your former technical counterpart Paddy Lowe, who recently left Mercedes and is expected to join Williams?
TW: A racing team, like any other company, is not a static structure that you can freeze and expect success to continue. It is important to constantly develop the structure and sometimes disruption can be a positive factor - if handled with care.
Sometimes disruption can be a positive factor - if handled with care
Q: You have signed James Allison following Paddy’s departure. He was not as successful at Ferrari as had been hoped, so what makes you think Mercedes can you unleash the genius in him? Is the climate in Brackley more inspirational than that in Maranello?
TW: James is a very respected engineer who was part of very successful structures at Ferrari and Renault. I like his personality and his management approach. But he was not available for a long time. When he became available - because he wasn’t able to meet his management’s expectations and had to cope with a dramatic personal situation - it was a must for me to get him on board. But James is not replacing Paddy, because the structure has changed.
Q: We all have read Anthony Hamilton’s remarks about his son Lewis being a ‘career killer’ for a team mate. What do you say to that?
TW: In my opinion Lewis is the best driver in modern Formula One. Also because he is driving the best car. That combination is very hard to come by. Sure, having Lewis as a team mate is probably the most difficult task you can have as an F1 driver. Does it kill careers? I don’t know.
Q: Speaking of Lewis and the best car, how satisfied are you so far - and is the Mercedes still the best car?
TW: Ha, as much as you can be satisfied after four days of testing! There is an early indication that we are looking okay, but it is no more and no less.
Q: Adrian Newey said that the Mercedes looks much more complicated than the Red Bull - and that maybe Mercedes is more mature and so can handle such a car…
TW: …we are on very different philosophies. Fundamentally it is all about extracting the maximum performance of the car, and whether this is through sophisticated work or a more simplistic approach is, at the end of the day, irrelevant. What counts is the performance of the car. I have no doubt that whatever car Adrian and his team bring to the track will be a tough competitor to beat. My guess is that we haven’t seen the Red Bull Racing car of 2017 yet.
My guess is that we haven’t seen the Red Bull Racing car of 2017 yet
Q: F1 racing will be run differently now under its new owners. What do you expect? Does it help that Ross Brawn, now Formula 1’s Managing Director, Motor Sports, was one of your team in the past?
TW: I expect changes after Bernie (Ecclestone) has left. At the moment we have positive exchanges with the new owners. Ross has been in F1 forever and one thing is for sure: you can’t ‘bllsht’ Ross! (laughs) Ross’ objectives right now are totally different to the ones he had when he was part of our team. He needs to make sure that the regulations allow a great spectacle - and that means he is looking at things from the other side of the fence now.
Q: Lewis is the bookmakers’ favourite to win the title this year. Who do you see who could stand in his way?
TW: I think we should start the season before making any predictions about who wins and who loses.
Q: Valtteri is on a one-year contract. What does he need to do for you to keep him? A number of other driver contracts run out at the end of the year - notably Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso’s…
TW: He has to integrate well into the team - which I have no doubt he will - and be quick. We want to see that the two [Bottas and Hamilton] push each other as we have seen with our drivers in the past.