Toto Wolff explains Mercedes' driver plans – and doesn’t rule out Vettel swoop
It’s been largely quiet on the Mercedes front during the coronavirus pandemic, but a month before F1 2020 is set to resume, Team Principal Toto Wolff broke his silence as he discussed the thinking around their driver line-up for next season – with the recruitment of Sebastian Vettel still very much a possibility…
Both seats at Mercedes are up for grabs in 2021, and while Lewis Hamilton is expected to renew his arrangement with the Silver Arrows, there has been plenty of chatter surrounding the second cockpit, especailly as four-time world champion Vettel became available after he and Ferrari decided to part ways at the end of this campaign.
But having had to manage the often fractious relationship between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg when they were team mates, would Mercedes really want to risk putting two A-list drivers, with 10 world championships between them, alongside each other as they look to continue their unprecedented dominance?
You would think not. But when asked directly whether Vettel was of interest during a video call with media on Wednesday, Wolff said: “It's not lip service. We owe it to a four-time world champion not to come out and say straight away ‘no’. You need to think about it.
"On the other side, we have a fantastic line-up and I am happy with both our drivers and George [Russell, Mercedes junior currently racing for Williams], but you never know.
“One may decide he doesn’t want to go racing anymore and suddenly you have a vacant spot. That’s why I don’t want to come out in June and say 'no chance, Sebastian' and that he is not racing for us.
"First of all, I wouldn’t do it to him as a driver – to be that blunt – and on the other side, I have seen black swans appearing when nobody expected. Remember Nico Rosberg[‘s retirement at the end of 2016 having won the title]. So in that perspective we are just keeping our options open but of course concentrating our discussions on our current drivers.”
What about Bottas and Russell?
Retaining Valtteri Bottas in many ways makes sense. The Finn has played a key role in helping the team win the constructors’ championship every year since he joined them in 2017 and crucially enjoys a cracking relationship with team mate Hamilton. And the team also has George Russell on their books, who is currently driving for Williams.
However, Mercedes are in an immensely strong position in the driver market, after Ferrari and McLaren set their 2021 stalls out recently, so it’s perhaps not a surprise they aren’t in a rush to make any firm decisions.
“We were quite surprised on the early movements, as you need to start the season with a driver you know you’re going to lose so it’s very tricky to develop a car without having the driver be part of it,” says Wolff. “Every single driver needs to be a team player as well, and that becomes second priority in my opinion, then for the relevant guy.
“For us, we want to take our time. Our priority lies on the Mercedes drivers, Valtteri and Lewis. George and the Williams situation we’re looking on with interest. And beyond that, you need to not discount any driver. That’s why I said I don’t want to discount Sebastian as a four-time world champion because who knows what happens in the next months.
“If I would have told you in January we would not have any racing in the first half of the year, nobody would believe it. So in that respect, we’re just keeping our options open.”
Is Hamilton nailed on to stay?
What is more of a certainty is Hamilton’s presence at the team beyond the end of this year. Both sides have consistently shown a desire to continue their relationship, and if Hamilton is looking for as close to certainty as he can get with regards a package that can help him beat Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world titles, it’s hard to look beyond Mercedes.
Wolff says once racing resumes, with Austria to play host to the first round on 3-5 July, they plan to sit down together and discuss. As they crunch out the details, it will certainly help Wolff’s bargaining power having Vettel as an option for the second seat, which is perhaps why he is not ruling the German out no matter how unlikely such a move is.
“We [Wolff and Hamilton] didn’t see each other over lockdown,” he says. “We were in different parts of the world, but we were in very regular contact. We didn’t work on any agreement, between us there is a lot of trust.
"We have been together for a long time and never in these years together have we had to take the contract out and actually read what was written in there as it comes so naturally.
“Once racing resumes we’re going to spend some time together, dig the contract out of the cupboard, look at the timings and the numbers and the rights and hopefully have something pretty soon.”
That means for now, while unlikely, the prospect of a Hamilton-Vettel partnership remains an option with Bottas and Russell set to have to wait a little a longer to find out if they will get the second coveted seat.