Some were surprised by the quite public fashion in which team management dealt with the situation. However, according to Mercedes-Benz Motorsport chief Toto Wolff, hiding their feelings is not the way the Silver Arrows do things…
Q: Toto, what many had predicted would happen finally happened in Belgium: your two cars touched - and a likely one-two victory went out the window. Can you describe the emotions on the pit wall in that moment?
Toto Wolff: First thought was I cannot believe what’s happening just now. We always had a healthy scepticism of whether such an incident could be avoided throughout the whole season and we knew it would become more intense toward the end of the season. But such a thing happening at a track that is so wide, so long, so big - in a corner where you can only overtake if you are very aggressive… and the next thing that you see is a piece of a front wing flying off and Lewis going off track with a puncture and trying to bring the car back to the pits on the rim - that was really painful. I think I said to Paddy (Lowe), completely baffled, ‘I cannot believe it!’ To myself I thought something in Austrian slang…
Q: Why were you all so shocked? This is Formula One racing - and at 300 km/h a small or impulsive misjudgement is always possible…
TW: Probably we knew that one day it would come our way and that we then would have to change the system, but we didn’t expect it there - and so early in the race. Nico was in the lead in the championship, and that such an analytical driver could go for such a situation when they’ve raced each other for so many years was rather unimaginable - almost unbelievable. It was a surreal moment.
Q: Why was it so important that somebody took the blame for what the stewards deemed a racing incident? In Hungary the Force India team mates collided but no big deal was made of it. Is everything exaggerated when you are Mercedes, when your drivers are Hamilton and Rosberg, and when you are fighting for the championship?
TW: Of course you have much more focus on you when you are racing for wins and when you are very likely go for a one-two victory, as the car was performing fantastic. And if that is thrown away from one second to the other, that is a very disappointing experience. Of course the media also play their part in a drama that includes battle, fight and rivalry when the title is the reward. And of course we could have played it down with the stereotypical phrases like ‘everything has to be analysed, we have to see the data’ and so on and forth. But we wanted to stay true to ourselves, as emotions are an integral part of our team. Emotions got the team to where it is now. It has a very positive effect on us. And sometimes it bursts out of us! Probably we - Niki (Lauda), me - could have been a bit less churning, but as I just said, emotions have gotten us to where we are.
Q: Aside from the missed win, wasn’t that encounter the best thing that could have happened to Mercedes? It got you more media attention than three one-two victories in a row…
TW: No, no, we would have preferred the win. But that is also what Bernie (Ecclestone) told me - that it was the best for Formula One and for us. But 43 points out the window - that’s not petty stuff. And imagine if for whatever reason we face reliability ‘gremlins’ and we continue to have some incidents on track… then suddenly we are in a position before Abu Dhabi where we haven’t won the championship - and are facing losing the championship… then we would look like fools letting these championships slip away. And we want to win these championships. This is our objective.
Q: Lewis is a former champion, so we know that he’s got the ‘killer instinct’ - and now we know that Nico has it too. Isn’t that a discovery that, in the long run, should please you rather than shock you?
TW: We enjoy working with both of them. They are very different personalities. But I can tell you one thing: if somebody ever had any doubt that Nico has a ‘killer instinct’, then let me tell you that from the first moment I met him - and that was a couple of years ago - I had no doubt that he has that instinct. Everybody who is capable of winning races in F1 must have a killer instinct. Now it is very visible to everybody that both are the same in that respect…
Q: So when in the end everything turns out positive, why are both walking through the paddock with hanging heads?
TW: We had very clear discussions with them - clear words. And I prefer that our guys are showing emotions than behaving like a robot and not letting fans participate in how they feel. I think that is good.
Q: Lewis probably hadn’t envisioned that his team mate would prove such a tough cookie and that ‘Mr nice guy’ Rosberg has some ‘dark forces’ hiding somewhere in his DNA after all. Now that is all out in the open, how will you proceed?
TW: We had very good discussions with them and Nico has shown very strong character in taking responsibility for the incident. It takes strength of character to say that in front of the world. And Lewis - as always - is such a switched-on guy. Together we’ve analysed the situation and we redefined the number-one rule: that there shouldn’t be any contact between their cars. They can race each other fair and square but no more contact, as we cannot let the team down. There are so many people who have worked day and night to get parts on the car at Spa - parts which were supposed to come in Singapore - to raise the performance of the car. That performing car is then being put into the hands of Lewis and Nico and they have always respected that fact. Then suddenly on that second lap it was all thrown away. This should never happen again. Period.
Q: Drivers apart, what about within the team - are there factions forming? The Lewis or Nico followers?
TW: No - because that is something that has no place in a team. We have a contract with both drivers. This is what we have decided and we knew what we would get - some more grey hairs because we’ve opted for two number-one drivers. I want to be transparent with both of them and want to get the same in return. If there is anything that worries them, then they can tell me. And so far it has worked out well. Paddy and myself, we have a very open relationship with both of them. There is no favouritism.
Q: Spa was a big setback for Lewis: before that race, in terms of points he was less than a win behind Nico. Now it’s more than a win. In terms of sheer mathematics, what does that mean for a team that wants to win both titles?
TW: Sheer mathematics is always dangerous in motorsport. It never turns out the same. Sure, it is a bit more of a difficult situation for us, as we will not favour or prioritise any of the drivers. We let them race. The downside of this clearly is that they will take away points from each other and that is definitely more difficult than with only one driver fighting for a championship. We are fully aware of the complications of the situation. And there are still seven races to go where they can show that they can race each other in the way we expect them to race. Then we are willing to take the risk and accept the downside of not always optimising the points for the guy who is in the lead.
Q: When Nico signed his new contract with Mercedes some weeks ago it was understood that Lewis was eager to do the same. Now one might say he seems less eager - what happened?
TW: This is an ongoing discussion between us and we very much want Lewis to stay in the team and to enter into a new contract with him - and he wants the same. We have agreed that because the situation is so intense at the moment, we want to get over the season and then intensify the discussions about a contract renewal. It is good and intelligent to put it a little bit on hold in the next two months. The only reason for doing so is to fully concentrate on the world championship.
Q: So Lewis does not have wandering eyes?
TW: As a driver you always have to have a wandering eye and see what is going on out there. That’s what you owe to yourself. But we have agreed that if considerations get serious, the first party to speak to is your current partner - and this is what we will do.
Q: Last week’s ‘peace talks’ mean no direct team orders. But there are other ways a team can favour one driver or the over, with superior strategy etc…
TW: No, we will not do that. We don’t want to interfere nor pre-empt the sporting outcome. We will always choose the best strategy for the team and the drivers. Sometimes one strategy proves to be better than the other one, but that is not something we do on purpose.
Q: What kind of chapter will Monza write for Mercedes this weekend?
TW: As a driver you can race each other very fairly - and have some sort of safety margin. Of course it’s difficult at 300 km/h to stay completely unfazed. That’s why we expect that little safety margin - because it’s your team mate!
Q: How much safety margin? Enough that a third car could fit in between them?
TW: No, no - maximum is half a car. No other car must fit in between.
Q: So what are the expectations?
TW: Hopefully we get both cars on the podium, extend our lead in the constructors’ championship and extend our lead in the drivers’ championship. But let’s see how the weekend develops.