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Exclusive Toto Wolff Q&A: Ferrari have caught us by surprise

18 Apr 2015

Lewis Hamilton earned Mercedes their fourth straight pole of 2015 in Bahrain, but it wasn't all plain sailing for the Silver Arrows as Sebastian Vettel claimed a share of the front row for Ferrari. As Mercedes-Benz's head of motorsport Toto Wolff admits, the Scuderia's form has been something of a shock - and that could be amplified given how threatening their form has been in Bahrain...

Q: Toto, the Chinese Grand Prix seemed to put Mercedes back on top, but under the surface there's seething tension between your two drivers. What is the state of affairs?

Toto Wolff: The fact is that we had a real resurgence in China. We don't have the gaps any more from last year and the competition has become tougher. It's true we lost a race fair and square in Malaysia, and won a race fair in square in China…

Q: In China it might have been fair and square against the others, but what about internally? Was it fair and square between Lewis and Nico?

TW: Yes, I think it was. And both have agreed after the race that they had two different positions in the race. Lewis was controlling the pace at the front on softer tyres, and we didn't know how long they would last, so it was understandable that he tried to manage his pace. Nico behind him was in an uncomfortable situation: he had Lewis in front whom he couldn't really overtake as the moment you come nearer you have so much more tyre degradation - and coming from behind was Sebastian (Vettel) who was pushing. Nico was squeezed between Lewis and Sebastian and couldn't really do anything. That produces a certain amount of frustration!    

Q: Your non-executive chairman and three-time world champion Niki Lauda is quoted saying that if you want to be a champion you have to be a selfish bastard. Is Nico not selfish enough for the job?

TW: Ha, that is a good question… You want to frame me, don't you? (laughs) Drivers are out there alone and they've calibrated their whole life on racing and succeeding. Having said that a Formula One team is a huge organisation with hundreds of people working for the success of the team, and Nico and Lewis know that. So to answer your question: yes, a driver has to be selfish, but should never forget that he is part of a huge organisation. He has to drive a car with two ambitions: one to become champion, and the second to secure the team's position. Both do that, mastering a high-wire act at times.

Q: But we have seen in the past that drivers who pass that fine line between selfishness and the wellbeing of the team are the most successful…

TW: But not in our team! They can be the most successful, but not with us. 

Q: After all the criticism Nico got from the media after China he has responded superbly. Does that make a mockery of those who suggest he is cracking under pressure?

TW: He is far from cracking under pressure or giving up. Yes, he got a beating from the media for what he said. But he said what he said in a moment of frustration, so what he had to take from the press was unfair.

Q: In the winter tests everybody predicted Williams would be your biggest challengers, but Ferrari have of course emerged in that role. Did you overlook them?

TW: Hah! Yes, they've caught us by surprise - but I hope not with our pants down (laughs). They have strongly and impressively developed their 2015 car. This is where Ferrari should be. A big battle with them is a challenge we are very keen to take on. Ferrari returning to the front is good for Formula One. 

Q: But be honest: when going to the first test in Jerez did you have them on your radar as your main threat?

TW: Probably not. 

Q: High temperatures don't seem to be a Mercedes preference. How welcome is it that Bahrain is a night race? Would a daytime race deliver a different result, or have you got on top of that particular area of sensitivity?

TW: We haven't really solved the problem. I think that both extremes - very hot and very cold - don't work well. But in the end it is all about getting the tyres up to the right temperature, and it is just as difficult here as it was in Malaysia. 

Q: There is still the question of 2017 rule changes looming over the paddock. Of course Mercedes doesn't want to be robbed of their fantastic work, but wouldn't changes smooth the situation in F1?

TW: I think the rules are going to get changed for 2017. The teams sat down with the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone to discuss possible avenues in order to make the cars more spectacular and quicker. That is happening…

Q: But the pressing issue for the other engine manufacturer isn't being more spectacular but closing the gap. Will that be possible?

TW: I think that the changes on the power train will be smaller than changes on the chassis side. As it is right now the architecture of the power train including the hybrid system and energy recovery system should not change a lot. This is where the technology of road cars goes, so this is important for car manufacturers. But we can do a lot on the chassis side. And maybe in the end also on the power unit - we shouldn't be shy to see where we can improve to improve he show.

Q: If you look into a crystal ball what do you see for this Sunday? Another one-two - or maybe a one-three as we saw in qualifying?

TW: I am not in the prediction business! I hope we can finish one two but Ferrari will be a strong contender as we have seen in qualifying with Sebastian making the front row alongside Lewis. I don't say this nonchalantly; I mean it.