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Toto Wolff Q&A: No regrets over Hamilton engine switch

27 Aug 2016

Spa-Francorchamps has a reputation for unpredictable weather, but so far this weekend it’s been sunshine and scorching temperatures all the way – and championship leaders Mercedes have felt the heat more than most, with their usual superiority under threat. But why have the Silver Arrows seemed to have struggled more than their rivals at Spa, and was it a mistake to make this the race where Lewis Hamilton took his engine change grid drop? Mercedes’ chief Toto Wolff explains all…

Q: Toto, when looking at the gaps they are closer than ever before. The surprising thing was that when switching from softs to supersoft tyres you seemed to get less of an advantage than other teams. Why is that?

Toto Wolff: We seem to struggle more than other teams with overheating and blistering on particular surfaces and circuits. As a consequence the normal one second gap from the soft to the supersoft tyre does not materialize for us as the supersoft just gives up! The drivers said that after Turn 1 there was the feeling that the rear was going on the supersofts. So our performance on the soft is what we would deem as normal and we are not able to extract more form the softer tyres as on our car the tyres simply give up.

Q: There have been rumours over the weekend that you would like to sign Stoffel Vandoorne. Is that true?

TW: Ah, that is the big misunderstanding from yesterday! First of all we don’t have a car for him…

Q: …but what about a driver contract?

TW: I like the boy. He is somebody who deserves a seat in Formula One. He dominated GP2 in a very extraordinary way. So I think if guys like Stoffel don’t come into F1 the system is wrong. Yesterday there was a meeting with Belgian journalists and I said there: if McLaren is crazy enough not to take him, then I would organise him a seat! 

Q: As you rightly said before the gaps here are very small. Was it a mistake to take Lewis’ penalty here, as it will be tough for him to make it through the field?

TW: Well, at a certain stage we had to take a decision – and yes if we look at the gaps now it probably is difficult for him to move forward to a good position – but that is in hindsight. Sure if we would have known what we know now we probably would have chosen Monza. But I am still one hundred per cent convinced that given the parameters we had before Spa it was a good decision to take the penalty here. Taking the penalty early – getting a new engine into Lewis’ car early – that was the paramount idea. But of course if it is as hot tomorrow as it has been all weekend so far, it will be very difficult for him.

Q: You have introduced an engine upgrade this weekend – and there will be one more to come. How will that fit with Lewis’ engine situation? Wouldn’t that again push him further down the grid if you take it?

TW: There is no perfect scenario. If we introduce an engine upgrade and it has more performance you cannot ignore it. And from what we’ve seen on the dyno it should be a step forward so I don’t see it as a disadvantage for Lewis’ championship ambitions.

Q: Spa has a very tricky first corner so has there been any thought to the idea of letting Lewis start from the pit lane to avoid the potential danger at the back of the grid?

TW: Yes, this is a discussion we need to have – and indeed in a small group we already had a chat about it, as it is definitely something that you have to consider.

Q: You once said that there will not be a Mercedes junior team in the Toro Rosso style. But now your two test drivers are ‘parked’ at Manor. Is that your version of a junior team?

TW: We never intended to have a junior programme – but Max [Verstappen] is a good example: he fell through our system, as we don’t have a junior programme. The only thing we could have offered him was a GP2 ride – but that was clearly not as good as a Toro Rosso cockpit. Now we have made an agreement with Manor for Pascal [Wehrlein] that works well – and then Haryanto was out and suddenly we found a chance to do something for Esteban [Ocon]. We are working together with Manor – we have a good relationship with them – but we are not shareholders and we don’t plan to go in that direction. In the future there could be co-operations that go beyond what we have today. But not to own - or co-own - a junior team – that has not changed.

Q: When you talk about the heat and high pressure issues here: we’ve had hot races before and races with higher tyre pressure. Is it the tarmac that causes you the most troubles?

TW: It is a matter of all those factors: the tarmac is abrasive and that eats the tyres. The more downforce you put on the car, the more the tyres are on the limit. And then you have high energy corners here – and so it is always the best solution if you find a compromise, and it was hard for us to do that today.

Q: Would you say that without the engine upgrade you still would hold pole position? Can you also say what you have changed?

TW: Ha, I definitely cannot say what we’ve changed! And yes, the upgrade – which was not a huge upgrade but enough to put us on pole – made a different as today every tenth counts!