Lewis Hamilton could leave Mercedes unless car improves, Toto Wolff warns
Lewis Hamilton will leave Mercedes unless they can give him a winning car soon, Toto Wolff has warned.
Speaking ahead of qualifying for this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, the Mercedes team principal said he would not blame Hamilton for seeking a move away if they failed to turn things around.
But he added that he was “absolutely confident” Hamilton would stay at Mercedes beyond the end of his current contract, which expires at the end of this year, saying there had been “many big and many good meetings” since the disastrous season opener in Bahrain.
Speculation regarding the seven-time world champion’s future intensified following a race that saw Hamilton and team-mate George Russell finish fifth and seventh respectively, with the team admitting afterwards that they had got it wrong over the winter and would now need to make “radical” changes to the W14 in order to reduce the deficit to champions Red Bull.
Hamilton’s state of mind may also have been affected by the sudden departure, announced on Friday, of his long-time performance coach and physiotherapist Angela Cullen after seven years together.
Hamilton arrived at the paddock in Jeddah ahead of first practice without the New Zealander by his side, a rare occurrence. The reason soon became apparent as they published Instagram posts within minutes of each other confirming their split.
Hamilton, for whom Cullen performed a number of roles, including that of friend and confidante, wrote that he was a “stronger athlete and a better person” because of the 48-year-old, wishing her luck in her next challenge. He has not yet announced a replacement. It is understood that someone from within Mercedes will step in to help this weekend. Cullen gave no specific reason for her departure, although a desire to spend more time with her family - she is married with two children - is understood to be a major factor. Whatever the reason, her departure will leave a hole in Hamilton’s life.
Woff said he was confident Hamilton would stay within the Mercedes family, with the team achieving “more clarity” in recent weeks about where they are lacking. But he also admitted the 38 year-old’s head could be turned as he pursues a record eighth world championship.
“If Lewis wants to win another championship he needs to make sure he has the car,” Wolff said. “And if we cannot demonstrate that we are able to give him a car in the next couple of years then he will need to look everywhere.
“I don’t think he is doing it at this stage, but I will have no complaints if that happens in a year or two.”
Red Bull and Ferrari could both have seats available in that timeframe, but Wolff said he did not anticipate what would be a sensational transfer.
“I am absolutely confident [Hamilton will stay]. We are talking when we want to do it, and how, but we just need to change some terms and the dates basically.
“Lewis is at the stage of his career where we trust each other, we have formed a great bond and we have no reason to doubt each other even though it is a difficult spell.
“It will be so nice when we come out of the valley of tears and return to solid performances.”
Meanwhile, Aston Martin and Fernando Alonso once again look the best bet to take the fight to champions Red Bull at this weekend’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
Alonso, who finished a surprise third in Bahrain two weekends ago, managed to split Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez in free practice On Friday posting the second quickest time of the day. Esteban Ocon of Alpine was fourth fastest at the high-speed Jeddah Corniche street circuit, just ahead of Mercedes’s Russell. But Russell’s team-mate Hamilton could only go 11th quickest and said afterwards that the car felt “pretty much the same” as last year’s, when Hamilton famously failed to get out of the first qualifying session in Saudi Arabia, arguably the worst qualifying performance of his career.
There is little chance of that happening on Saturday with Mercedes at least having solved their bouncing issues. But Hamilton still sounded gloomy. “We were about a second off [the Red Bulls],” he said afterwards. “I definitely struggled in both sessions. We’ll continue to try to make the balance of the car better. It’s just a matter of time. I’m trying to be patient.”
Alonso, who is chasing a 100th career podium in Saudi Arabia, finished two tenths behind the Red Bull of Verstappen on the same tyres.
With Mercedes struggling, and Ferrari suffering a torrid time with their engines - both Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz have been forced to take new power units in Saudi Arabia, with Leclerc set for a 10-place grid penalty having already exceeding the permitted number of electronic control units allowed for the entire season - Aston Martin once again look most likely to spring a surprise. The Silverstone-based team have made a remarkable step over the winter, with Alonso’s team-mate Lance Stroll also setting respectable times in Jeddah.
Trusted Cullen's departure leaves a hole
The timing of Cullen’s departure may seem strange, just one race into a new campaign. Especially with Mercedes struggling on track as they are. But equally it could be argued that she stayed on longer than she might have, to help Hamilton prepare for the new season, getting him in the best shape possible both mentally and physically, and that now is a better moment to go than during the off-season.
The reasons for her sudden departure, and the timing of it, may come out in time. But the lifestyle is clearly hugely demanding. Cullen, who has two children and lives on the French-Swiss border near Hamilton’s Monaco base, has already sacrificed a huge amount of time with her family to accompany the driver around the world. It is likely that is the major factor behind the decision.
Cullen never really intended to be such a permanent fixture in F1 at all. Back in 2014, she was working at the English Institute of Sport, helping Britain’s 100 and 200-metre sprinters, when her colleague, Pete McKnight, now director of coaching and sports science at F1 consultants Hintsa Performance, first raised the possibility of working with Hamilton.
The pair hit it off brilliantly; Cullen, with her shock of white blonde hair, becoming a colourful presence alongside Hamilton at races and on training camps, performing a multitude of roles, from physical conditioning, to travel companion, to water bottle carrier, to trusted confidante. Partly for the reason that she was so close to him, she was never put forward by the team for any interviews or at liberty to speak about her relationship with Hamilton. But he appreciated her bubbly nature and outlook. "She's a very special human being," he said once.
It remains to be seen what she and he do next. Cullen merely stated she was “off on her next adventure”. But her departure leaves a hole. Hamilton is in the final year of his contract. He will now be trying to get this season, and any future ones, assuming he stays, back on track, without the support of one of his long-time allies.