Toto Wolff: 'Hamilton and Rosberg was more intense than we thought beneficial'

Giles Richards
Lewis Hamilton said during the winter shakedown that he and Mercedes were working ‘better than ever together’. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

“Still I Rise” is the motto Lewis Hamilton wears proudly tattooed on his back and emblazoned across his helmet. Inspiration for resilience in adversity adopted from Maya Angelou’s poem via Tupac Shakur that he had good reason to look to last year when, in the wake of consecutive Formula One world championships, an emotional and mental rollercoaster of a season left him ultimately beaten by his team-mate, Nico Rosberg. Worse still, by the close, the title gone, his fractured relationship with his former friend extended to the team. The formidable partnership forged over four years between the Briton and Mercedes was probably at its lowest ebb.

If Hamilton is to be successful in his effort to become the first British driver to win four Formula One world championships, having everyone at Mercedes on board and confident they are behind him will be crucial. Fortunately, with the first round in Melbourne on Sunday, it appears that relationship is now firmly back on track. Fundamental to this has been Mercedes’ acknowledgment that managing one of the world’s best drivers requires the same care and attention that is lavished on the machinery he will be climbing into. “It’s all about the car‚” is the oft-quoted and largely erroneous criticism of F1. Hamilton, as Mercedes have recognised, proves otherwise.

Toto Wolff, Mercedes’ executive director, is unequivocal about the costs and benefits of having Hamilton in his seat. “Who would want to settle for second best just for the easiness of a relationship?” he says. “You always want the best, the two best drivers in the car extracting everything on difficult days, accepting that there will be controversy at times and that the way the best ones are calibrated can cause bumps on the way.”

This is not a new concept in F1: risking death in the name of sport does not attract characters without strong will. Indeed, many of the greats have been more than a handful; Wolff knows this and classes Hamilton among them. Ensuring they have a shared purpose together again has been crucial.

“The best ones are all not easy. This makes them the best,” he says. “After four years we have got to know each other and we kind of get the vibes. We are on this journey together and most of our objectives are aligned most of the time but not always – and we recognise that. We respect him as an individual, we respect him as a personality and we respect him as a racing driver.”

The vibes had been altogether different by the time the chequered flag fell at the last race of 2016. By then, although Hamilton had won one more race than Rosberg and turned a 43-point deficit into 19-point lead during the course of nine meetings and won the last four races, he was still beaten by five points. Mechanical problems plagued his early season, compounded by some poor starts and topped off by a highly unusual Mercedes engine failure while leading in Malaysia. The uncharacteristic fire that ended his race was reflected in his turning his frustration publicly against the team. In a last bid to wrest the title from Rosberg’s grasp Hamilton went on to disobey team orders at the final round in Abu Dhabi – perfectly legitimately backing the field into his rival – and chaos seemed to reign in the previously unflappable organisation.

Wolff called it “anarchy” and Hamilton responded by saying he felt “disrespected” by his comments. The driver was now dealing with defeat as well as falling out with what had been a tightly knit squad. Then Rosberg shocked everyone by announcing his retirement and the dynamic changed. “I’m committed, hopefully they’re committed to me,” said Hamilton, adding pointedly: “I’m now their only world champion, so hopefully they respect and appreciate that and the commitment that I’ll put into next year.” Since when there has clearly been a close season of reconciliation and now Hamilton and Mercedes are in buoyant form and seemingly closer than ever.

Mercedes admitted the orders in Abu Dhabi had been a mistake and Wolff and his driver have worked together to restore mutual confidence. “I’m feeling in a positive place with the team,” Hamilton said before testing. “We talked about a lot of stuff over the winter. I was able to get some things off my chest and now we are communicating better than ever and continuing to grow together.” That theme continued during the winter shakedown, with Hamilton noting they were now working “better than ever together”. Wolff acknowledges they have moved on. “Of course he is competing for Lewis Hamilton first but it is about aligning your objectives as well as you can,” he says. “I have great respect in how he has handled that balance right.”

The air-clearing was accompanied by the arrival of a new team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, with Wolff admitting the difficult relationship between Hamilton and Rosberg had become a tiresome drain on the team’s time and resources. “Towards the end it was more intense than we would have thought beneficial,” he says. “What was beneficial at the beginning, that they knew each other for 20 years also meant towards the end that there was lots of baggage carried over and things we weren’t even aware of. With Valtteri the relationship starts at zero.”

Mercedes stress they do not want to change Hamilton, just work with him to extract the best, the sensible approach with a driver who is their best chance of winning the title this season as Johnny Herbert confirms. “Lewis needs to know that they are on board, that they believe in him,” says the former driver. “That’s the big thing for a driver – having people believe in you. Then you can take that positive energy and put it into the racetrack.” This certainly looks to be the case and, come Sunday, Hamilton will have the whole his team eager to be part of a truly unified resurgence.

He is likely to face a stiffer test from the opposition than has been provided in the previous three years, however. The Mercedes was hugely reliable in testing, clocking up the most laps in Barcelona, and with the likelihood of a little more pace to come they look still to be the strongest package. But Ferrari were also robust, were quickest in testing and expect to go faster. Red Bull did not match either but the car they are likely to bring to Melbourne is expected to bear considerable upgrades. Equally, with brand new cars under new regulations the fight will be a season-long development battle. Mercedes enter with an edge but nothing that cannot be overcome. Hamilton’s fourth title might be his hardest won yet.

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