Toto Wolff may not stomach all this humble pie at Mercedes – a big reboot is looming
When Toto Wolff said a couple of weeks ago that Lewis Hamilton might look to leave Mercedes unless they give him a winning car, the Austrian was only stating the obvious. Hamilton is 38. He does not have time on his side. If he wants that record-breaking eighth world title, and Mercedes cannot give him a machine capable of fighting for it, it stands to reason he may need to look elsewhere. “I will have no complaints if that happens in a year or two,” Wolff added quite reasonably.
It was a nothing comment in many ways. What was surprising was that Wolff said it at all. Even accepting the possibility that he might lose his star driver to another team felt like an escalation in the levels of despair currently being experienced at Brackley. It probably was.
As Wolff said many times last season, having such a relatively poor car after such a long period of dominance was a great lesson in humility. But there surely is only so much humble pie you can eat before you begin to feel sick. And one wonders what effect all this force-feeding is having on the Mercedes team principal.
This is a man, remember, who admitted, very bravely, in an interview last year that he he had suffered with depression in his life, clocking up more than 500 hours of therapy since 2004. Wolff has also spoken in the past of his shelf-life in Formula One, his motivation levels, questioning whether it was what he really wanted to do for the foreseeable future.
As one-third owner of Mercedes F1 it is not as if he needs the salary or the stress. “In 2020 I wasn't good at all,” he admitted to Telegraph Sport in an interview in Monaco last year. “I mean, Covid didn't help. But it was important at that time to reflect ‘Is this my niche? Is this what I want to continue to do to the end of my business life?”
In the end, Wolff said, he came to the conclusion that he did still love the sport, and was keen to continue leading the team for the time being. “I'm running at 100 per cent [motivation-wise],” he insisted. “I’m actually really well balanced when I have problems to solve. What's not good for me is contentment. What's not good is boredom. What's not good is groundhog day. That's when I get really bad.”
Nine months on, Wolff’s motivation levels are once again under close scrutiny. It has been a desperately disappointing start to the new campaign for the Brackley team. Mercedes stuck stubbornly to their design philosophy over the winter, only to watch aghast as that decision blew up in their faces in Bahrain. His No 1 driver has made his frustration abundantly clear.
Wolff, who is not used to leading a team on the back foot, is clearly hurting. He has veered between deploying the sort of fighting talk he used last year, when he promised Mercedes would come storming back, and a harsher kind of realism. Sometimes he deploys both within minutes of each other.
In Bahrain, he went from telling the Sky Sports cameras one minute that the gap to the front was “not ridiculous” and that Mercedes were going to get Hamilton that eighth world title even if he had “to push him around the track”, to telling reporters inside Mercedes’ paddock home that the car as it stood was “never going to be competitive” and that it needed a radical redesign.
There have been a number of interesting moves within the team over the last few months which suggest the overhaul is not confined to the W14. Small things; Angela Cullen, Hamilton’s physio and performance coach, leaving abruptly after one race; Jerome d’Ambrosio quietly beginning work with the team, taking over some of James Vowles’s duties (Vowles having left to take over at Williams); Red Bull's former HR director and COO Jayne Poole coming in.
It feels as if Wolff is trying to reboot on and off the track. Whether he is part of that reboot remains to be seen.
As we head to Australia, for the next round of the championship this weekend, there are a lot of big questions up in the air where the Brackley team are concerned: Hamilton’s future, Wolff’s future, the future of senior engineers in the technical and engine departments.
For the moment, Wolff is fighting to turn the tanker around. But he may not fight indefinitely. As he told Telegraph Sport last year, and as he repeated this week, the Austrian is not averse to the idea of handing over the reins to someone else, and staying on in a more executive role, if he feels he is starting to hold the team back. "I really enjoy being the team leader of this team," he told Speed Week.
"I think I can make my contribution. But if one day I come to that conclusion – or if people close to me tell me I'm not contributing – then I'll consider passing the baton to someone else. I wouldn't be ashamed of that.”
If they do not get things under control soon we could see some big changes at Mercedes.