After eight years of rule in Formula 1, Mercedes is in trouble this season. However, the director of the German team, the Austrian Toto Wolff, is delighted with the work of his two pilots, the young George Russell and the seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton.
How do you explain Mercedes’ difficulties this season?
We have a difficult start to the season because the concept of our car was suitable for low heights of the flat bottom [pièce essentielle] of the car. But it does not work in the real world. You can not drive with a flat bottom that is too low on the bumps. On circuits like Barcelona, with the qualities that suit us, we are not confronted with this concern.
In F1, there is one aspect that can not be changed, and that is the time it takes to develop the car. And when we get off to a bad start, as was the case this season, development takes place on the pitch. Every race weekend is a test for us. Even for a great team like ours that has won eight constructor titles in a row.
After the podium achieved by Hamilton in Canada, is the British Grand Prix coming at the right time for you?
The car is believed to perform better here at Silverstone than it did in Baku [12 juin] or in Montreal [19 juin], because it is a smooth and fast track. We do not want to be too sure that we will “bust” everyone at Silverstone. We were there after Barcelona and we were disappointed.
Which of Russell or Hamilton could win this weekend, which would be the season’s first Mercedes victory?
Ah, hard to choose. Both deserve a victory. George, this would be his first in his career. Lewis, that would offset the mishap he had this year. He could have counted at least two more podiums.
Are you surprised by the good cohabitation that seems to prevail in the team between your two drivers?
I am not surprised, but happy to see the good cooperation between the two. Usually everything is divided into a barn. Each pilot works with his engineers. However, the two work together for the settings. I’ve seen it before between Lewis and Valtteri [Bottas, le précédent coéquipier]. There is a real interaction. Sometimes they even try two different options and then choose the one that works best.
Can their rivalry remain dormant if the good results are left?
They are smart, they know that you have to find solutions for the car first. We double the rate of development if we work together. That’s pragmatism. And I’m sure the mood will be just as good when the car works well and the two fight for the victory and the championship.
You knew George Russell’s qualities. But does it exceed your expectations for this first season?
I am very impressed. His integration into the team suggests that he has been with us for ten years. He is very rational and pragmatic. Whether he qualifies in first or tenth position, he performs his debriefing in the same way. He is not emotional. Uncontrolled emotions are bad for performance. George, you will never hear him complain on the radio or shout at anyone. Unlike others.
You are referring to Max Verstappen’s (the reigning world champion) singing character. You mentioned George Russell’s intellectual approach. What does it mean ?
I was not just referring to Max, who is at least half of the drivers on the net who does not express himself calmly. George is smart. Max is too. But they have two different characters who express themselves and act differently. I am not saying that one is better than the other. If there is a driver who wins the championship and shouts things to me on the radio, I will cash it in. It’s easier if it does not happen.
Lewis Hamilton had a hard time digesting the result against him for the title last year. Do you think that can explain his difficulties this season, where he has often been dominated by his young teammate?
The most important thing about Lewis is the human aspect. As a friend, I want him to be happy and balanced. We will never digest the end of last season, but we have to accept it. I do not think it has any bearing on his performance. We saw that the car was really bad and there was the Grand Prix where Lewis would have been on the podium without intervention from safety car [voiture de sécurité]. “It’s unbelievable the misfortune I have this year”, he told me. But it will be normal again. He is very strong in the head.
If Mercedes fails to return to the top tier by the end of the season, can Lewis Hamilton decide to stop?
Lewis always said he wanted to end his career at Mercedes. And it is our duty to give him a car that drives fast and can win races and championships. In the same way that it is the duty of a driver to drive fast. But if we do not secure, Lewis could actually ask himself the question of staying or not.
Your rivalry with Red Bull boss Christian Horner has become legendary. Do you play it?
Anyone can be the rival. It was Christian for years, there is also Mattia [Binotto] and Ferrari today. But I’m a competitor. If I go karting with a friend, he will be my opponent. And when I play tennis with my wife, she no longer talks to me …
It’s F1, it’s entertainment, it’s not big politics. There is rivalry. We do not do F1 to be friends, we can not be. It’s too competitive. The only one I like is Frédéric Vasseur [directeur de l’écurie Alfa Romeo]. He has been my friend for twenty years and my only point of reference in the fold when my wife is not present.