Toto Wolff: We have to let Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg fight to stop F1 being too boring… but not split team

nico rosberg and lewis hamilton

Toto Wolff is sitting in a restaurant, chewing his steak slowly and deliberately. He is thinking hard. He is the head of the best team in Formula One, a team who have become a byword for excellence, innovation and speed. But in sport, excellence is not always the salve it should be and it has given Wolff a dilemma.

His Mercedes team are the best in F1 by a distance. Between them, his drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, have won 32 of the last 38 races. They haven’t just beaten the opposition. They have crushed them.

In the last couple of seasons, their hegemony has been unquestioned. And when that happens, people start to hate you for making things predictable. It happened with the great Liverpool teams of the Seventies and early Eighties.

It happened with Michael Schumacher at Ferrari. It happened when Pete Sampras ruled tennis with that iron serve and grim demeanour. When you get too good, people want you to lose.

Wolff, Mercedes’ head of motorsport, knows this. He is a smart man who, like many of the best managers and coaches in sport, thinks as much like a psychologist as a tactician. He had a tough act to follow when he was part of the management restructure that replaced former team principal Ross Brawn at the end of 2013, but Wolff has taken Mercedes to a different level.

An ex-sportscar driver and successful investor who is a 30 per cent shareholder in the team, the Austrian is married to former Williams test driver Susie Wolff.

Unlike many in the upper echelons of F1, he has a self-deprecating sense of humour and an acute sense of the fact that, from the outside, the sport can sometimes appear like a circus full of neurotic clowns.

Now, after leading the team to two successive world constructors’ and drivers’ championships, he is dealing with the consequences of his success. He knows one of the great contradictions of sport is that winning too much can be bad for the brand. ‘If you start to win, you run around with a target on your back and people will try to shoot you,’ he says.

He has an idea of how he might fix it next season but he knows it’s a risk. It involves Hamilton and Rosberg and the dynamic of their fierce rivalry. The dilemma is this: if the sport is relying on conflict between his drivers for its only meaningful drama, does Wolff try to quell that conflict for the sake of his team or does he let it run wild for the sake of the sport?

‘Our dominance is bad for Formula One,’ says Wolff, 43. ‘It is. It makes the racing boring. It becomes predictable how the result is going to be. The sport needs multiple winners. It needs the odd freak result. It needs the underdog to win. The moment you become a dominant force, you suffer and your brand suffers. You become the dark side of the force.

‘It even happened to Red Bull. They joined the sport. They were the Jedis. They jumped in the pool when they finished third in Monaco with Coulthard. They had the Formula Unas, the girls around the paddock. They had the Red Bulletin. They were controversial. They had a superb brand.

‘But after winning the world title four times in a row, they developed into an unsympathetic brand. Nobody wants the establishment.

‘If you start to behave like the establishment, you are finished and people will have animosity against you. So our dominance is bad for Formula One and it’s bad for us, but what can I do? The only thing you can do yourself is stay humble, keep both feet on the ground, acknowledge that these are special circumstances and it might be different in the future and try to enjoy the moment.

‘But we are living in a world where people don’t want anybody to do well. It seems that we are feeling happier with the misery of others. That’s wrong. If you are happy with the misery of others, it is going to make you miserable, too. That comes back like a boomerang.

‘This is still a competitive environment but I’d rather be inspired by somebody who does well. I would rather look up to him than envy him. Even my biggest enemy has a best friend.

‘So I want the dominance to continue but if it were to continue like this, I need to think what to do so we do not become the enemy and how we can help the show. Maybe it’s about unleashing the two of them [Hamilton and Rosberg] completely. Make them have their own strategy cars. That would be a solution.’

Hamilton and Rosberg are only two of the 1,200 Mercedes employees Wolff has responsibility for but he is aware that the bitter battle between them can set the tone not only for what goes on in the garage at races but for what happens at the factory in between grands prix.

Hamilton has come out on top in the last two seasons to win the drivers’ title, but the rivalry grew so heated towards the end of last season that Wolff felt the need to remind them they had a responsibility to the team and that one of them might have to be sacrificed if the squabbling continued.

‘We had a more relaxed approach this year, letting them fight it out on the track and it might have a new dimension next year,’ he said. ‘I want to contain it. I don’t want fighting in the team. I’d like the boxers to fight but not the trainers and the physios and everybody around the ring.

‘I’d like the boxers to behave like boxers who fight very hard but after the fight has finished, you can be a sportsman and embrace your enemy. But the dilemma is there. It is easy when it is theory.

‘Understand that you are a role model. If you cause controversy, your animosity, your moods, your oscillations in behaviour, spill over into the team. People are going to copy you. People are going to react according to that. I want to have a positive mood. That message was not only to them. That message was to the whole team.’

This is an old issue. Do a team employ two drivers as equals like, say, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at McLaren in 1988 and 1989, and watch them fight it out? Or does they have a defined No 1 and No 2, like Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese at Williams in the Nineties or Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello at Ferrari?

F1 fans yearn for an open fight. Most hate the idea of team orders. They want to see struggle and conflict. But sometimes, as with Senna and Prost, there comes a point where the rivalry becomes so destructive that the driver partnership is no longer viable.

‘I still believe that our pairing has done the team a lot of good in accelerating the development of our car,’ says Wolff.

‘If that were to become not limited to the track and the usual spiel with the media, the solution would be to have what happened to McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari and have a No 1 and No 2.

‘That would be my second best option. I would rather continue like it is. For F1 the volcanic eruptions may be what’s needed between them. Maybe the big fall-out ending in a crash and animosity, in terms of the entertainment factor, maybe that’s what’s missing with Mercedes being so dominant. Maybe you need that, but fundamentally, I don’t think we need that as a team.

‘Lewis and Nico will definitely be our pairing next season. They have accepted that things have to change a little bit. We talk a lot. We communicate. I had a discussion with Alain Prost two years ago and I asked him: ‘When did it get out of control between you and Senna?’

‘And he said it got out of control when they both felt there was an agenda in the team, that it wasn’t honest and transparent, you always felt the other one was somehow being treated in a different way or better. This triggered an insecurity in each of them. So I’ve tried to be very transparent.

‘We talk and we sit down and sometimes it is a heated discussion and many times we agree to disagree, but once we left the room at least we knew what the other one’s opinion was. Each of them needs to have the message delivered in a different way.

‘I can give you a simple example. With Lewis, he can’t have the feeling that he is being forced into something. In his past with his team, there wasn’t a lot of discussion. There was rather force. And force with a young person throughout his adolescence will make him a rebel.

‘Nico needs more clear messaging of what is expected and what’s not. They understand what’s important and good for the team. In the heat of the battle, that sometimes gets forgotten and needs to be re-emphasised in very different ways.

‘You need to respect that each individual in the car has been a maverick alone in the car since he was six or seven and how can you expect the guy not to be looking after himself.

‘If you want to win the championship, you cannot have mercy and you cannot be the puppy. We don’t want to have a puppy. We want the guard dog in the car.

‘But how you work behind closed doors, how you interact, that is a different ball game. That’s not in the public domain. Complaining on the radio is OK. You’re in the heat of the moment. You have a lot of pressure on you. It’s what happens inside.

‘But the great ones understand that they need a team to make them world champions. The ones who have never made it have never understood that, besides having a very heavy right foot to push the throttle, they also need to have intelligence and social skills.

‘Our guys speak so highly about Schumacher, how much time he spent with the most important people, the engineers and the mechanics. They went sky-diving, he invited them to his house, they went travelling together, he knew everybody’s name in the garage. Much of the stuff is invisible that makes a champion.’

Schumacher, though, was always at the head of what was essentially a one-driver team. Mercedes are different. And Wolff knows that as long as Hamilton and Rosberg are together, there will always be tension. A big part of his job is finding the best way to manage that.

‘It is a very difficult exercise for the two boys in the car,’ he says. ‘They need to embrace the team spirit but, equally, they need to screw the other guy.’ Wolff smiles.

He has brought us back to F1’s central conundrum. ‘It sounds good in theory,’ he says. But when Hamilton and Rosberg climb into their cockpits in Australia next March, Wolff knows better than anyone that theory will take a back seat.


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