Toto Wolff’s black trousers and white shirt made him look like a boxing referee as he stood between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg here on Friday – but this season his Mercedes drivers might be more like cage fighters than exponents of the Queensberry rules.
Wolff, sounding like a weary mediator, is going to stand back and give Hamilton and Rosberg more freedom to battle on the track during the attempt on a third successive season of F1 dominance.
Speaking in Mercedes’ Hallowed Halls, where many of their historic racing cars are housed, the team’s director of motorsport said: “We owe it to them, and we owe it to Formula One, to just let them race. The ride is going to be a bit more difficult for the team sometimes but that is absolutely necessary.”
Hamilton and Rosberg have been locked in an intense rivalry for three years at Mercedes, with the British driver coming out on top each season, winning the world championship in the past two of them. Mercedes, for the most part, have managed to keep everything under control, bending over backwards to treat their drivers the same, and only occasionally – such as Spa in 2014, where they crashed – has it gone wrong.
Wolff said: “When we started the project in 2013, there was a lot of pressure on the team in order to achieve results and win races, and we have done OK. In 2014, we won the championship and we confirmed that it wasn’t a one-off in 2015. But in order to contain that, we tried to put a framework around it. Sometimes it functions, sometimes it doesn’t.
“We learned some interesting lessons and we improved as an organisation. With Nico and Lewis, we have been together for a couple of years and it’s functioned pretty well. We’re reducing the framework because we are more comfortable working with each other.”
Now, though, there might be an outbreak of racing in F1 but, as drivers have been given more independence with less direction from the pitwall, Wolff and Mercedes are merely responding to changes in the sport.
Wolff said: “The regulations help us because there is much less engineering input, less guidance in terms of how to drive the car. It is more up to them how they drive the car. Our role is to step back a little and leave it up to these two to fight it out in the track.
“We are stakeholders in Formula One. A good show is essential for the sport. We want lots of fighting on the track. And the rivalry between these two guys is important.”
Rosberg smiled at Wolff and said: “I think that’s great, thank you very much, Toto. It’s going to be a good battle. Let’s see how it goes.”
Hamilton, who seemed distracted, was wearing glasses but insisted it was a fashion statement. “My vision is 40-40,” he said, as the audience sniggered.
Referring to his busy social winter and return to work to prepare for the opening grand prix in Melbourne next week, he said: “I guess my outside life matches my Formula One life now. When I first got in the car I thought: ‘Jeez, I’m old.’ I’ve been doing this a long time and each time is harder and harder but the car felt great.”
When Rosberg responded to this by saying “Physically harder and harder? Getting old? What is the reason?”, Hamilton replied that he had seen grey hairs on the German’s head. “You’re only six months behind me,” he said.
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