Mercedes boss Toto Wolff talks driver lineup past and present ahead of ‘silly season’

Team principal comments on Hamilton-Rosberg rivalry, 2022 potential driver lineup

By Marcus Rebelo

Toto Wolff was ready to impose a suspension to drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in 2016 (Photo: Mercedes Twitter)

During yet another intense teammate rivalry in Formula 1, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff was ready to step in.

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg’s friendly ‘duel in the desert” in Bahrain 2014, quickly turned ferociously bitter. As karting teammates growing up, then friends, the Hamilton-Rosberg partnership was reunited in Formula 1 and began in 2013 under Mercedes.

But following a number of on-track incidents that includes Spa 2014, Austria 2016 and the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix, Wolff was ready to impose a suspension to either driver if necessary.

“The events of 2014, where I felt there was some selfish behaviour, I said that the next time you come close to the other car, your team mate, you think about the Mercedes brand, you think about single individuals in the team, you think about Dieter Zetsche, the CEO of Mercedes,” said Wolff, on The High Performance Podcast. “That’s probably going to change the way you act; you’re not going to put your team mate in the wall. And I always made it clear that if this were to happen regularly, and I would see a pattern, then I have no fear in making somebody miss races.

“The thing the drivers want the most is to compete in a car. And you always need to be very clear that you compete in the car if you understand the team game. And it’s much more difficult because there are only two drivers in the team and it’s not easy to find a replacement, and a replacement on that level. But I’m prepared to sacrifice a race or two just to make it clear for all future generations that are going to drive for Mercedes that that’s not on.”

Having been together since 2017, Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas have formed a more courteous relationship on-and-off the track. Both drivers yet again are out of contract with Mercedes at the end of the season and with Hamilton signing a one-year extension in February, just one-month before the start of the 2021 season, the Mercedes team boss is hoping to avoid the same situation again.

“We don’t want to leave it until January to confirm the two drivers,” said the Austrian to Formula “Valtteri [Bottas] was pretty regular during the summer – this is when it should happen. Also, to give the driver peace of mind, or be able to concentrate on the job.

“And obviously for next year there’s lots of balls in the air and we will always try to do the best for the team long-term while also giving total loyalty to our current driver line-up. We are not doubting either Valtteri or Lewis but discussions obviously are going to happen – but not in January next year.”

2022 lineup

Waiting anxiously for his opportunity with the seven-time defending double champions is George Russell. The Williams driver and Mercedes junior has long expressed his desire to race with the sport’s front runners and last season got the opportunity with Mercedes for the Sakhir Grand Prix in place of Hamilton, who tested positive for COVID-19.

An impressive drive that saw the 23-year-old finish ninth following a Mercedes pit stop tyre mix-up and tyre puncture, has only fuelled more discussion of the British driver graduating from Mercedes junior to permanent driver.

McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown has issued his own theory for the potential Silver Arrows driver lineup in 2022.

“I think you will see Max [Verstappen] and George [Russell] there in 2022,” said Brown, in an interview with British newspaper The Daily Mail. “I think that is the obvious conclusion. You have Max’s experience and youth, you have George’s youth. If I am Mercedes, that’s a pretty killer line-up for the next five years.”

Alongside Red Bull team principal Christian Horner and Wolff, Brown clarified his comments.

“I don’t necessarily think it [will happen],” said Brown, in an F1 press conference. “Someone just asked me, ‘What do you think the driver market will look like next year?’ I believe George is out of contract and obviously has a Mercedes relationship and did a great job here in Bahrain [at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, when he replaced Hamilton at Mercedes].

“Max, I’ve never seen his contract but I understand that there’s probably a possibility for him to drive elsewhere, and Mercedes and Toto are able to attract an awesome driver line-up. So, if those two guys are floating around, depending on what Toto decides with his current driver line-up, you could see that happening. I was asked the question – it wasn’t a prediction, it was an opinion.”

Red Bull’s Horner offered his response: “[It’s] a bit early for speculation. Maybe they’re as likely to run Daniel and Lando [Ricciardo and Norris, McLaren’s 2021 pairing]. We’re at the first race, and we are obviously acutely aware of what the contracts with our drivers are.”

Later, in an interview with Austrian media outlet Osterreich 24, Wolff was quoted and said: “Brown is like Christian Horner. They just spread s**t. I don’t care.” 

It appears Wolff’s response might have been lost in translation.

A Mercedes spokesperson told British national morning newspaper The i: “He said Zak and Christian were giving each other s**t – not that they spread s**t.”

Much like 2020, it appears ‘silly season’ has gotten off to an early start.

Marcus Rebelo

Born in Toronto, Ontario, Marcus Rebelo attended York University for his undergraduate degree before he completed his postgraduate studies in sports journalism at Centennial College. His first Formula 1 memories were of Michael Schumacher dominating the sport with Ferrari. In addition to, Rebelo works as an associate producer with CBC Sports and has covered many events both domestic and international that include IndyCar, UFC and the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships in London, England.