Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff attended the United States Grand Prix Friday Press Conference. Here is the transcript.
Q: Toto, Zak [Brown, McLaren CEO] thinks it’s going to go down to the wire between Max and Lewis. Would you agree with him?
Toto WOLFF: Yes, I think it will, because the swings of points are not massive. Goes one direction and then the other way. I’ve said before I think that the DNFs are the killer for this championship because you can’t… It’s very difficult to recover a 25-point loss, so you need to minimise the mistakes. It’s exciting to see.
Q: What about the Constructors’ Championship? You’re now 36 points ahead of Red Bull. Do you think it’s a little bit more comfortable in that one?
TW: Well, comfortable is the wrong word but I think there is a little bit of a bigger gap, that is solid but that could go very much to the end, and is an important championship for us as Mercedes.
Q: How important is Valtteri in that fight? Over the last four races he’s scored 38 points more than Checo Pérez. That’s massive. Are you confident he can maintain that form?
TW: His form was unbelievable in Turkey. For me it is really a 10 out of 10, and he seemed pretty good today. Comfortable, at ease with the car, and if he can continue to maintain his pace that is very helpful, not only for the Constructors’ Championship but also for Lewis’ Championship because he is taking points away from the other guys.
Q: You mentioned Turkey. It looked like you guys had taken a significant step there. Is that the reality of the situation? How big is that step?
TW: I think what we have been able to understand is how to hit the sweet spot of the car, in terms of the set-up. Today, when you look at the lap time, it’s a straight line gain and I think we’ve found the right compromise between drag and downforce. And, on the other side, we were very quick through the fast corners, which is good, and equal to Red Bull on the slow corners. Overall the car is much better together.
Q: A lot was made after the last race about Lewis’ strategy car – do you pit him? Do you not pit him? Did the fact that you opted for the conservative strategy there reflect the increased pressure at this stage of the Championship? Is now the time when you become a little bit more risk-averse?
TW: No, I think the right call was at lap 40-something, 41, or 42, to pit and then try to overtake on track, because we had more pace than Checo but we decided to stay out, Lewis decided to stay out and it was fine, and then we had just two choices: either try to make it to the end and try to hold on to P3 or P4, or not. We saw that the pace was just dropping and dropping and we would have been eaten up by almost all the cars behind, probably dropped back to P6 or P7. We opted for the conservative call to actually finish P4.
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QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR
Q: (Christian Nimmervoll – motorsport.com) Toto, there’s a report that Aston Martin wanted to change Vettel’s engine already at the Belgian Grand Prix, rather than at this one. First of all, can you confirm that is true, and can you explain a little bit the mechanism of how many engines you usually have in store, is there a large stock that you can always activate? Maybe you can explain a little background there.
TW: I think you can see that we are suffering with reliability this year. We’re going onto the sixth engine – I believe it is for Valtteri – and it’s not something that we choose to do but, on the contrary, we’re trying to really get on top of the problems, and we haven’t understood fully. I think we are a step closer now, so it’s not always that we are always, literally, easy with having the engines. We’re hanging on for dear life supplying all customers, and that is not trivial.
Q: (Luke Smith – Autosport) Toto, question about the engine issues as well. On Sky, a few moments ago you were quite emphatic dismissing one of the theories put out about what the issue was. Are you able to expand a little bit on what the exact problem is with the engines, particularly with Lewis and how close the title fight is with Max. How much of a concern is it for his title bid in particular?
TW: I wouldn’t want to disclose what it is, for obvious reasons, but it is always a concern. I think that, when you look at Monza, for example, Valtteri had to start from the back, and we’re losing points on the way – but it’s like Zak says, we are trying to push the performance every year and this year we’ve come to a point where that has cost us points. Over the last seven or eight years, that mindset has won us races and championships, so wouldn’t want… would have hoped to have less penalties and use less engines but this year it has really hit us hard. McLaren and Aston Martin were more fortunate and in that respect, we just have to take it on the chin and do the best possible job.
Q: (Scott Mitchell – The Race) Toto, you mentioned earlier that you’re finding the sweet spot between downforce and drag. There was obviously an aero package update earlier this year at Silverstone. Presumably that changed where the car’s aero sweet spot was exactly. Have you had to optimise that specific package more since then? Has it taken a few races to really nail it?
TW: I think what I enjoy watching is the intellectual process in the team. In the group around some of the guys. How to hit the sweet spot, and obviously we’ve introduced that upgrade in Silverstone and since then have comprehended every race a little better, how to extract the maximum performance, and now since Sochi, then in Turkey and also here, it proves to be definitely the right path.
Q: (Ian Parkes – New York Times) Another one for you Toto I’m afraid, on the power unit situation. At this stage what would you assess are Lewis’ chances of getting through the rest of the season without taking another power unit penalty? And, if indeed he does have to take one, how difficult is it determining which track you would have to do so – because there are so few races left now?
TW: Well Ian, I can’t say whether we will be taking one and what the percentage is, but obviously the risk is still there, and what is difficult to evaluate is do you want to pre-empt the situation and take another penalty and take the hit – or do you want to really run it and then possibly risk a DNF – and that is a discussion that is happening as we speak and we haven’t come to the right answers yet.
Q: (Luke Smith – Autosport) Question for both of you about Netflix and Drive to Survive. I think this weekend will probably see more than ever the impacts of the series’ success in the United States. Max Verstappen said earlier this week that he wasn’t a fan of being part of the series, he felt that some things were made a bit fake and hyped up perhaps a bit too much. I just want to know what your thoughts were on the creative licence of Netflix, how close is it to the truth and do you think it’s a small price to pay for the success that it has?
Zak BROWN: I think Netflix has been outstanding for Formula 1. It’s driven a younger fan base, it’s driven a much larger fan base. It’s really had an impact in America. From what I can see – I can only judge the sport from what I know – so I can’t really speak to what happens in other teams. I think it’s factual with a little bit of theatre added, and that’s what television is. I think it’s doing what we as a sport would like it to do, which is turn on a bunch of new fans. I think it’s been hugely successful.
TW: I can only echo Zak’s comments. We were not keen at the beginning of Netflix because we wanted to concentrate on on-track performance and I was wrong. It’s clearly a big success. Everywhere in the world it was the number one documentary on Netflix for quite a while and it’s become part of Formula 1 and you can clearly see it’s beneficial and yes, we’re a sport and we need to stay true to the values of the sport and have no gimmicks – but sport is entertainment and I think these guys have brought us a new angle, a new dimension and the feedback that we get from fans is tremendous – especially here in the US.
Q: (Scott Mitchell – The Race) Mercedes and McLaren have both had shareholder changes in the past 12 months. There is a lot of attention on Andretti’s interest in investing in Sauber, so I wonder from your perspective, has there ever been a better time to own an F1 team, and if you were the majority shareholder of a team, would you consider selling now given that values should theoretically only be growing?
TW: Yeah, I think we are in a very good moment in time for Formula 1 because the audiences are growing, the popularity of the sport has been increasing, we are slowly but surely tapping the Americas and Stefano, with Liberty, have been doing a tremendous job. So I can only speak for ourselves, we have grown our top line considerably. The cost cap has brought us a bottom line and that is how sports teams should be. It shouldn’t be a marketing exercise only and a cost centre. It should be a profit centre similar to what the US, American teams are and we are clearly there and I believe or I would very much hope that all the teams become profitable very soon and I think it is on the verge. You know what your costs are. You can’t spend more than 145 million dollars this year and going down. Formula 1 in itself is so successful that based on the EBIT that is being distributed to the team a large chunk of that is covered by TV only, so it’s a very predictable exercise. Whoever buys a Formula 1 team today knows exactly to the dot what they need to spend in order to be competitive, because we wouldn’t be able to spend more, so that’s why it has become a very good business opportunity on my side. I wouldn’t sell a team. On the contrary, with Ineos coming in I bought an additional 3 per cent and I’m very happy about that.
Q: (Dieter Rencken – Racing Lines) If we have a look at Europe we have eight traces within a radius of about 1,000 km. In the Middle East we will have four within a radius of 1,000 km. In North America we have three in a radius of 5,000km. How many races should North America have in your opinion and where should they be please?
TW: Zak is the expert in the US. I think if we were to have three races that sounds good, with Montreal and Mexico City nearby, but no one else better than Stefano is suited to take the right decisions.
Q: (Ian Parkes – New York Times) Another one for you Toto, just following on from the question to Zak regarding the fan survey and popularity. Does it bother you that Mercedes is down on the popularity list compared to other teams like McLaren?
TW: Obviously you want your team to be number one everywhere but I think it’s the normal evolution that we have expected. We have been very fortunate to win seven times in a row, a tremendous streak of success and it’s clear that in an age where you cheer more for teams that had more difficult times and a little bit of the underdogs and like Zak said they are doing a super job with the drivers also, with Daniel who has been loved for a long time and with Lando doing pretty well, so they deserve to be right up there because the whole package in terms of marketing and social media is just very good. We need to think about what can we do, but you can’t change history and I wouldn’t want to change it.
Q: (Dieter Rencken – Racing Lines) On the same topic, what do you both think about Ferrari having slipped down to third on this list? Were you surprised and what are your opinions why, please?
TW: I mean, Ferrari is the brand in Formula 1 and has been here since the beginning and will always have great attraction. I think what is interesting to see is that McLaren is just so much bigger in terms of fan attraction and yeah, they need to ask the questions why that is. I couldn’t respond to that. We need to find out for ourselves how we can improve and what needs to be done without jeopardizing the on-track performance that always comes first. But obviously you’d like all of that to perform well.
Q: (Scott Mitchell – The Race) Toto, just going back to the subject of straight-line speed performance and where the potential gains have come from. After Turkey Christian Horner suggested it might have come from the power unit, here he spoke about what you have potentially been doing with lowering the rear ride height. When you hear them sort of pointing the fingers in a few different places what’s your reaction to that? Does it amuse? Do you roll your eyes? Or do you brush it off as the games that get played in a title fight?
TW: I think we recognise absolutely that this is a sport where competitors will always try to find out whether there is some kind of silver bullet. My experience is that there is no such thing. It is all small gains, marginal gains that are being added and bring performance and we are trying to really comprehend our car better and add performance and lap time and weed out listening too much to the noise.