Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff attended the Portuguese Grand Prix Friday Press Conference. Here is the transcript.
Q: It’s so tight between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. They’re only separated by a point for fastest lap. Is this battle upping the level of intensity for both of them?
Toto WOLFF: I enjoyed – and all of us in the team enjoyed – the first two races. With all the glory and the drama narrative, that is interesting, and we’ve seen a good momentum. Particularly the audiences have grown and the interesting target groups, because there is excitement, not only at the front. You can see that in qualifying, times are pretty close and probably Lando could have been part of the top three if not for the mistake, so overall very exciting.
Q: The Constructors’ Championship is tight as well, only seven points between your teams. It could be decided by the fortunes of the drivers on the other side of your garages. How important do you see the roles of Checo and Valtteri?
TW: This first free practice was a good example of how important it is, because feedback on the two sides of the garage was similar but not as, let’s say, bad on one side versus the other one. And you can see that the car… Valtteri has done a tremendous job in also setting the times during the sessions. I think qualifying went particularly bad for him in Imola but we know that he can do these laps.
Q: Christian, this one’s for you. I’d like to ask you about the appointment of Ben Hodgkinson as technical director of Red Bull Powertrains. Why Ben?
Christian HORNER: Well, obviously we’ve done our research. I think setting up the powertrain facility on campus, within Red Bull in the UK, you don’t have to look very far to see obviously the talent that there is, certainly based within the UK and, of course, the outstanding job that Mercedes have done, not just during the last seven years but the last 15 years in reality. And I think this is the first serious engine facility that’s been set-up in the UK, other than HPP maybe in the last 50 years. So, it’s a tremendously exciting opportunity and for us it’s a matter of identifying the right talent, attracting that talent, exactly as we did with the chassis side. Obviously, proximity within the UK as well is very convenient for that. So having identified the right guys, Ben was a standout-candidate for us and we’re delighted that he accepted our offer and decided to join the team.
Q: And to be clear, is this you committing to building your own Red Bull engine for 2025?
CH: I think it’s a very clear statement of intent that we’re obviously investing heavily within the facilities on campus. It’s probably the single biggest investment that Red Bull have made in Formula 1, certainly since acquiring the team from Jaguar back in 2004. It’s a great commitment and of course we’re gearing up to take on, embrace whatever the new regulations are for, whether it be 2025 or 2026.
Q: And Toto, is this an unsettling time for Mercedes, with James Allison about to stand down as technical director, Ben now leaving HPP?
TW: Well, I think the right strategic steps have been, as far as I can see, set in motion from Red Bull. I think they are going dual track with their own power unit and maybe with a new OEM joining in, and that’s certainly intelligent and the arrangement that has been found with Honda in the carrying over the IP is also clever. It’s clear that they are going to hire English engineers because it’s in the United Kingdom and there is not a lot of companies that can probably provide those engineers. So absolutely understood what the strategy is.
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QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR
Q: (Andrew Benson – BBC) Toto, I wonder if you could explain the thinking behind the way you handled the situation between George and Valtteri after Imola. On the one hand, I wondered whether there was a risk George might be left in a slightly confusing situation with regard to what’s expected of him on the race track, in the sense of, don’t you want him to be out-performing his car and other drivers. It’s hard to imagine a 23 year-old Lewis Hamilton not going for that move – but equally, was it a chance for you to lay down some ground rules for him before he gets into a Mercedes full-time?
TW: I think I want most of it to stay confidential because I had discussions with both of the drivers. Drivers have to go for a gap. Sometimes it’s evaluating whether it’s taking a risk or not. I guess that a young driver will always go for the possibility and nothing else is expected. The question is, is there enough reaction time to evaluate who is the other car? I think not. In a way, there is never 100% blame on one and zero on the other one. It’s probably always much more nuanced and I’m really happy about the conversation that we had. There is no confusion on any side and there are no rules for any of the drivers. It’s just us giving feedback.
Q: (Scott Mitchell – The Race) Tom mentioned Zak’s open letter yesterday, one of the calls within that was to implement immediately secret voting through the F1 Commission rulemaking process, wherewith the idea being that team affiliations have got unhealthy and it would stop strategic alignment on voting. I just wondered what your respective opinions were on that please.
TW: Yeah, I read the letter this morning. I didn’t know that Zak could write as presidential as he did – but it was a good letter overall. I think he addressed all of the important points. I really find it very positive that McLaren and Zak have expressed their opinions. Also, on controversial topics. I think it needs more outspoken-ness like Zak has done in this letter. I found it overall very good. In terms of the secret ballot, it’s very easy. You have seen in the past that Toro Rosso has voted like Red Bull, probably without any exceptions, and Haas has gone the Ferrari way. In our case, we have never tried to influence a team. Obviously things have been discussed when it was a common topic, like on the power unit. It’s clear that teams vote with each other and none of the teams would vote against their own interest in terms of chassis regulations. So, the idea of the secret ballot is good. I doubt that Franz is not going to take instructions, and neither will Guenther not take instructions but the attempt is obviously good: no team should be really being influenced by any affiliate or any supplier.
Q: (Dieter Rencken – Racing Lines) Toto, yesterday, in the press conference, George said that he’d used Lewis and Valtteri as much as his team-mates as he does Nicholas Latifi. If that is really the case, and assuming it’s a two-way team-mate situation, why wasn’t Valtteri instructed to let his team-mate through cleanly and safely at Imola?
TW: I don’t know what I should really respond to such a question… I have no response.
Q: (Dieter Rencken – Racing Lines) Could you try a straight answer please?
Q: (Christian Nimmervoll – motorsport.com) Toto, Paddy Lowe as a guest on Tom’s Beyond the Grid podcast that was published earlier this week. Interestingly he revealed that a lot of the discussion inside Mercedes in the first year of the hybrid era was about not looking too fast to the outside and turning down engines all the time to avoid knee-jerk reactions, in terms of the regulations. What is your personal memory of that early phase of the hybrid era?
TW: I think Paddy must have been in a different place that I was. There is no such situation that you turn back an engine just to have regulations tweaked in your direction. We were very competitive in 2014 and I think everybody could see that. It was the start of a regulatory environment that wouldn’t have been changed anyway. So, yeah, maybe Paddy had that impression.
Q: (Ben Hunt – The Sun) There’s a social media boycott happening, it started with the Premier League and it’s moving across various sporting organisations. Do you think that F1 has missed a bit of an own goal here (sic)? Obviously you have your End Racism campaign and various other things going on, but should F1 not have copied their blueprint going forward and taken part in this boycott. The reason I ask is obviously because Lewis is taking part, as is George, as is Lando. I just thought maybe F1 should as well.
TW: I think Formula 1 and Mercedes have shown commitment to the fight against racism all year long, not only with visible initiatives but we have launched several campaigns to increase diversity. We have invested considerable resource in setting up these programmes and we would very much leave it to the drivers to decide if they want to take part in a UK-based boycott. I think fighting against racism with the very different tools is necessary. We are Formula 1, a global sport, and it’s up to everyone to decide whether they want to join this UK initiative.
Q: (Christian Menath – motorsport-magazin.com) A question for Toto. We were talking about Red Bull Power trains earlier. Are you concerned that you are losing more personnel from HPP to Red Bull Powertrains and are you concerned that you are losing a lot of IP going there ands this is spicing up the battle with Red Bull, even on a different level?
TW: I guess it was expected that this would happen and this is just a battleground such as the one on track. You need to acknowledge that and the last few weeks were certainly very much…
TW: …Pulling on… how do you call that? Pulling on both sides of the rope, which I enjoyed. It’s part of the competition. You need to take it as a sportsman. Sportsmanship.
Q: (Luke Smith – Autosport) We’re now a few races into the season and it’s first season operating under the cost cap. Looking up and down the pitlane, how much does it seem that everyone is on the same page compared to the cost cap. Have you seen everybody take a noticeable step down in terms of what they are bringing to races? In terms of any sanctions or penalties, I don’t know how much that has been discussed between the teams, but is everyone on the same page for that because one would imagine that a sporting penalty would obviously be a consequence for any breaches?
TW: Especially for the larger teams it has been an efficiency projects. Obviously there is some real hardship behind it because you needed to look at the organisation and an organisation is not a large organism, there are people behind, and that is the less enjoyable side, to say the least. Over the mid-term I guess it will help to balance out performance between the teams. As always with new regulations there are topics that need to be cleared up and specified and précised and some of the teams have expressed the wish to do that. But at the end of the day we have given each other a couple of weeks to clear that out. But from a principle, how I see it, everybody is on the same page.