Toto Wolff sees a long road ahead as Mercedes seek to end Red Bull’s domination

By Sports Desk November 26, 2023

Lewis Hamilton’s boss Toto Wolff has conceded Mercedes will have to scale Mount Everest to topple Max Verstappen’s Red Bull team next season.

Mercedes clung on to second place in the constructors’ championship by the skin of their teeth – and a £10million cash boost – as Verstappen ended the most dominant season in Formula One history with another victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The Dutchman, taking his 19th win from 22 rounds, finished 17 seconds clear of team-mate Sergio Perez. But, mercifully for Mercedes, the Mexican driver was demoted to fourth following a five-second penalty for a collision with Lando Norris.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was elevated to second with Mercedes’ George Russell third. Lewis Hamilton finished ninth in the other black-liveried machine.

Had Perez outscored Russell, Mercedes and Ferrari would have been tied, with the Prancing Horse second in the team standings by virtue of Carlos Sainz’s win in Singapore.

But following Perez’s sanction, Mercedes ended the campaign three points clear of Ferrari to land a £105million reward, rather than £95m.

However, it marked a second straight season without a victory for Hamilton – a losing streak which now stands at 45 races – and Mercedes’ first winless campaign in a dozen years.

They finished an eye-watering 413 points behind Red Bull, who have long since turned their focus to next year’s machine. Last season, Mercedes were 244 points behind the world champions.

“Red Bull won by 17 seconds today, and haven’t touched the car since July or August, so you can pretty much guess where they’re going to be next year,” said a despondent Hamilton.

Picking up the baton, Wolff added: “From Lewis’ perspective, he had a bad weekend. Fact. But that doesn’t do anything on him being the greatest driver in the world.

“If we are able to give him a car, he will be fighting for a world championship. I have no doubt. But it is clear if you have a car like we have now, you are not at ease with it.

“Red Bull started the new regulations in 2022 with a massive advantage and they have been able to maintain it.

“We have a lot of respect for their achievements – from the engineering side, and the driver – and beating them under the current regulations is against the odds. Mount Everest is in front of us.”

Hamilton and Mercedes will hope a brand new design will fire them back to winning ways following their no-sidepod flop abandoned on the eve of the opening race in Bahrain.

Wolff continued: “We had to be honest that this car was never going to be good enough to fight for a world championship. We took the decision in April to go back to the drawing board and come up with something different for next year.

“We are changing the concept. We are moving away from how we laid out the chassis, the weight distribution, the airflow, literally every component has been changed because only by doing that do we have a chance. You could get it wrong also. Everything is possible.”

Mercedes have carried Hamilton to six of his record-equalling seven world championships. But the 38-year-old will head for the off-season wondering if he will ever win again, let alone mount a season-long championship challenge.

With only minor tweaks to the sport’s technical rulebook before a complete overhaul in regulations in 2026, Hamilton has already expressed his fear that Verstappen will be untouchable for the next two years.

Wolff added: “We have a board in our factory that shows all the world constructors’ championships since 1958. The table runs until 2050 so there are 27 open. And I would like to look back in 20 years and see many more Mercedes stars.

“I hate retrospective views. But when we look back and consider the decade we had – second, first, first, first, first, first, first, first, first, third, second – and when you look at it from that perspective, you say, ‘that was OK’.

“But from a micro-view there is one guy (Verstappen) that has won 19 races, and that of course, is not good enough.”

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    “If Lewis were to leave,” pondered George Russell as he addressed the prospect of Hamilton joining Ferrari. “That would put Mercedes in a tricky spot. It would almost look like he’s lost faith in the team.”

    Russell was speaking in an episode of Netflix’s newly-released Drive to Survive series – a chapter the Mercedes’ PR machine envisaged would celebrate Hamilton’s decision to stay with them.

    Hamilton, after all, had signed a two-year contract extension last August to remain with the Silver Arrows until the end of 2025.

    But following Hamilton’s shock decision to tear up his contract a year early in favour of a move to Ferrari, Russell’s remarks – too late to be pulled from Netflix’s sixth season – shed a very public spotlight on the awkward dynamic that faces the grid’s once-dominant team and its superstar driver ahead of the new season which starts in Bahrain on Saturday night.

    Mercedes transformed Hamilton from a man with a single world championship to a one-man winning machine. He has seven world championships and 103 victories. No other driver in history can boast such an impressive resume.

    But Hamilton is motivated by capturing the eighth title he believes he was robbed of in Abu Dhabi in 2021. And the 39-year-old no longer thinks he can achieve the record-breaking feat with Mercedes. As Russell would say, he’s lost the faith.

    Can Hamilton be blamed? He has not tasted victory for two years. Mercedes did not win one of the 22 rounds last season. He heads into the new campaign as a 16/1 underdog to win the championship.

    This year is being called Hamilton’s last dance with Mercedes. But do not expect it to be a samba.

    Mercedes will remain at the sharp end of the grid this season. They have ditched the concept that has failed them so miserably for the past two years and introduced a new design philosophy – one that both Hamilton and Russell said is more predictable and easier to drive.

    But will it possess the speed to knock Red Bull and Max Verstappen off their perch?

    F1 works in cycles and, although Mercedes carried Hamilton to six championships in seven glorious years, this period in time belongs to the team from Milton Keynes, despite the on-going controversy surrounding its team principal Christian Horner and allegations of inappropriate behaviour made against him by a female colleague.

    Horner continues to deny the claims and a resolution is expected before Saturday’s curtain raiser.

    Red Bull swept all before them in 2023, winning every race bar one, with Verstappen taking 19 victories as he waltzed to a hat-trick of titles.

    Such was their superiority, Red Bull and their genius designer Adrian Newey could afford to start work on this year’s challenger long before the others.

    And the finished product, unveiled in all its glory at last week’s test, sent shivers down the spines of their competitors. The fear, for those not in a Red Bull cockpit, is that Newey’s latest masterpiece is an improvement on its brilliant predecessor.

    Given the sport’s rule book is largely unchanged and the budget cap means rival teams can no longer break the bank to discover a winning solution, Verstappen heads into this mammoth 24-round campaign as the favourite to become only the sixth driver in history with four world titles to his name.

    Alarmingly for the neutrals, Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion, has predicted this season will be “one long victory lap” for Verstappen and his all-conquering team – and that’s before a wheel has been turned in anger.

    But all is not lost – and that is when we return to Hamilton.

    While Verstappen could prove an unstoppable force on track, Hamilton’s agonisingly long goodbye with Mercedes – one that is set to stretch nine months and six days – will provide a fascinating subplot.

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    The new Formula One season begins in Bahrain on Saturday with Max Verstappen bidding to win a fourth consecutive world championship.

    Here, the PA news agency looks at the key questions heading into the 2024 campaign.

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    Red Bull’s preparations for the new season have been overshadowed by allegations facing team principal Christian Horner. Horner, who is fighting to save his career following a claim of “inappropriate behaviour” by a female colleague, insists it is business as usual at Red Bull. Off-track it has been anything but for the team which has dominated the sport for the past two seasons. But on-track it has been precisely that.

    Verstappen — in an upgrade of the machine which carried him to 19 victories from 22 rounds last year — set a blistering pace on the opening day of last week’s test, finishing 1.1 seconds quicker than anybody else.

    Damon Hill, the 1996 world champion, summed up the ominous feeling in the paddock. Writing about Verstappen on ‘X’ he said: “He’s gloating. He’s taunting us. He knows. This year is going to be one long victory lap. You cannot begrudge anyone their success. All we can do is watch and admire.”

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    Ferrari ended last year with five pole positions from the final nine races and Carlos Sainz secured the only non-Red Bull win of the season in Singapore. The Italian team have worked hard over the winter on translating their one-lap pace into race conditions, where they tended to struggle in 2023.

    They will take solace from a trouble-free test and their pace appeared relatively encouraging, too. Sainz topped the time charts on the second day, while Leclerc ended the final day quickest – albeit on speedier rubber than Verstappen.

    An upbeat Leclerc said: “We are in a much better place and it is an easier car to drive. The feeling was good. We have been consistent straight away and this will help us in the race.”

    And what about Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes?

    Hamilton stunned the sporting world by choosing to quit Mercedes and join Ferrari in 2025. The news broke earlier this month and is likely to be difficult for those at Mercedes to digest. Hamilton took the decision – one he described as the hardest of his life – after two winless years with the Silver Arrows.

    Mercedes are armed with a new design philosophy for the new campaign but – although both Hamilton and team-mate George Russell spoke of an improved, more reliable machine – there was little to suggest from testing that they have closed the gap to Red Bull.

    Mercedes finished ahead of Ferrari in last year’s constructors’ championship but do not be surprised if the Scuderia start the new season ahead of them.

    What about the other teams?

    McLaren came alive in the second half of 2023, with Lando Norris scoring seven podiums. But the British team looked short of last year’s form in Bahrain last week – although it is a track which has not always suited them in recent seasons.

    Aston Martin finished fifth in the constructors’ championship, with Fernando Alonso, now 42, leading their charge for a second season. Alpine are set to head the midfield, with Williams, the newly-rebranded RB and Sauber teams (nee AlphaTauri and Alfa Romeo) and Haas likely to follow.

    Have there been any driver changes?

    No. This season’s line-up is the same as the previous year – the first time that’s ever happened. But with Hamilton already announcing his move to Ferrari for 2025 and 13 of the 20 drivers out of contract at the end of the season – next year’s grid is sure to have a whole different feel about it.

    What else happened during the winter break?

    Aside from Hamilton’s blockbuster transfer, his soon-to-be Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc penned a new deal which is expected to keep the 26-year-old Monegasque dressed in red until 2029. Lando Norris also extended his stay with McLaren until at least the end of 2026.

    Andretti’s move to become the 11th team on the grid was blocked by F1 bosses. The British Grand Prix will remain on the calendar for another decade after Silverstone agreed a new long-term deal with F1’s American owners’ Liberty Media.

    How does the calendar look?

    There will be a record-breaking 24 races – the longest season in history – starting in Bahrain on March 2 and ending in Abu Dhabi nine months and six days later.

    The Chinese Grand Prix returns after five years away, while the round in Japan moves from its traditional October slot to April. The roster features six sprint races in China, Miami, Austria, Austin, Qatar and Brazil. The format has been tinkered with, too. Qualifying for the sprint will now take place on Friday, with the grid for Sunday’s main event decided on Saturday, following the shortened race.

    What else do I need to know?

    The opening two races will both take place on a Saturday. The Muslim holy period of Ramadan starts on March 10. As such, the second round in Saudi Arabia has been brought forward by a day. FIA rules stipulate there must one week between races, meaning the Bahrain GP will also be 24 hours earlier than usual.

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    Lewis Hamilton said he chose to turn his back on Mercedes and join rivals Ferrari to write “a new chapter” in his record-breaking career.

    The seven-time world champion was speaking for the first time at length since his shock blockbuster move to the Italian giants in 2025 was confirmed earlier this month.

    Hamilton’s soon-to-be Ferrari team led the way on the concluding day of this week’s test in Bahrain, with Charles Leclerc seeing off Mercedes’ George Russell by just 0.046 seconds.

    But it is Max Verstappen’s Red Bull team who head into next Saturday’s curtain raiser, also in the Gulf kingdom, as the favourites, despite the ongoing investigation into their embattled team principal Christian Horner. Horner continues to deny the claims against him.

    Hamilton, who joined Mercedes from McLaren in 2013, signed a two-year contract extension with the Silver Arrows only last August.

    But over the winter he elected to terminate his £100million deal 12 months early to make the switch.

    “Obviously in the summer we signed and at that time I saw my future with Mercedes,” Hamilton explained. “But an opportunity came up in the new year and I decided to take it.

    “I feel like it was the hardest decision I have ever had to make. I have had a relationship with Mercedes since I was 13. They have supported me and we have had an incredible journey together and created history within the sport. It is something I take a lot of pride in.

    “But ultimately I am writing my story and I felt like it was time to start a new chapter.”

    Mercedes have carried Hamilton to six of his record-equalling seven titles.

    But last year marked a second straight season without a victory for the British driver – a losing streak which now stands at 45 races – and Mercedes’ first winless campaign in a dozen years.

    Ferrari have not won a drivers’ championship since Kimi Raikkonen triumphed for them in 2007.

    And two decades will have passed since Michael Schumacher took his fifth consecutive title for the team in 2004 when Hamilton links up with Ferrari at the start of next year.

    “All of us sit in our garages and you see the screen pop up, you see a driver in the red cockpit and you wonder what it will be like to be surrounded by the red,” added Hamilton.

    “You go to the Italian Grand Prix and you see the sea of red of Ferrari fans and you can only stand in awe of that.

    “It is a team that has not had huge success since Michael’s days and I see it as a huge challenge.

    “As a kid I used to to play the Grand Prix 2 computer game as Michael in that (Ferrari) car. It is definitely a dream and I am really excited about it.”

    Hamilton said the biggest transfer in F1 history would not have happened if Fred Vasseur – the Frenchman who played a prominent role in his formative career – had not been appointed as Ferrari team principal last year.

    Hamilton continued: “I have got a great relationship with Fred. I raced for him in Formula Three and we had amazing success in Formula Three and GP2 and that is where the foundation of our relationship started.

    “We always remained in touch. I thought he was going to be an amazing team manager at some stage and progress to Formula One. It was really cool to see him at Alfa Romeo and when he got the job at Ferrari I was just so happy for him. The stars aligned and it would not have happened without him.”

    As for learning the lingo, the Stevenage-born racer, added: “In all these years I have not managed to learn other languages, but I will definitely try. I do remember when I was younger and karting in Italy I was able to pick up a few lines. Hopefully that will come back to me.”

    Ferrari might have finished on top on Friday, but the consensus in the paddock is that Red Bull have significantly improved the machine which won all bar one of the 22 rounds last year.

    “Our car is more enjoyable to drive and it is an improvement,” said Hamilton. “But we still have some time to find. Red Bull are out in the distance.”

    Ominously, Verstappen, bidding to win his fourth straight title, said: “For sure, the car is better than it was last year.”

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