The five-time world champion and Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team boss opened up to an intimate audience at Mercedes me Store Melbourne as the 2019 season kicked off.
Lewis Hamilton doesn’t hand out kudos to many people. The five-time world champion and winner of 51 of the last 100 Formula 1 races sets stratospheric standards of performance and is, unsurprisingly, hard to impress.
A rare exception is the man with whom he shares the stage at Mercedes me Store Melbourne on ‘grand prix eve’ – the night before the first wheels turn in anger at the first grand prix of the 2019 season, the Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix at Melbourne’s Albert Park.
The man about whom he positively gushes is one with whom he also shares many things – a pit garage, racing strategies, even a start date with the team.
Toto Wolff, the team principal of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport F1 team, is Hamilton’s boss. But with renowned Formula 1 commentator Tom Clarkson asking the probing questions of the pair in the intimate setting of the stunning Mercedes me Store, it quickly becomes evident he’s also a friend, mentor and confidant.
Appropriately, the pair arrived at the venue in high-tech style, pulling up on the adjacent forecourt in an all-new Mercedes-Benz EQC, the company’s first all-electric vehicle which had been unveiled in Australia only two days prior at the same venue. Their arrival was live-streamed into the store, where guests provided an appropriately rock-star welcome as they descended the long staircase to greet Clarkson on the stage.
Hamilton and Wolff joined the Mercedes-AMG Petronas squad simultaneously at the end of the 2012 season, at a time when it was often finishing races without a car in the top 10.
History shows that in the six seasons since the arrival of Hamilton and Wolff, the team has won the driver’s world championship and the team world championship five times each, a period of absolute dominance in a sport where a thousandths of seconds can be all that separates first from the rest.
“It all starts with Toto,” Hamilton firmly asserts. “He’s at the top, it’s all led by him, his vision, his drive has filtered into what we have today. We wouldn’t be as successful without Toto.”
Wolff demurs. “Lewis and I are on this journey together. We both joined the team at the end of 2012 and it’s not always easy, we’ve had good times and we’ve had tough times when we’ve had to mobilise every little inch we had in us,” he says.
“And the respect between the individuals, everybody plays in their positions, but Lewis is the most important contributor, there is nobody as talented as …”
Hamilton interrupts: “That’s not true! I’m just a chink in the chain, maybe I’m the catalyst at the end, but there’s nearly 2000 people back there (at team headquarters in the UK) building this car.”
At least both can agree that teamwork is everything in Formula 1, and Wolff says that as each new season dawns, the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 squad has to lift its game just to maintain the status quo.
“All the great sports teams know that it’s a journey, and it’s about the best individuals with the right motivation coming together at a certain time and then setting new benchmarks,” he tells the crowd of motorsport enthusiasts who each won tickets via a 25 words or less competition to the special Mercedes me Store evening. “We have a great group of people and every year we have to set new objectives and the competition is getting stronger every year.”
Hamilton agrees: “It’s not just about having a quick car. The driver has to perform, the team has to perform in pitstops, the fuel and strategy, all these things have to be optimised.
“Where I have a lot of confidence is with the team, last year we didn’t have the best car in a lot of the races, but the team overachieved because our delivery on process was better than the others. Naturally we expect (the other teams) are going to try to improve in those areas. But we’ll continue to grow, too. We’re here to win, that’s for sure!”
What continues to motivate a team that has won everything there is to win in Formula 1? For Wolff, it’s simple. “The pain of failure lasts much longer than the joy of winning,” he says.
“You get out of the airplane on the Monday after a race and the joy of winning is gone, and you are already sceptical about the next race. But the pain of losing, when you wake up the first three or four days in a row after a race and the first thought is ‘I can’t believe we lost and how do we turn things around?’ So it’s almost a pain avoidance mechanism we have.”
Hamilton, unsurprisingly, adopts a more inward-looking perspective. “For me it’s staying focused and delivering each weekend, making sure I extract everything and even more out of the car,” he says.
“Personally, it’s not the fear of losing; my personal fear, if I do have a fear, is not living to my full potential. You have to be out there living life and exceeding your own expectations, and pushing boundaries and growing every day. And of course making mistakes, we make plenty of them, because the goalposts are always shifting.”
Under Clarkson’s gentle probing, Hamilton also reflects on his choice to switch from the highly successful Mercedes-powered McLaren squad to the factory-backed Mercedes-AMG team for the 2013 season, at a time when the former was still a dominant team in the sport.
“I was signed by McLaren when I was 13, I was with them for a long, long time,” he says. “I got to a crossroad where I could continue with them, a world championship-winning team, it was a wonderful place to be. I could keep doing the norm, or I could go somewhere else.
“To utilise the skills that I’d learned all these years, and see if I could really help pull the team together and achieve real growth, that was the challenge. A lot of people said it was the worst decision ever, but I had done a lot of research and I knew it was the right thing for me, even if we would struggle for a few years.
“And it went way, way better than I expected, we beat McLaren in the first year. We never looked back, just kept building and here we are today, five-time world champions.”
And what did two of the biggest names in the F1 pit lane make of their ride to the event, the ground-breaking Mercedes EQC 400 all-electric SUV?
“I was not expecting it to have so much power, it’s like 407 brake horsepower (300kW), the delivery of the power is so smooth,” Hamilton says with a grin.
“It’s great to see how Mercedes-Benz is investing so heavily into it. Mercedes don’t know how to lose, so when they set their eyes on something, they do it better than anyone else.”
While Hamilton was busy admiring the performance, Wolff was taking note of the luxurious interior. “It’s really awesome. Once you drive it, it’s like a Mercedes inside,” he says. “I cannot really imagine that we would drive anything else in a few years.”
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By Steve Colquhoun
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