The Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, has made his most public admission of how hard the team have found being soundly beaten by Red Bull and Ferrari this season.
After another trying weekend at the Belgian Grand Prix, Wolff referred to their desperate straits as a “dungeon” which was proving harder to cope with than anything the team had experienced before.
Max Verstappen won for Red Bull at Spa-Francorchamps with a dominant run coming through the field from 14th on the grid to a victory that emphasised his skill and what a remarkable car he has this season. After 14 races and with eight remaining, a second title is within his grasp but Mercedes, in stark contrast, were once more left floundering by a car they still do not understand and whose performance from week to week remains an enigma.
The seven-times champion Lewis Hamilton who has enjoyed Mercedes dominance in taking six titles with the team – who have won eight constructors’ titles in a row since 2014 – was almost two seconds off Verstappen’s pace in qualifying in Belgium, pointedly noting he could not wait to move on to next year’s model. Wolff conceded it was hard to cope with being relegated to an also-ran.
“They say you never lose you learn, I can tell you it is fucking difficult,” he said. “All these nice Instagram posts and everything we have talked about over the eight years, about how we are going to take this when you arrive in the dungeon. To stick to your principles and your values, to keep the spirit up and continue to relentlessly seek to get better? Phew. There is more to write a book about this year than there is about the last eight years.”
Hamilton’s race ended on lap one when he hit Fernando Alonso going for a pass at Les Combes but once more the real conundrum facing Mercedes was evident at Spa and left Wolff and the team perplexed. Having been so slow in qualifying, they were much quicker in the race, with George Russell taking fourth.
“It’s very difficult to cope with these swings,” said Wolff. “We had a totally sub-par performance in qualifying then in the race sometimes we go three seconds a lap faster. There are big question marks about what is going on. It’s not where we should be with the structure and knowledge to understand a racing car but we don’t with this one.”
Hamilton said after qualifying he could not wait for next year’s car but while their hopes have gone this season the team have yet to make a firm decision on what route to follow for their new model. Wolff admitted it was far from a straightforward decision and that changing a design concept was not a simple, nor guaranteed, route to returning to being competitive.
“Whatever we decide for next year it needs to be carefully evaluated because clearly our data does not give us the results, doesn’t correlate it with the reality,” he said. “We have massive swings in performance we can’t really get on top of. In this moment to take a decision for next year, changing a concept dramatically, how can you be sure that is the better direction to go because clearly you would be starting a way back?”
Wolff said their decision on next year’s car will be made in the next few weeks and indicated the team felt they could still do better this season with Hamilton’s record of having won a race every year he has competed in F1 on the line.
“There are race tracks that will suit our car, that is our ambition,” he said. “But at the same time giving a big focus on to next year is clear. The positions are where we are with the top three teams, finishing second or third makes no difference to me.”