Formula 1 is no stranger to controversy and innovation, but Toto Wolff wants to spark a new debate. Having passionately defended Liberty Media and F1 for its glitzy Las Vegas experiment, the Mercedes boss is instead sounding the alarm over another direction the sport headed in – the specific design of tyres to make the racing more exciting and interesting.
Mercedes, with its rollercoaster 2023 season, found itself grappling with these fickle tyre characteristics yet again at the cold, low-grip Las Vegas circuit. Lewis Hamilton’s failure to make it into Q3 late on Friday was a telling sign of the challenges faced because, in contrast, George Russell, driving the sister Mercedes car, managed to secure a P4 position, right behind the dominant Red Bull of Max Verstappen.
Wolff, in a candid interview with Sky Deutschland, highlighted the disparities this has created. “The conclusion is that you see such big differences here between two identical cars,” he observed. “We have to look at what we’re doing.” Wolff pointed out a critical factor: “The tyre goes up and down by a few degrees and that makes the difference between grip and no grip.”
The decision by Formula 1 some years ago to have Pirelli design tyres that could spice up the races seems to have backfired, according to Wolff. “Maybe we went a step too far with that,” he remarked. Wolff emphasized a shift in focus from sheer driving skill to technical manipulation: “At the moment it’s more about who whispers best, who puts their tyres in the window the best, racing than who can drive the fastest.”
For the top drivers and engineers at Mercedes, including Hamilton, the unpredictability at Las Vegas only added to the complexity. “What will happen next at Las Vegas remains a mystery,” Wolff added, pointing to the unpredictability the tyres are now having on the sport in its new ground-effect era.
This unpredictability isn’t exclusive to Mercedes. Wolff pointed out similar inconsistencies at McLaren and Ferrari. “They’re normally at the front now, but suddenly they’re out in Q1. On the other hand you have Ferrari who are half a second faster suddenly,” he noted, highlighting the fluctuating performances across teams.
Wolff also gave a nod to Williams’ Logan Sargeant, who defied expectations by qualifying P7 in Las Vegas. “We know that Williams can get the temperature into the tyres easily. This track is cold and fast and so they’re there,” he explained.
However, Wolff didn’t shy away from self-criticism. Acknowledging Mercedes’ own shortcomings in the intense competition with Ferrari for the constructors’ championship, he stated bluntly, “Both Ferrari and us are too stupid to maximise when the other team is bad.” This was evident as Carlos Sainz of Ferrari was pushed ten places back, yet Mercedes couldn’t capitalize fully, “even if we are fighting for the first loser place.”