What Wolff’s ‘pragmatism’ tells us about Mercedes post-Hamilton

It is the morning of Wednesday 31st January and you are Toto Wolff.

Later this morning, you have your traditional pre-season catch-up breakfast with Lewis Hamilton pencilled in as the work continues at Brackley to prepare for the launch of the 2024 challenger – the W15 on February 14th – and then getting everything shipped off to Bahrain for testing and the first race.

Lewis has just had a seat fit in the new machine and on Friday, he is set for some time in the simulator to test if tangible progress has been made with the third attempt at a ground-effects car.

He arrives at your Oxford home and as the talks begin, Hamilton drops the news that he has decided to activate the break clause in his contract and wants to leave the team at the end of the 2024 season and join Ferrari for 2025.

News of this scale usually finds its way into the mainstream media rather quickly, so you and Mercedes know you have a maximum of maybe 24 hours to control the story rather than be controlled by it.

It is time to swing into action and get the ducks in a row.

A all-hands briefing for Mercedes staff is called for the afternoon of February 1st at Brackley, with the official news coming later that night in the staggered way F1 teams do this type of coordinated release.

Mercedes’ statement, with your quotes and Lewis’s drops at 18:59 UK time on the 1st February, followed 13 minutes later by Ferrari’s succinct 21-word statement.

At 11 am the next morning, you prepare to face the world’s media, including RacingNews365 in a session overseen by trusted lieutenant Bradley Lord, your Chief Communications Officer.

Wolff’s initial reaction

The one word that stuck out during Wolff’s half-an-hour with the English language media was “pragmatic.”

Immediately after the news was delivered by Hamilton, Wolff explained how he went into ‘what is best for Mercedes mode’ and began game-planning what was to come once the news went public.

“When he first told me, my next thought was pragmatic,” Wolff told media including RacingNews365.

“[I thought]: ‘What does it mean? When are we communicating this? What are the pressure points? How are we managing the season going forward, and what are we going to do in terms of driver line-up?

“The Mercedes, the team’s mind kicked in and now having slept a few nights on it, it means our professional journey comes to an end, working together, but it does not mean that our personal relationship does, and I have found a friend.”

Wolff went to great lengths to cement Hamilton’s legacy at Mercedes after hinting that the team could not agree to his request for a long-term three-year contract when negotiating last summer, with him ending on a two-year deal that was effectively a one year deal with the option for another.

He said all the right things and there was never flashes of pain or hurt from the Austrian, no matter what his internal feelings must have been at the fact he had lost his star driver, statistically the greatest of all-time, to Ferrari.

But Wolff also understood Hamilton’s desire to try something different and give himself a new challenge, and what could possibly be gained by forcing a driver to stay and fulfill his contract when his head and heart were clearly elsewhere?

The House Lewis and Toto built

As American author Erin Morgenstern wrote in The Night Circus: “All empires fall eventually; it is the way of things.”

Where McLaren and Williams and Ferrari and Red Bull all fell before, the Mercedes empire has now as well, with the ultimate symbolic nature of that being the fact that Hamilton is leaving Mercedes.

From the Hamilton-Wolff-Mercedes dynasty, power has now transferred to the House of Verstappen-Horner-Red Bull.

Senior technical staff have left Mercedes in recent years, but reinventing yourself and coming back stronger is the hallmark of any great sports team once that era has closed.

But it is also important to note that Mercedes is bigger than Lewis Hamilton, the driver.

Granted, he is the most famous driver on the planet, but sentimentality for past glories only gets you so far – take Ayrton Senna trying to leave McLaren in the 1990s for Williams or Ferrari forcing Michael Schumacher out in 2006 to make way for Kimi Raikkonen.

Hamilton’s departure will be a clean-break for both parties, allowing him to fulfil that childhood dream of racing for the Cavalino Rampante whilst Mercedes and Wolff get to firmly begin their rebuild without the spectre of Hamilton looming large.

In the end, perhaps it is a good thing for all parties – except Carlos Sainz.


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