Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff has recalled a dispute he had with Sir Lewis Hamilton in 2016 after Nico Rosberg won the world title.
Hamilton and Rosberg spent three years batting each other for the world champion while they were team-mates at Mercedes, and claimed 51 race wins between them from 2014 to 2016 at the start of Formula 1’s hybrid era.
The Briton claimed the title in both of the first two seasons, but a magnificent season by Rosberg – coupled with the sort of misfortune for his team-mate that the German himself had suffered in the previous two years – brought him his maiden and sole championship in 2016.
Rosberg has since testified that his victory that year took everything out of him, which is why he announced his retirement on the day of the FIA prize giving gala that year.
It was decided in the final race in Abu Dhabi and, despite the 37-year-old’s tactics in the final few laps of the grand prix, Rosberg held on to second place, dramatically sealing the title 34 years after his father Keke had achieved the same feat.
After it had all shaken out, Hamilton divulged to the Austrian that he was considering leaving the team.
He said at the end of 2016 that he would write a book revealing all about why Mercedes opted to switch the two sets of engineers around ahead of that season, but Wolff explained to the now seven-time champion that, for him, the team has to be the priority.
“I said we need to decide whether we want to work together or not,” Wolff revealed.
“You want to win as a driver, I want to win as a team. Sometimes our different agendas are going to lead to conflict and we need to decide whether we can cope with that situation.”
The 50-year-old recalls that they got into a heated debate in his kitchen over the Christmas period five years ago.
“We were in my kitchen. I said to him, and Susie didn’t much like this analogy, that even though Susie and I might disagree about something, it would never come into my mind to divorce. ‘And it’s the same with you Lewis,’ I said.
“‘I don’t want a divorce. You’re the best driver. I want you in our car and we want to provide you with the best car.’”
Ultimately though, the pair came to an agreement.
“We kind of went into this discussion at loggerheads and then, after four or five hours in the kitchen, we found ourselves on a totally different level,” Wolff added.
Their relationship evidently transcends that of a racing boss and a racing driver. They have been working together since 2013 when Hamilton joined Mercedes from McLaren, and the Vienna-born businessman expressed his adulation for Hamilton.
“What I admire about Lewis is that he still wants to learn every day, as a driver but also as a personality,” he explained.
It is no secret that Hamilton’s interests also go beyond racing. He has explored his passions in music, fashion and environmental activism – commitments that have helped him travel the world and see some of the most enriching sights.
Wolff is more than happy to allow his driver to divert his focus away from racing when he is not at the track, as long as he maintains his performance on it.
“I have a deal with him. I give him freedom as long as he delivers,” he affirmed.
His anecdotes afterwards and the unprecedented success the 103-time race winner has achieved certainly suggest that Hamilton is more than living up to his end of the bargain.
“In Japan last year he said he’d barely slept and played music all night. That day, he crushed the competition,” he recalled.
“In 2018, before the race in Singapore, he had a fashion show in Shanghai, went to Los Angeles and a friend’s wedding in England.
“And that Saturday, he did the best qualifying lap I’ve ever seen.”
Hamilton managed a podium finish in the opening round of the 2022 season in Bahrain after a double mechanical failure for Red Bull, but Mercedes are a long way off the pace of the Milton Keynes side and Ferrari after the changes to the technical regulations.
Wolff has recently warned that there is “no magic fix” to the issues that have been plaguing his team this campaign.