Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff feared that Sir Lewis Hamilton’s title challenge was all but over when the Briton was disqualified from qualifying at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Hamilton qualified fastest for the sprint qualifying event on the Friday in Sao Paulo, but a technical infringement on his rear wing saw him pushed down the back of the grid.
He would then make up a stunning 15 positions in the sprint, before a five-place penalty for an engine change ahead of the weekend saw him start 10th.
Just nine of the 37 previous races at Interlagos had been won from outside the front row, but the seven-time world champion remarkably came through the field again to pass Max Verstappen late on and take a thrilling victory in front of an adoring crowd.
Ultimately though, the Dutchman would beat Hamilton to title glory in extraordinary and dramatic fashion at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, as Red Bull claimed their first Drivers’ Championship since 2013.
Mercedes began the year on the back foot having been caught out by some minor technical changes to the cars last season, but the Austrian is proud of their recovery to beat Red Bull and claim their record eighth consecutive Constructors’ Title.
“If you lose, it’s not a success story,” he told Auto Motor und Sport.
“The positive thing about that was the performance, how we managed to come back.”
The 50-year-old admits he was unsure whether Hamilton was still realistically in the title fight after the initial Sao Paulo setback.
“After the disqualification in Brazil, I would have said that the drivers’ championship was lost. Nevertheless, we started with the same points in Abu Dhabi,” he revealed.
Part of the changes last year arrived in the floor narrowing just before the rear tyres and, due to the relative ease with which Mercedes cruised to both titles in 2020, the Austrian concedes that they were not quite as vigilant as they ought to have been.
“We thought we could cope with the cut in the rear floor in front of the rear tyres. With the lead we had in 2020, we thought we could compensate for that. We saw it as a kind of challenge,” he explained.
“That was a misjudgement. During the tests, we noticed how much behind we got. I guess that cost us a second.”
Honda’s engine proved a match for Mercedes power in 2021, and Wolff admits that last year was the first time since the dawn of the hybrid era in 2014 that the serial constructors’ champions have run into power unit troubles.
“We didn’t lose the world championship because of the engine, but it’s true that we experienced problems for the first time in eight years,” added the team principal.
He expands on this, revealing that an initially trivial issue eventually contaminated the performance of the engine.
“At first, it only affected one component from a bad production run. This developed into a plague in which the engines lost more power over the runtime than they used to,” said Wolff.
Ultimately though, despite a spluttering start to the campaign, Mercedes adapted to the situation and gained a better comprehension of the machine.
“We understood our car better. Our set-up was better and we had less tire wear. This was also reflected in the race results.”
He then disclosed that the team decided against using any development tokens last year and due to the $145 million cost cap last year, had to be pragmatic with where on the car they would implement upgrades.
“We didn’t take a token,” he stated.
“We wanted to build a new nose, but then, as part of the cost cap, we put our resources elsewhere,”
The budget cap will reduce to $140 million this season, as new aerodynamic regulations sees a radical adjustment to the cars.
Further, an engine freeze will prevent manufacturers from developing their power units after the season gets underway.
Mercedes are rumoured to be one of two teams – together with Red Bull – attempting to increase the budget back to what it was last year, a move McLaren CEO Zak Brown has labelled “ridiculous.”
The Silver Arrows will reveal this year’s challenger on 18 February, before the season gets underway on 20 March in Bahrain.