Toto Wolff sees a long road ahead as Mercedes seek to end Red Bull’s domination

File photo dated 03-07-2022 of Toto Wolff, who said Mercedes’ worst performance on his watch as team principal shows they are right to make wholesale design changes for next season. Issue date: Monday November 6, 2023.
File photo dated 03-07-2022 of Toto Wolff, who said Mercedes’ worst performance on his watch as team principal shows they are right to make wholesale design changes for next season. Issue date: Monday November 6, 2023.

Lewis Hamilton’s boss Toto Wolff has conceded Mercedes will have to scale Mount Everest to topple Max Verstappen’s Red Bull team next season.

Mercedes clung on to second place in the constructors’ championship by the skin of their teeth – and a £10million cash boost – as Verstappen ended the most dominant season in Formula One history with another victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

The Dutchman, taking his 19th win from 22 rounds, finished 17 seconds clear of team-mate Sergio Perez. But, mercifully for Mercedes, the Mexican driver was demoted to fourth following a five-second penalty for a collision with Lando Norris.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was elevated to second with Mercedes’ George Russell third. Lewis Hamilton finished ninth in the other black-liveried machine.

Had Perez outscored Russell, Mercedes and Ferrari would have been tied, with the Prancing Horse second in the team standings by virtue of Carlos Sainz’s win in Singapore.

But following Perez’s sanction, Mercedes ended the campaign three points clear of Ferrari to land a £105million reward, rather than £95m.

However, it marked a second straight season without a victory for Hamilton – a losing streak which now stands at 45 races – and Mercedes’ first winless campaign in a dozen years.

They finished an eye-watering 413 points behind Red Bull, who have long since turned their focus to next year’s machine. Last season, Mercedes were 244 points behind the world champions.

“Red Bull won by 17 seconds today, and haven’t touched the car since July or August, so you can pretty much guess where they’re going to be next year,” said a despondent Hamilton.

Picking up the baton, Wolff added: “From Lewis’ perspective, he had a bad weekend. Fact. But that doesn’t do anything on him being the greatest driver in the world.

“If we are able to give him a car, he will be fighting for a world championship. I have no doubt. But it is clear if you have a car like we have now, you are not at ease with it.

“Red Bull started the new regulations in 2022 with a massive advantage and they have been able to maintain it.

“We have a lot of respect for their achievements – from the engineering side, and the driver – and beating them under the current regulations is against the odds. Mount Everest is in front of us.”

Hamilton and Mercedes will hope a brand new design will fire them back to winning ways following their no-sidepod flop abandoned on the eve of the opening race in Bahrain.

Wolff continued: “We had to be honest that this car was never going to be good enough to fight for a world championship. We took the decision in April to go back to the drawing board and come up with something different for next year.

“We are changing the concept. We are moving away from how we laid out the chassis, the weight distribution, the airflow, literally every component has been changed because only by doing that do we have a chance. You could get it wrong also. Everything is possible.”

Mercedes have carried Hamilton to six of his record-equalling seven world championships. But the 38-year-old will head for the off-season wondering if he will ever win again, let alone mount a season-long championship challenge.

With only minor tweaks to the sport’s technical rulebook before a complete overhaul in regulations in 2026, Hamilton has already expressed his fear that Verstappen will be untouchable for the next two years.

Abu Dhabi F1 GP Auto Racing
It was another good day for Red Bull and Max Verstappen (Kamran Jebreili/AP)

Wolff added: “We have a board in our factory that shows all the world constructors’ championships since 1958. The table runs until 2050 so there are 27 open. And I would like to look back in 20 years and see many more Mercedes stars.

“I hate retrospective views. But when we look back and consider the decade we had – second, first, first, first, first, first, first, first, first, third, second – and when you look at it from that perspective, you say, ‘that was OK’.

“But from a micro-view there is one guy (Verstappen) that has won 19 races, and that of course, is not good enough.”