After Lewis Hamilton’s blistering Saturday “wiping the smile off” Sebastian Vettel’s face, it was the German who had the last laugh on Sunday’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
The race seemed to be going Hamilton’s way with no answer from Ferrari, other than choosing to optimize Kimi Räikkönen’s strategy over their last season’s championship contender. The rest of the story is well known to everyone who saw the race.
After looking on course to a best-ever result of fourth and fifth, Haas failed to put on two out of eight wheels correctly; both their cars were out within the space of two race laps. The latter retirement of Romain Grosjean prompted a Virtual Safety Car which allowed Vettel to slip into the lead, much to the surprise of even the four-time World Champion himself.
The interesting part of the race’s aftermath was Toto Wolff’s handling of Mercedes throwing away a certain win. Wolff chose not to humor Hamilton’s torrent of questioning mid-race as to whether it was his or the team’s fault.
Wolff instead focused on asking the right people in his team, and within the remaining race distance came to the correct conclusion that it was a software glitch rather than anyone’s particular fault, all while managing two cars to a double-points finish.
This brings to memory last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix when Vettel rammed Hamilton’s car in anger behind the Safety Car. The German incurred a 10-second stop-go penalty for dangerous driving, while Hamilton suffered a bizarre head-rest failure that meant he couldn’t capitalize on Vettel’s penalty and instead finished behind the Ferrari.
Per their instincts, many reporters jumped at the story of whether Vettel’s contact with Hamilton was done deliberately, however the less very obvious questions of whether Vettel’s punishment fit the crime or how on earth did the head rest failure occur were not as apparent.
Wolff focused on the latter question, deciding it was a one-in-a-million freak occurrence and that measures would be taken to prevent it from ever happening again.
He was particularly stern in rebuffing reporters’ attempts to trick him into apportioning blame for the failure, losing his famous interview cool and switching into the bang-on-the-table, no-quarter-given anger we’ve always loved to see from him.
When Wolff became executive director of WilliamsF1 in 2012, he certainly played a part in the Grove team’s best season in almost 8 years, and has won races with every team he worked with in F1, every year.
A Team Principal’s job is to know the formula to success, and the way around issues. This is why Formula 1 has the strange quality of treating team bosses, who in any other arena are managers of an enterprise, like superstars.
Éric Boullier was the answer to an ineffective management structure at both Renault (then Lotus) in 2010 and at McLaren in 2014, making a palpable difference to both teams.
Dietrich Mateschitz is arguably the person to thank for bringing Christian Horner to Red Bull Racing and conversely, a successful Ferrari salesman named Marco Mattiacci couldn’t make the slightest difference at Ferrari in 2014. The arrival of Maurizio Arrivabene councided with the Italian team’s 2015 success and his continued leadership helps the team keep that momentum, albeit with no championship success (yet) on either front.
The thing that sets Wolff apart from Arrivabene is his ability to galvanize the whole team under a mentality of success and momentum while showing a reluctance to apportion blame, focusing instead on solutions. Nobody else is doing so in the paddock. Not even Hamilton.
Image via Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team