Formula One is filled with giant personalities. Of course, the bulk of those are found on the track, from Lewis Hamilton to Max Verstappen, and veteran Fernando Alonso, and the rest of the drivers on the circuit. But you can also find some titanic personalities on pit lane, such as Red Bull boss Christian Horner Guenther Steiner, the Team Principal at Haas F1.
You can certainly count Mercedes boss Toto Wolff among those personalities. The Mercedes Team Principal has been with the team since 2013, and during that stretch he guided Mercedes to eight-straight Constructors’ Championships, and saw a Mercedes driver win seven-straight Drivers’ Championships, with Hamilton winning six and teammate Nico Rosberg winning the other.
However, the 2022 season was a different story. In the wake of the finish to the 2021 season, that saw Verstappen clinch the title in the final race of the season over Hamilton under controversial circumstances, Mercedes’ dreams of an immediate bounceback in 2022 never materialized. George Russell finished fourth in the Drivers’ Championship, with Hamilton sliding to sixth, and Mercedes failed to mount a serious challenge for the Constructors’ Championship, finishing a distant third to Red Bull.
Wolff opened up about the team’s struggles during the 2022 season in the latest installment of F1.com’s Beyond the Grid podcast. In a fascinating conversation, Wolff discussed a variety of topics, including the resignation of Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto, Hamilton’s drive to retain his title, Russell’s first-ever F1 victory, and the idea of “bucket lists.”
But perhaps the most insightful discussion came when host Tom Clarkson asked Wolff a series of questions regarding Mercedes’ difficulties in 2022. Asked about the idea of failure, Wolff shared his thoughts on losing, failure, and learning:
I absolutely believe that you have to fail and get it wrong to prosper. There is no sports team in the world that won every single championship they entered. So the learnings have been tough, because talking about it is one thing. But then seeing this phenomenon come back weekend, and weekend, it really tests the organization and it tests your values. And I think we had our moments, when I look back, there was a certain degree of pressure. Maybe too much that I put on the organization, at times. But it made me learn. Learn about the strengths and the weaknesses of the organization. And, at the end, it comes back to the same things. The days we lose are the days our competitors will regret, because we learn the most.
Wolff also elaborated on how well he handles winning, and how poorly he handles losing:
All of these years I’ve been always wary of the feeling when losing. Winning lasted overnight, landing back in Europe, the feeling was gone and you were thinking about the next race. But when losing, I felt it so much as a personal downfall that it lasted for a few days.
Beyond his discussion on the importance of losing, and failure, perhaps the most fascinating insight came when Clarkson asked him about Mercedes’ 2022 struggles, and in particular the problems with the car itself.
Due to new F1 regulations, all the teams struggled with an aerodynamic phenomenon known as “porpoising,” due to the car being stiffer as a result of the regulations and a shift towards “ground effect aerodynamics.” But Mercedes struggled with it the most, with both Hamilton and Russell struggling early in the season to maintain control due to the “bouncing” effect felt in the cockpit.
Following the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Hamilton had this to say about the car, and the bouncing effect: “The thing was bouncing so much there were so many times I was nearly going into the wall, that was a concern safety wise, 180mph smashing into the wall. I don’t think I’ve ever really had to think about that as a racing driver, keeping it out of the wall at that high speed, very strange experience. That was the most painful race I’ve experienced, the toughest race I’ve experienced.”
An engineer for Mercedes “later revealed the compressions from the bouncing were registering at 6G (six times the force of gravity) through the car.” In addition, the engineer indicated that “Hamilton was experiencing 6G in vertical loads at an extremely high frequency as he went down the pit straight on every lap during a 51-lap race.”
Clarkson asked Wolff about their struggle with the “bouncing,” and how it took Mercedes longer to adapt to the issue:
Because we got it wrong. I think even the best people can get it wrong, and my assumption of why our team would function, that I learned back in the Williams days, is that you have to have the right infrastructure, financial resource, good drivers, powerful engine, the right organization, and enough time to put it all together. And these ingredients would make sure that you were competitive…we haven’t suddenly taken a stupid pill…we got the concept wrong. We underestimated the effect when running the car very low, and other have done a better job. Whether they knew the effect from past days, or they were simply more focused on this particular area of car behavior, I don’t know. But in the organization, nobody shied to say that we did a bad job here…all of us are saying “we got this very wrong, and others got it very right.”
As Wolff told Clarkson, they simply got the “physics” wrong.
However, there might be relief on the horizon for Wolff, Hamilton, Russell, and the entire Mercedes team. In a video released by the team this week, trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin outlined that Mercedes first identified the issue in preseason testing. “To be honest, the signs were there from the very, very early running, even on the filming day that we did at Silverstone, it was obvious that you get this mechanism in the cars,” Shovlin revealed in Mercedes’ postseason debrief, responding to a question from a fan regarding their struggles.
As Shovlin noted, the team finally started to figure things out at the start of the European portion of the calendar, most notable at Barcelona. “Well, probably the one that will stick in the minds of the engineers is Barcelona, and Barcelona was the one where we made the biggest step in getting on top of the aero bouncing phenomenon,” Shovlin explained. “We were able to have pretty good performance, but also it allowed us to see that once we’d solved that issue, there were still other issues to solve with the ride of the car.”
The engineering director elaborated on the refinement of their car following Barcelona. “It wasn’t very good over the bumps, and it gave us the clarity to work on those next steps. So whilst it was only a small step in the right direction, from a learning point of view, it was a really important update.”
How did that pan out for Mercedes? After starting the season well behind Red Bull and Ferrari, they were able to close the gap, most notably with Russell winning his first career F1 race at Interlagos in Brazil. That gave the Silver Arrows a narrow path to overtaking Ferrari at the final race of the season. While that did not happen, it gave Mercedes a path to returning to glory in 2023.
Which leads us to perhaps the most notable quote from Wolff’s interview with Clarkson, on losing and failure:
“The days we lose are the days our competitors will regret, because we learn the most.”
It took a while, but Mercedes finally learned from their early-season losses.
Which could be huge for them in 2023, and indeed create days their competitors will grow to regret.