Formula 1: Past decision haunting Toto Wolff?

Toto Wolff, Mercedes, Formula 1 (Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Toto Wolff, Mercedes, Formula 1 (Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images) /

The renewed Formula 1 beef between Mercedes and Red Bull sheds light on Toto Wolff’s major regret over a decision that was made almost a decade ago.

As discussed at more length in a recent article by Beyond the Flag contributor Logan Ploder, the feud between Mercedes and Red Bull, which reached its boiling point during the hotly contested 2021 world championship battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, is seemingly heating up again after being largely forgotten about during the 2022 Formula 1 season.

Red Bull won 17 races to Mercedes’ one during 2022, so there wasn’t really much to discuss. Yet even as Red Bull find themselves 16 for 17 to start the 2023 season, the beef has recently been renewed.

Much of it stems from comments made by team principal Toto Wolff and Hamilton about how unimpressed they are by the records Red Bull and Verstappen continue to set. Many of those comments were made during the race weekend Verstappen earned his record 10th straight victory at Monza.

Red Bull won 15 races in a row from the end of last year to the Italian Grand Prix, and Verstappen earned 13 of those 15 wins, including 10 in a row.

Hamilton, a seven-time world champion who owns the all-time wins record with 103, never won more than 11 races over the course of a single season, and now Verstappen is sitting at 15 in 18 races going back to last year — with a great chance to break his own single-season record of 15 wins from a year ago.

Hamilton claims that Verstappen has never had to deal with a teammate as tough as he has, while Wolff stated that Verstappen’s records serve no other purpose than to populate a Wikipedia page nobody cares about.

To be fair, Verstappen has blown his teammates out of the water since Daniel Ricciardo left, and there indeed are a lot of useless Formula 1 records listed on Wikipedia that absolutely nobody cares about.

But Verstappen deserves a bit more credit for consistently dominating his teammates the way he does in equal machinery, and for Wolff to put Verstappen’s continued rise to the top of the sport’s all-time lists in the same category as those other “records” is straight-up childish.

His suggestion that Red Bull have built the RB19 around Verstappen is equally nonsensical, especially considering the fact that when teammate Sergio Perez won two early races this season, it was said that Red Bull went in a “different direction” this year by having the car suit both drivers, thus attempting to minimize Verstappen’s 2022 success as being down to the design of the car.

It really boils down to whatever fits the narrative at any given moment — and to Verstappen living rent-free in Wolff’s head.

And it all hints at a lingering bad decision that has long been eating away at the Mercedes boss.

Wolff and Mercedes had a chance to sign Verstappen, then 16 years old, in 2014. Wolff was asked earlier this summer about whether or not he regretted not signing Verstappen after meeting with him and his father Jos in 2014.

He admitted that he does regret it, but at the same time, he also added that understood the team’s driver lineup of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg was a strong one, and amid the early stages of Mercedes’ dominant era, there was no reason to make a change.

Plus, unlike Red Bull, Mercedes did not have the luxury of a “junior team” in Formula 1. So Red Bull signed the Dutchman, and he joined Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri) for the 2015 season and the start of the 2016 season before being promoted to the main team.

The fact that Mercedes went on to win eight straight constructor championships and their drivers won seven straight world titles during that span certainly justifies Wolff’s logic.

But let’s be honest. They could have found a way if they really wanted to, and amid year number one of their outright dominance of the V8 turbo hybrid era, they could have done more than enough — with far less effort than you might expect — to convince the Verstappens that it was the right move.

We have also seen drivers loaned out to other teams without any specific technical alliance before, and those drivers have managed to remain tied to their primary organizations. So this idea that Mercedes had absolutely no way of giving Verstappen a Formula 1 seat as a 17-year-old in 2015 is highly questionable.

Now as Hamilton undoubtedly nears the end of his career and George Russell continues a surprisingly underwhelming second season with Mercedes, there are surely going to be serious questions about this team’s identity moving forward.

Even with a car that is, at best, the second best on the grid at the moment, having a young driver of Verstappen’s caliber under contract would go a long way in finding some answers.

It’s not like Mercedes have struggled to beat Perez in the second Red Bull as of late; perhaps the development battle is closer than we think and the driver is indeed the one making the difference.

Verstappen is blowing Mercedes away in year number eight at Red Bull. He has scored 30 victories in the 40 races that have been contested since Hamilton most recently stood atop the podium, and Red Bull’s 34 wins since the start of last year stand 33 wins clear of the German manufacturer’s mark.

At this point, it would be crazy if Wolff didn’t regret not signing him. And that only seems to be getting more and more obvious.

Would Wolff have made the change had he known Rosberg was going to retire after the 2016 season? Let’s not forget that Verstappen, despite his promotion to the top team as an 18-year-old, did not spend a full season at Red Bull until 2017, at which point Rosberg was out of the sport and Valtteri Bottas replaced him.

Again, this idea of the move being impossible to find him a seat simply doesn’t check out.

Next. All-time Formula 1 wins list. dark

To his credit, Wolff did compliment Verstappen for being “outstanding”, but one has to wonder if some of his other comments attempting to minimize the 26-year-old’s achievements stem from his regret over the decision not to further pursue signing the newly crowned three-time reigning world champion.