When was the last time Toto Wolff publicly admonished Lewis Hamilton? Okay, let me rephrase this one. Has Toto ever publicly admonished Lewis? The answer to that question is, No! This has never happened. Yet, on Sunday at the 2023 F1 Austrian GP, something weird happened.
Hamilton was clearly not happy with the machinery under him, and he made it more than obvious on team radio. Early in the race, he radioed that 'the car was just too slow' and everyone around him was 'too fast'. It got worse when the Mercedes driver was informed about the track limits penalty.
What followed was a constant barrage on the team radio of unfair the track limits penalty was. First, it was Lewis Hamilton's race engineer who tried to placate the situation by telling him that everyone would ultimately get the penalty, but that did not make things better.
Hamilton continued to complain, and after an early intervention from Toto Wolff, where he also told his driver that everyone would get the penalty, we finally had the Mercedes boss apparently losing his cool on the driver.
On lap 52 of the 2023 F1 Austrian GP butting in during a team radio communication between the driver and the team, Toto Wolff said:
"Lewis the car is bad we know, please drive it."
In a decade-long relationship, this was not the first time that Hamilton had lost the plot during a race. This was certainly not the first time that he continued to rant on the team radio during the race.
This was, however, the first time that Toto Wolff felt it was important he butted in and told his driver to focus on driving the car. This was not a small moment, and if we try to bring context into Wolff's comments, there might be something more to what was said.
Is Toto Wolff finally starting to lose patience with Lewis Hamilton after his star driver's multiple comments in the media? Let's take a look.
Lewis Hamilton's continued digs at Mercedes design team
Lewis Hamilton is not happy with where he finds himself right now. The car that Mercedes has produced this season is not going to challenge for the title.
At best, a win or two on a good day is the best that the driver can expect from this season. In all of this, Lewis has not held back in making his feelings known to the world.
It started with his comments in Bahrain, where he said that the team did not listen to his inputs when designing the car. Incidentally, at that moment, he was not the only one as Toto Wolff too, had come down hard on the 2023 F1 challenger and proclaimed that changes were in order.
Since then, while Wolff has been in the background, bringing changes that include a return of James Allison, Hamilton's comments have varied based on the race weekend.
In Barcelona, the Mercedes driver was complimentary of the recovery work that the team had done, but in between all of this, there have been comments here and there where the driver has made it clear that the car is a limiting factor for his success on the grid.
He's also not held back when it comes to revealing details that don't shine Mercedes in the brightest of lights. In Austria as well, Lewis Hamilton claimed that the changes the team is bringing now were requested by him over a year ago.
While Wolff has continued to maintain a strong front and even backed his driver's claims at times, it does not look good as if the lead driver continues to pass disparaging comments for the rest of the outfit.
The prolonged negotiation period with no end in sight
The Lewis Hamilton-Mercedes, contract extension talks, were supposed to start last season. That was the first time when Hamilton did mention that he was interested in signing an extension with the team. Since then, all we've had from both the driver and the team are vague updates.
Both have been confident of continuing the partnership, but neither have put a date on when that is going to happen. For a long time, even the F1 paddock accepted that the contract extension is nothing more than a formality. There were many that even predicted that Silverstone might be the track where the team announces the contract extension.
Well, Toto Wolff clarified post-F1 Austrian GP that this was not happening. With half of the season over and only six months left in the contract, is Toto Wolff finally starting to get frustrated with Lewis Hamilton over not signing an extension with Mercedes? Could we be looking at a scenario where the driver is just not confident about the team's potential?
Could we be looking at a scenario where Toto Wolff's patience is wearing thin because of how Lewis Hamilton is not showing any confidence in a team that has given him so much success? Could that have played a role in the Mercedes team principal's outburst?
Lewis Hamilton's place in the driver market
Finally, a question that needs to be asked is where Lewis Hamilton sees himself in the driver market and what is Mercedes' perception of him.
What Hamilton has shown this year is that he's clearly an elite talent still. He's still consistent and performs at a very high level. While we can say all of that, it's hard to deny that there are drivers on the grid that are arguably younger and could compete with Hamilton in a similarly paced car.
George Russell at Mercedes has shown that he can be there and there about when it comes to matching Lewis. Drivers like Charles Leclerc or Lando Norris will take the opportunity to jump ships in a heartbeat. When there are these options available on the grid, it does give Toto Wolff a lot of options should he want to look elsewhere.
Until now, there hasn't even been an inkling that Toto Wolff would even think of hiring someone else. Lewis Hamilton has been projected as the team's first and only choice.
However, with the contract negotiations meandering the way they have been, Toto Wolff, always the astute businessman, will be keeping an eye on the options at hand.
Lewis Hamilton is and should be considered the first choice for Mercedes for the 2024 F1 season. However, considering that:
- Lewis Hamilton has continued his digs against the design team,
- the contract negotiations continue to get delayed,
- there has been no announcement in Silverstone, and
- there are alternatives present,
we may be looking at a scenario where Toto Wolff has to start looking after his team just as much as he looks after Lewis Hamilton.
Is Wolff starting to lose patience with Hamilton? We don't know for sure. But what we do know is that the delayed contract negotiation is starting to wear on the Mercedes boss, especially since we have fewer than six months left in Hamilton's contract.