Toto Wolff believes the progress made by Mercedes at the French Grand Prix shows that marginal gains will prove crucial in this year’s championship battle.
Mercedes delayed the introduction of its power unit upgrade in Canada two weeks ago due to what it described as a “quality issue,” leaving the team at a disadvantage to the other three engine manufacturers, which had all brought updates either in Montreal or Monaco. Sebastian Vettel took the championship lead with a comfortable win in Canada, but Lewis Hamilton regained top spot with victory in France on the new Mercedes power unit’s debut.
“I think what you saw in Montreal in comparison to Le Castellet is that marginal gains matter,” Wolff said. “We fell back in Montreal because we couldn’t bring the new power unit, and we were racing power unit number one for the seventh consecutive race, and the others introduced their upgrade. This certainly didn’t help.
“We are also constantly learning on how to set the car up in the right way in combination with the tires, and of course we also brought some upgrades to the car which was good to see coming together. And all these gains in their respective areas added to a solid step that we could materialize on each of the three days at Le Castellet.”
Despite the impressive turnaround aided by the update in France, Wolff insists the top three power unit manufacturers remain closely matched.
“Very difficult to say [if Mercedes has the best engine] because when you look at [Saturday’s] data, the quickest car on the straight was Kimi, but we believe he was maybe running a different aero configuration.
“I believe that all three power units are pretty close together, between Renault, Ferrari and ourselves at the moment. It’s about finding gains without compromising reliability. That’s the trick. That fight is going to continue until the end of the season.”
Hamilton opened up a 14-point advantage as a result of his win, with Vettel recovering to fifth place after a collision with Valtteri Bottas on the opening lap, for which Vettel apologized. Vettel received a five-second time penalty for the incident, and while Niki Lauda claimed that was lenient, Wolff is satisfied by the stewards’ decision.
“The damage was quite extensive, because it damaged the floor, and Valtteri’s comments on the car were that it was shocking to drive afterwards. That’s why it ruined his race. To be honest, with Sebastian, Sebastian misjudged the situation and took himself out of the race and lost valuable points. It bites them both.
“Whether five seconds is sufficient or not, I don’t want to judge that. I guess where the stewards came from is that both were last at that stage of the race, so that was damage enough.”