Toto Wolff: People won't realise how good Lewis Hamilton is until he leaves F1
Mercedes team principal full of praise for five-time world champion as Valtteri Bottas backs himself to be a contender in 2019
Mercedes-GP team principal Toto Wolff believes five-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton will not be appreciated for how good he is until he stops racing.
Hamilton has been F1's dominant driver in recent years, winning four of the last five drivers' titles with the German marque with his 2018 championship arguably the most impressive of his career.
He won 11 of 21 races and had to overcome a fierce challenge from Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel to prevail, with UAE fans able to see Hamilton end the season on a high with a record fourth victory at the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November.
Wolff has overseen all of Hamilton's success at Mercedes and believes the Briton is on the same level as Michael Schumacher, the most successful driver in F1 history with seven world titles and 91 grands prix wins.
"Lewis, in my opinion, along with Michael, are the best we have ever seen," Wolff told The National. "We're only going to realise when he retires one day. We tend to never acknowledge somebody's great performance while it happens.
"We are always full of the types of people who retire or die. But they are never saying 'This guy is really unbelievable, we're alive to witness an exceptional performer'. I think we should recognise that while we are still racing."
The focus now moves to the season-opening Australia Grand Prix on March 17 with Mercedes set to launch the F1 W10 next week ahead of pre-season testing in Spain.
Despite their almost unparalleled success - Mercedes have won 74 of the past 100 races, with Hamilton winning 51 of them - driver and team have not always seen eye-to-eye. Hamilton infamously ignored team orders in the 2016 season finale in Abu Dhabi when he deliberately slowed in an attempt to affect teammate Nico Rosberg finishing outside the top three in order to claim the championship ahead of his German rival.
But that is now water under the bridge and Wolff has nothing but praise for Hamilton as they prepare to start a seventh season together.
"The way he has developed as a human is exceptional," he says. "He's become a strong pillar of winning with the team, which is rather unusual for a driver; your driver is more complaining about the team than praising, and he praises.
"We have an environment of brutal honesty with each other. So, if things go wrong, we go into the meeting and we say: 'That was wrong, that was wrong, and that was wrong'. That has allowed us to perform better, and he has a perfect attitude."
Hamilton, who spent the first six years of his career with McLaren, clinching his first world title in 2008, credits the environment that Mercedes have created since he joined in 2013 for allowing him and the team to flourish.
"Working with this team, you know, and just being in different place in my life where I'm working with a team and really managing to extract the most from this team," he said. "Helping them, helping them elevate as they're helping me elevate myself."
Hamilton will be partnered for a third year with Valterri Bottas and the Finn, while respectful of his teammate's accomplishments, still believes he has what it takes to beat him over the course of a season.
"Lewis is a great driver. He's one of the best, if not the best, in terms of stats and everything," Bottas said. "He's a nice guy at the same time. Very talented, hard working. He's also very experienced, so he's going to be extremely tough to beat."
Bottas' form fell away markedly last season but the 29 year old believes he has what it takes to emulate Rosberg in 2016 and beat the Briton to a world title while competing in the same team.
"In the end he's a human as well and there's no driver that is unbeatable. That's how I must think, if I were to think otherwise I would have to change the team and be with someone else's team.
"I don't want to because it motivates me. I know it's possible but it will require me to be at my best level all the time."
Updated: February 7, 2019 10:45 AM