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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Toto Wolff: Why every F1 pole, victory and championship still matters to Abu Dhabi GP winners Mercedes

The Austrian has overseen a fifth successive double of drivers' and constructors' championships. He tells Graham Caygill what each victory means to him and also reveals who he believes will be Lewis Hamilton's main challengers in 2019

Toto Wolff has guided Mercedes to a historic double of five Formula One doubles of the drivers' and constructors' titles. AFP
Toto Wolff has guided Mercedes to a historic double of five Formula One doubles of the drivers' and constructors' titles. AFP

The fight for the Formula One championships in 2018 has taken a lot out of Toto Wollf, the Mercedes-GP team principal.

While the tussle between the German marque and Ferrari thrilled fans for much of the year, for Wolff guiding his team to a historic double of five successive drivers' and constructors' titles was a gruelling experience.

As he sat down to speak with The National at Yas Marina Circuit the Austrian said that he had just seen former F1 driver Mika Salo and he had been less then complimentary about his appearance.

"He said to me 'you are looking really bad' and all I could say was 'thank you for the compliment'," he jokes.

Wolff is in relaxed mood now, but it hasn't always been this way during a turbulent campaign that began back in March in Australia.

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At midway point of the season in July it was Ferrari who led the constructors' championship while Sebastian Vettel led Lewis Hamilton in the drivers' standings.

But Mercedes hit back and Hamilton clinched his fifth of his career in Mexico last month, with the constructors' crown secured two weeks ago in Brazil.

"It has been so intense all season," said a Zen-like Wolff ahead of Sunday's final race of the season at Yas Marina Circuit, won by Hamilton.

"It has been us, then it was Ferrari, then it was us again, and then suddenly Red Bull were back in the mix.

"We wanted to win this fifth double because this means equalising the Ferrari all-time record and so that is why it was so intense and when it happened it was like all the pressure suddenly was off."

Only Ferrari, between 2000 and 2004, have won five doubles in a row and if Mercedes can repeat the feat in 2019 they will cement their place as the most dominant force in F1 history.

But while the first three of those twin titles were achieved at a relative canter, last year and 2018 have seen Mercedes pushed hard by Ferrari and Red Bull Racing.

Wolff, while admitting he prefers the easier life, acknowledges that a closer fight at the front is a good for F1.

"I'd rather cruise away into the sunset alone without any competition but that is not real and it is not what Formula One should be all about," he said.

The 46 year old said that having to push so hard to stay ahead, suffering bad days along the way, has helped the team raise their game and become an even stronger unit.

Mercedes-GP drivers, mechanics and engineers celebrate their fifth successive F1 constructors' championship in Brazil. Reuters
Mercedes-GP drivers, mechanics and engineers celebrate their fifth successive F1 constructors' championship in Brazil. Reuters

"The drama and the glory makes for good entertainment, and also the drama makes you improve as a team and a person and it makes the success so much more than when there is no opposition," he added.

"You have to go through the painful days in order to improve and in order to enjoy more."

Enjoyment is still something that Wolff very much derives from his team's performances. Even after clinching 10 championships in five seasons he still punched the air in delight as Hamilton took pole on Saturday at the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and then again when he won Sundayโ€™s 55-lap race.

He still treats every pole and race win like a victory, and said he is glad that part of his persona has not changed.

"I am a very passionate about what we do," he said. "I am happy that I have kept the emotion even though we have done it now for many years.

"I am really grateful that I am able to do a job that triggers these kind of emotions but it goes the other way also. I am also punching when it is not going so well."

With the sun set on another successful year Wolff and Mercedes' focus now shifts to doing it all again in 2019.

That focus, Wolff said, started as soon as the constructors' title was sealed in Brazil, and work will start on next year's set up with the two-day tyre test at Yas Marina Circuit on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Wolff is already assessing the competition and believes that Charles Leclerc, who will replace Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari, could spice things up after impressing in his rookie season with Sauber.

Asked who he expected to be Hamilton and the team's main challenger, he said: "I think it is going to be [Sebastian] Vettel and Leclerc. I think Leclerc is going to have some really good performances.

"But it is a completely different situation when you are put in a car that is able to win.

"But I also believe that with Red Bull, if the Honda engine goes, then we will see them in the mix."