Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff has admitted that Max Verstappen was the only F1 driver to understand how to consistently make the tyres work in the 2023 season.
Verstappen eased to a third World Championship in 2023, winning a record 19 races – 10 consecutively – to beat Red Bull team-mate Sergio Perez by a final margin of 290 points.
Only one non-Red Bull driver, Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz, managed to win a race this year with Mercedes suffering their first winless campaign since 2011, two years before Wolff joined the team.
Praise for Max Verstappen from Mercedes boss Toto Wolff
Additional reporting by Thomas Maher
Although Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell were closely matched for outright pace there were often considerable gaps between the pair at individual races like Abu Dhabi, where Russell registered his second podium of 2023 on a weekend Hamilton struggled to ninth – 24 seconds behind his team-mate – after falling in Q2.
Asked to explain the differences between his drivers, Wolff pointed to fluctuations in performance affecting various team-mate battles throughout the field – and hailed Verstappen as the only driver who managed to get the most from the tyres in 2023.
He told media including PlanetF1.com in Abu Dhabi: “It’s just difficult to comprehend that good drivers in various teams have these oscillations of performance.
“You’ve seen it this weekend with Sainz and [Charles] Leclerc; you’ve seen it with George and Lewis; Oscar [Piastri] and Lando [Norris]; and the obvious one is Perez and Verstappen: Perez is not a second slower than Max.
“What is that? Because we have seen it swing in both directions, so fundamentally I think it’s all around the tyre grip.
“If you’re able to have the car in a sweet spot, a stable platform that you start to work with at the beginning of the weekend, then you can expect performance.
“I think if you’re not, there’s just no performance: you’re falling off the cliff literally. I have no explanation for that.
“I think the only one this year who has understood how to how to drive these tyres is Max.”
Wolff courted controversy at August’s Dutch Grand Prix where he described the 1.3-second gap between Verstappen and Perez in qualifying as “odd” and “bizarre” before claiming that he could not comprehend such a huge difference in performance between team-mates.
Verstappen responded by describing Wolff’s interjection as “bullsh*t comments” and dismissed suggestions that he is given preferential treatment by Red Bull.