Toto Wolff revisits 2021 pain, the ‘best man that day didn’t win’

Michelle Foster
Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff at the Belgian Grand Prix. July 2023.

Mercedes' Toto Wolff at the Belgian Grand Prix. July 2023.

A year and a half on from Lewis Hamilton’s 2021 title defeat and Toto Wolff is still smarting over it, saying the championship was “stolen and that made it difficult” to accept.

Two years ago Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton was locked into a ferocious battle with Max Verstappen for the World title, the two trading 1-2 finishes and paint as they went wheel-to-wheel for the title.

Entering the season finale in Abu Dhabi tied on points, 369.5 apiece, it was a case of the winner take all – and take it he did.

Toto Wolff: The 2021 title was stolen

Although Hamilton had led much of the race, the Mercedes driver over 10s up on Verstappen, then FIA race director Michael Masi got involved as he set up a final lap shoot-out following Nicholas Latifi’s late-race crash.

Allowing only the cars between Hamilton and Verstappen to unlap themselves, Verstappen on fresher tyres was able to attack Hamilton for the race lead and did so at Turn 4, storming past the Briton on his fresher tyres.

“This has been manipulated,” was Hamilton’s anguished cry over the radio as he saw his bid for a record-breaking eighth World title destroyed.

Verstappen won the race and the title, casting doubts over whether Hamilton would return to the grid. He did so in 2022 but the new rules had blunted Mercedes’ form with F1 now in the midst of the Verstappen era.

Wolff has yet to let go of 2021’s pain.

“Both drivers started with equal points into this race,” Wolff said in an appearance on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs.

“Best man and best machine wins, and the best man that day didn’t win.

PlanetF1.com recommends

Five great F1 career moves: Hamilton to Mercedes, Schumacher to Ferrari and more

F1 points all-time rankings: Where do Hamilton, Verstappen, and Alonso feature?

“And it’s still something that stings, not of losing it because I would have been able [and] all of us would have been able to lose that race fair and square and admit that. But it was stolen and that made it difficult.

“The FIA was with its next regime, a new president was voted in literally that month, and was able to admit that a mistake was made and it was “human error”, that’s how they called it.

“But obviously that was not bringing us the trophy back and was not making Lewis the only eight-time world champion.

“But you just need to overcome it. And I think Lewis and I are very similar in that respect, we are able to compartmentalise.

“But it is what it is. Much worse things happen in the world than being stolen of a Formula 1 World Championship.”

Hamilton has not won a race since 2021, Mercedes’ form in the new ground effect aerodynamic era leaving them lacking compared to Red Bull.

“The interesting phenomenon is that we as a team and Lewis as a driver, we didn’t have a lot of credit and sympathy because we won so many times,” Wolff added.

“And we became the underdog in that moment. People cheered for us. And that is still a positive for us today.”

Read next: Nico Rosberg fires warning to Max Verstappen: ‘He needs to be careful’