Unintended consequences

Toto Wolff didn’t seek increased influence in the politically charged Formula 1 paddock, but circumstance thrust it upon him. His present situation has caused him to think differently about the sport, as he explained in an exclusive interview

Toto Wolff now stands as one of the most successful F1 team bosses of all time. But beneath the smiles and quips he has sometimes carried a hunted look this year as he’s guiding Mercedes towards its fifth consecutive titles for drivers and constructors (which would equal the record of Ferrari in the former, but still fall one short in the latter – 1999-2004). Within the paddock, there’s been a backlash against his success, a resentment that as well as steering the fortunes of Mercedes, he’s a key player in the driver market and perhaps the single biggest influencer in the future direction of the sport. It’s something he acknowledges. “Yes, it’s become very noticeable lately. If I say A, it’s become predictable that some other teams will automatically say B without even thinking about A or C.”

Partly it’s just historical accident that his position at Mercedes F1 has become quite so heavyweight. He happened to be in place at Mercedes as the sport transitioned from Bernie Ecclestone’s entrepreneurial era to Liberty’s one of corporate management, and the potential power of his position was only enhanced mid-season with the untimely passing of Ferrari’s boss Sergio Marchionne.

But regardless of how he got there, or even whether he wants to be there, he stands at this crossroads in the sport’s history as a pivotal figure. Who is the most powerful individual in F1, the person with the biggest influence? FIA president Jean Todt? He’s a consensus man, looking to align the automotive manufacturers with the sport and to cement the FIA’s place in the automotive world. He doesn’t impose his vision upon the sport; rather, he tailors his F1 actions according to a wider agenda and sometimes seems quite ambivalent about F1’s direction, so long as it fits with the approval of the manufacturers. Liberty’s Chase Carey? Another man seeking consensus – his priority being the smooth running of a business cash cow. No particular sporting vision, other than it being something that the participants can live with and which attracts a good audience. Ross Brawn? He can see clearly from a racing perspective where the sport should be positioned, but some key parts of that – engines, cost caps – clash with the wishes of the manufacturers. With Todt and Carey unprepared to oppose the manufacturers, Brawn doesn’t have the support he’d need to begin imposing the changes he might ideally like to make. All of which leaves Wolff – he’s the representative of one of the two politically dominant manufacturers, while Marchionne’s replacements at Ferrari are unseasoned in the ways of F1.

Is it a place he has sought? The furrow in the brow appears. “I don’t want to be. My core activity is being part of running this team. The other things have happened over time and you have to focus and not get distracted. If you’re getting drawn to other areas that’s not great.”

But it is happening. “This summer has taught me that I mustn’t lose my priority on what’s good for the team. And not sometimes try to think too much for others. It’s become a situation where it’s difficult to count on any partnership or co-operation with the other teams, and it was wrong to assume that.”

This re-appraisal was triggered by his efforts at trying to find a 2019 seat for Mercedes young driver Esteban Ocon, given that the ownership change at Force India appeared to have left no space for the young Frenchman in his existing berth. So, during the summer break Wolff slipped into another of his roles – that of driver manager. A loose agreement had been reached with Renault but McLaren came calling, offering a cast-iron contract – but it needed an answer within 48 hours. Wolff contacted Renault team principal Cyril Abiteboul who assured him they definitely intended to take Ocon, but that no signed confirmation was possible in that timeframe as Renault Sport president Jérôme Stoll was out of reach on holiday. Shortly after Wolff and Ocon had politely turned McLaren down, Renault and Daniel Ricciardo dropped their bombshell that they would be combining forces, leaving Ocon apparently without a seat just days after having to choose between two! A door previously half-ajar at Sauber also seems to have been closed at much the same time, despite team principal Frédéric Vasseur’s enthusiasm for Ocon, an old charge of his from the junior categories. There was a suspicion that Wolff had been deliberately stymied, just to rein in his power, with Ocon’s career mere collateral damage.

“Yes, it made me angry,” admits Wolff. “Obviously our young drivers are an important part of the jigsaw for the future but it looks like some would rather…” he leaves the rest unsaid. “As the teams seem not to want to collaborate, we need to ask how sustainable junior driver programmes are in the long term, if the others are saying ‘Why should we take a Mercedes driver?’ You can negotiate any contract with a young driver. Ocon might have been a Mercedes driver because we invested in him since GP3 and spent millions on his programmes and that’s why we have a contract. But if he goes to another team he becomes the driver of the other team, with contract terms to be negotiated – two years, three years, five years, whatever. Then he’s free of constraint like any other driver and can then choose the best-performing team. But it needs everyone to collaborate or it just doesn’t work, it isn’t financially viable. It’s something we need to discuss during the winter. But we are Mercedes and we need to focus on putting the best guys in the car.”

That might be the logic of the situation, but this is the law of the jungle and in the post-Bernie era, Wolff seems to be the one getting ahead of the others and they are trying to claw him back. A few months ago he and Sergio Marchionne were a powerful alliance, but with the Ferrari boss’s passing, instead of making his position yet stronger, his position seems to have become a little more vulnerable. Certainly, Maurizio Arrivabene seems to be keen on Ferrari forming a stronger alliance with Red Bull and is believed to have been a significant reason why there was no place at Sauber for Ocon. These driver market movements are merely the manifestation of the political undercurrents as the players try to position themselves favourably in F1’s future. It all seems to have left Wolff a little bewildered.

MEANTIME, THE PREFERRED Mercedes and Ferrari engine regulations (largely unchanged) for 2021 are going through (despite the planned changes having been close to sign-off last year) and the cost cap looks likely to be deferred, forever moved to the long grass. These are manufacturer-dominated regulations and not what either the independent teams or Liberty would ideally want. They were pushed through by Ferrari-Mercedes, with support from Honda. The next logical development would be for the manufacturer teams to form closer ties to independent teams, making them satellites (or ‘slave teams’ as one of them put it). The transformation of F1 into a full manufacturer series is ongoing, bringing with it the associated downsides, and Wolff might be seen as the embodiment of that change. Except for one thing: Wolff is not from corporate Mercedes; his background is that of a racer. Furthermore, Mercedes AMG F1 is not wholly a manufacturer team.

Suggest to Wolff that manufacturers always come and go, just using F1 and then, with little or no notice, abandoning it after having changed the spending bar of everyone else, and he counters with: “No, this is different. Don’t forget we have a different shareholder structure in Mercedes. It’s not a 100 per cent-owned racing team.” The team is only part-owned by the manufacturer. It’s also part-owned by Wolff. Furthermore, it could be reasonably speculated that the bonus payments received from the manufacturer after the third consecutive world championship make the Brackley-based team potentially fully viable in the event of a sudden change of mind about F1 at Mercedes board level. There would probably not be the potential embarrassment that Honda faced when it pulled out of the same team, threatening to consign it to oblivion, only rescued by its management and a season’s worth of ‘guilt money’ to win the world championship as Brawn. Should F1 suddenly suffer the feared avalanche of manufacturer departures, there’s every reason to believe an independent Wolff team, perhaps still carrying AMG Mercedes sponsorship livery, would continue the lineage.

Wolff isn’t even convinced that Mercedes will eventually withdraw. “I asked them the question a few years ago,” he says. “I said, ‘What is this activity? Is it sponsorship? Marketing?’ No, it is our core activity. The first ever Mercedes was a racing car [the revolutionary 1901 35hp with its radical mechanically operated inlet valves and H-pattern gearshift]. We are prepared to stay long-term in F1 like Ferrari has done. Ferrari wasn’t always fighting for championships but it’s usually been there or thereabouts and this is the plan we have.”

There are another two years of the current formula – and Wolff has Hamilton contracted for those seasons. It’s more than feasible that by the time the formula ends in 2020, Mercedes will have won all seven titles, breaking further records for both driver and constructor. It has developed into one of the sport’s greatest partnerships. “Yes, the relationship has become stronger. In this intense environment we’ve been together six years and it’s been the strongest so far. I’m proud of the relationship we’ve jointly established. We’ve worked on it because it was not always easy but it’s so strong.”

THAT’S NOT ALWAYS an easy thing to achieve with any super-quick racing driver, the default position of which tends towards competitive paranoia. This and Hamilton’s ability mean inevitable bruises for the other driver in the team, as Valtteri Bottas has found, but if Wolff has an outstanding management ability aside from financial wizardry, it’s as a communicator with those around him – from drivers to the lowliest of employees. He’s the boss but never comes across as the unapproachable autocrat. The human is always very visible and he’s as open as it’s possible to be in his position. Hence, he’s been able to tread that delicate line between giving the drivers their head but not in a way that’s damaging to the team. When Bottas was asked to surrender that victory in Sochi to Hamilton, after a talk with Wolff he was able to reflect he’d have done the exact same thing in the boss’s shoes.

That’s the inward-facing part of his role. As for the outwards-facing part – including his and Merc’s part in the challenges facing the sport, he says he has no ambition to be Mr Big. But his views and wishes inevitably carry immense heft precisely because of the sport’s compromised structure with regard to the FIA, Liberty and the manufacturers. What are those views? Where does he think the sport should be heading?

“On cost caps, they need to come,” he says. “At the moment Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes are outspending each other and we need to contain that – with a reasonably policed cost cap that allows us to reorganise our structures but not restructure. We need to have a sensible glide path that allows us over the next five years to get to a lower point. This is something I’m up for so long as it is realistic and sensible.”

On satellite teams? “As it stands now, the FIA and Liberty are trying to make it very clear what the rules are for collaboration. What is acceptable and what is not. I think that’s the right process. If there is a financial advantage because of the economies of scale between the two teams, I think it should be allowed. If it becomes a must that as a big team you need a small team in order to collaborate and share resource, and as a small team it becomes a requirement to be collaborating with a big team so as not to be at the back, then that should not be the case. It should only happen if it’s a win-win and is beneficial for F1. From where I stand, it’s heading in that direction.

“The Haas model [of not even building its own car] is what created the whole opportunity for the small teams, because some of the teams that have been here for a long time have recognised that a team started from scratch just three years ago is outperforming them. What’s allowed and what’s not needs to be written down. What Haas is doing is working to the rules as they are written. The question is, ‘Do we want to tighten those rules?’ I think they need to be tightened a little bit. We still have a championship for constructors and there need to be certain parts we make ourselves.”

As for whether Mercedes further incorporates Force India and Williams to be ‘slave teams’, he says. “We’ll work together with them, but within a scope yet to be defined by the FIA and Liberty.”

Three-car teams? “I thought the three-car idea was a good one as it would allow you to make it mandatory for those teams to take a young driver. It would guarantee the best young drivers a route into F1. But there are many situations against it – some of the smaller teams would be pushed down the grid and I recognise that. Can you make a third car a sustainable business model? I don’t know. I just thought that running a third car would create lots of stories if a young driver could beat the well-established ones.”

HE SOUNDS AMENABLE, he is amenable. But, through no fault of his, the sport is extremely heavily influenced by the wishes of the big teams rather than by a governing body dictating how things will be. “Generally, I trust Liberty to make the right decisions,” he says. Yes, so long as those decisions are compatible with his team’s interests. “If you correct for the diminution from free-to-air to pay TV, the sport is growing. The most important thing is that there is a tough fight at the front.”

A tougher fight, ideally, than the one we have seen for the last five years. Ferrari’s late-season collapse both this year and last might be seen as the exhaustion of its resource as it tries season-long to combat the incredible depth of ability at both Brackley and Brixworth, the respective chassis and engine shops of Mercedes F1. Competitive patterns always eventually change; it’s just a question of how long the cycle is. It’s Wolff’s job to delay the onset of entropy. “We just have to give it everything, every single day. We are competitive in our fifth year since the regulation change. The people in this organisation have sweated blood and tears during that time and it doesn’t seem the energy levels are dropping off. When I came into the office after Monza [when the team bounced back from defeat at Ferrari’s hands at Spa], I could see levels of energy I’d never seen before – and the same at Brixworth. After Spa we said we are just not giving up, this is not a championship we are prepared to lose. We need to understand why we were outperformed. Development, research, analysis, hindsight, work ethic.”

All this while the others are pulling at your shirt tails, trying to drag you back. Who prevails? For now, it’s Toto.