“The people in the F1 paddock think they’re big piranhas but they’re babies”

As a self-made businessman, Toto Wolff had a firm grasp of the real world before he became involved in Grand Prix racing with Williams and, now, Mercedes. Here are his thoughts on his current team’s success, the future and that ever-delicate art of driver management

"The original plan was to be Formula 1 world champion,” says Toto Wolff of what he had in mind when he first climbed into a Formula Ford car in the 1990s. Well, he achieved it – just not in the way that he originally envisaged. Instead, he became team principal and 30 per cent shareholder of Mercedes Grand Prix, F1 champion of the world in 2014 and ’15. 

But in F1’s current environment, he’s more even than that. He’s one of the sport’s heaviest of hitters – not least because he’s not simply an employee of the sport’s top team. He’s its part-owner too, and has been since accepting parent company Daimler’s invitation at the beginning of 2013. He has and will play a major part in determining the sport’s future as both a rock and a diplomat as required. Sometimes, amid the shifting tectonic plates of F1 politics and dealing with the often conflicting agendas of Bernie Ecclestone, the FIA and other team bosses, refereeing between his drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg must seem like light relief. But he must do all of these things – and keep Mercedes Petronas F1 at the top. At 43, he’s young for the role – and disarmingly open and fun. But don’t doubt the steel.  

It’s a role that’s thrust him into a spotlight every bit as bright as that shone on his drivers, placed him under just as much scrutiny. He believes diverting that spotlight upon himself, keeping the attention away from specialists on the team, is part of his function. “Daimler made the decision of having a co-shareholder that was used to running companies rather than corporations – where decision-making takes much longer. It’s what Daimler wanted, for me to be empowered to make decisions – the idea was not mine. They wanted an entrepreneurial type. ‘We want you to be the guy running the team. If you lose keep the bullets away from us, if you win give us a bit of sun,’ was the way they looked at it. They also looked at who they wanted to represent the brand. Because sometimes that guy has more visibility than the CEO or chairman. Am I comfortable doing it? I think I learned some tough lessons in the beginning where I was too naïve, tried to be too authentic, too open. This is a piranha pool – though they are baby piranhas. The people in the F1 paddock think they’re big piranhas but they’re babies. But their bites still sting. I feel more comfortable now. It’s not always right that
I as the team representative take too much credit because there are so many more people here who deserve it. But this would be the trigger that I don’t want because it would put them in another garden – one which is not their garden of competence. They are much better doing what they do. Much as I dislike taking the credit and the honours, I believe I need to do it because it would bite others much more.”

His various challenges have been handled with a winning mix of firmness and charisma. Although Ross Brawn might disagree – the circumstances of his departure from the team on the eve of blockbuster success being everything to do with how the sporting and corporate aims that were resolved by Wolff’s arrival didn’t mix with the only role Ross would countenance – it’s difficult not to like Toto. The sparkle is rarely far from his eye, his communication with people is open and his bullshit detector is finely tuned – even into his own words sometimes! But behind that amusing, easy-going front is one very smart cookie, particularly with regard to financial matters. His success in private equity is what enabled him to buy shares in HWA (formerly the racing division of AMG), Williams and subsequently Mercedes F1, thereby combining his passion and business. In 2012, still an equity holder in both HWA (a Mercedes partner) and Williams, Mercedes asked him unofficially to take a look at its own F1 team as it tried to understand why it was less successful than it had hoped. From that seed came his double role as team principal and shareholder. 

His success as a team principal owes much to the foundations laid down by Brawn, Andy Cowell (boss of Mercedes High Performance Powertrains) and others – but maintaining and managing it has required a demanding blend of qualities. Wolff, as a racing-mad financial wizard with about 250 races under his belt as a driver at quite a high level (German FF1600 front-runner when he was still aiming to be world champion, a winner at GT level 10 years on when he was doing it as a hobby, his pace on a par with GT drivers such as his friend Philipp Peter and Karl Wendlinger), understands commerce, politics, psychology, race driving and engineering. 

“Because I have a background in racing I have a basic understanding of what is happening technically, politically, commercially. I would never expect to understand in detail what’s happening with the drivers and engineers, would never involve myself in the detail or try to interfere. But I can judge if someone is selling me a dummy. At the factory on the Tuesday morning after a race we do debriefs where I’m interacting with the engineers but I’m doing it only from the human side. And to develop my understanding, not to tell them what to do.”

His driving ambition was diverted after a moment of clarity back in his Formula Ford days. “We were racing at the old Österreichring, Oliver Tichy was leading, then my team-mate Alex Wurz, then me. We were coming up to the Porsche corner, a fast downhill, then up, fourth gear. I watched as Alex did something with the car that I just couldn’t ever imagine being able to do, correcting the slides but keeping the speed. I was OK but I lacked the magic – whatever that is.” He stopped racing in ’94 and returned in GTs almost 10 years later as a wealthy, successful businessman. He stopped finally after injuring himself at the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 2009 – just after breaking the GT lap record at 7min 03sec. His racing experience is now treated as something of an in-joke within the team. When Wolff asked Rosberg if Eau Rouge was flat on full tanks Nico replied, ‘No. Well, not for me anyway – I’m sure it would be for you.’ “Yeah – they know,” laughs Wolff, self-mockingly. “They know if I was in the car….”

He is good with people. “That’s an essential part of my role and a skill that developed during my private equity background – so setting up structures, organisations, making sure the right people are in the right positions and stay there. This is what I’ve done for 20 years. Having an understanding of who the good guys are in the paddock, who is growing, what are the strengths and weaknesses. Like a trainer in a football team, I need to understand what makes the individuals perform and not just Lewis and Nico but all the other less famous superstars in the team. What environment do I need to provide to get them to perform the most? Some of the guys need to have dinner regularly, some to go for bike rides, some need not so much attention, some need a policeman, some trust, some don’t trust. All that’s just one area of it – and I’m Dr Freud! There’s a phenomenon in F1 where you are promoted to incompetence. It’s one of my main areas to ensure that doesn’t happen. The organisation as a whole is my responsibility, but I rely very heavily on Paddy [Lowe] to run the technical side. Essentially he’s the MD of the factory in Brackley.”

Lowe is a crucial and interlinked part of Wolff’s F1 story. He was McLaren technical director when mutual friend Alex Wurz introduced them. “That was in Monaco 2012,” he recalls, “when I was with Williams. I thought he’d be good for Williams. The discussion went on and on and eventually stalled because the Williams board wasn’t keen on spending what Paddy was expecting. Then suddenly I got the call from Mercedes and said to Paddy, ‘I’ll be back to you in a month,’ then I saw him, told him about the board at Williams but that I had another idea. He asked about it and I said, ‘We go to Mercedes.’ He said, ‘Right, let’s do it.’ He’s an analytical guy. When he goes into a restaurant he does an analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats! It takes half an hour! But that’s exactly what I need, someone who can collect the most information to make the best decision – and he’s really diligent. The way he’s set up the technical structure, making everyone follow their projects with care and diligence has been amazing. The department he has recently set up for reliability is going to have a mid- to long-term effect that is going to be great.

“In many ways Paddy and me are opposite sides of personalities. He has a great education, is very precise, analytical, unpolitical, straightforward. He’s sceptical for the purpose of engineering but not the overall situation. I’m the opposite of all those. I’m instinct-driven – which can be very detrimental in F1 if you’re not aware of it. All the decisions you make need to be scientific and data-based. So in this way he is the perfect partner for me in the team.”

But even the combined talents of Wolff and Lowe would probably not have helped Mercedes achieve anything like the success it has were it not for Wolff telling the main board a few harsh home truths. “One of the first things I had to do was get Mercedes to loosen the purse strings a little,” says Wolff. The team had been following the downsizing that had been agreed between the teams in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, but which had then inevitably fallen by the wayside as first one, then another of the big teams broke ranks. This left Mercedes significantly under-budgeted – which came as something of a shock to head office in Stuttgart. “The initial target we set within Mercedes was to get the resources needed to get ourselves in a position where we were winning races and could fight for a championship. Winning races is almost more beneficial for the marketing communication than winning a championship because you can communicate around winning races every weekend. The championship goes into the history book but it is just kudos. The marketing message we wanted to get across was that the Mercedes car was winning races in F1. There was one major obstacle – the R&D budget was just €10 million, which was slightly less than Williams was spending as a mid-size team. Mercedes had
quite a big total budget – because they were paying big money for Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, whereas at Williams Pastor Maldonado was bringing money into the team. But take driver salaries out the equation and Mercedes was an under-resourced team in 2012.

“When I delivered that bad news to Stuttgart, the resource taps were opened and the R&D budget went from €10 to €37 million.” That enabled developments such as a 60 per cent scale tunnel rather than a 50 per cent, a vastly better simulator, all sorts of technical upgrades as well as key technical recruitments, not least aerodynamicist Mike Elliot from Lotus. “All that started to spin the big wheel because it takes a lot to get that wheel rolling, but once it rolls it rolls. Then we had some success in 2013 but we weren’t quite sure how much of that was influenced by the [infamously controversial] Barcelona test [where Mercedes took part in a secret tyre development session] and generally we weren’t quite quick enough. Then the new formula, the fantastic job done by Mercedes HPP. It first became a possibility to me that we really might be on the verge of something during testing before the 2014 season – when we did lots of laps and no one else did. To catch up that advantage is quite difficult – as we knew from the chase of Red Bull, with all those years of experience all that time. In those tests it felt like we were in a race to catch up with what they’d built up in years. Then wins came at the start of 2014 and from there the wheels were turning. But such a level of success was not at all foreseeable for me until then. It was a positive surprise.

“The job done by HPP on the power unit was of course one of the keystones. But also, we had a fantastic interaction between engine and chassis groups and were the first ones using a dyno at the [chassis] factory, running all the cooling and electronics. So when we set the car on track for the first time we knew the integration was going to be OK. The first time Red Bull brought its car and engine together was at the first test. You can never put it down to one single element. When I came to F1 with Williams I thought there must be a wonder front wing or a wonder technical advantage but it’s not – it’s just many areas, the right people, right resources and right ideas. Get them onto the car. Then it rolls.”

Wolff – just like Lewis Hamilton – arrived at Mercedes at the perfect time. They have each maximised and added to that advantage. But although they have achieved record-breaking success together, this isn’t really a Ross Brawn/Michael Schumacher, Colin Chapman/Jim Clark or Ken Tyrrell/Jackie Stewart axis of equals: Wolff remains the boss, Hamilton the employee. That’s just the way the dynamics play out between these two personalities as Wolff has several times had to intervene in the ongoing competitive niggle between his drivers. He even recently laid down a warning that if their rivalry began to poison the team, the line-up would be changed, echoing his position in the aftermath of Spa 2014 when a 1-2 was lost through them coming together on track. 

“Look, I don’t really care if they are not getting on together,” he says. “But there are occasions where it needs to be managed – and that’s part of my role, along with Niki [Lauda], Paddy and [chief race engineer] Andy Shovlin. It’s critical, because if it starts to harm the relationships between other individuals within the team, or harms the development work on track, then I’m getting annoyed. 

“Their competitiveness to each other is always moving, which is good for the team because when they’re pushing each other it improves the performance of the car. I’ve seen their relationship move from OK to not OK and back many times – and playing psychological games with each other, some of which are OK, others of which are not acceptable. They’ve known each other 20 years, they went on holiday together when they were 12, raced karts against each other since that time so there is a fundamental basis of trust there – though that doesn’t mean we’re not going to have incidents. If we threw a driver in there who believed he could beat Lewis – or Nico – then we have a potential nuclear explosion.” He was careful there to insert Nico’s name in the interests of equality… But in the alternative scenario, one can easily imagine he was thinking of the greater difficulty of managing a Hamilton-Alonso line-up. In the aftermath of Austin, where Hamilton banged wheels with Rosberg on his way to clinching the title, Wolff did have a talk with both drivers once the celebrations had finished. “It wasn’t a headmaster talk,” he says, “but we needed to recalibrate. We do speak, we communicate these things, we don’t just brush it under the carpet. This is a fundamental rule of the team.

“Lewis is someone who takes his time to trust people. At the beginning every little issue would be a complex problem with some animosity. But he’s come around and now we can be analytical to the point of being critical – we are able now to disagree.”

With Hamilton contracted until the end of 2018 and becoming an ever bigger name and with ever more interests outside the sport, this still evolving relationship might conceivably become the stress point. Observing this dynamic from the outside, it seems far from a given that the contract will see out its term. Wolff might yet have some crisis management to do in this area – but if he does, you sense it will be dealt with quite ruthlessly. The team trumps all and Hamilton is not the dominant personality in this relationship. 

Balancing the team’s interests with those of the sport is actually probably a trickier path for Wolff to tread than any conflict between team and driver – because self-interest can be self-defeating if it does too much damage to the arena the team is competing in. Wolff is acutely aware of this and one senses that in the current power play between Ferrari, Ecclestone and the FIA, Wolff may be a crucial moderator, a possible bridge between otherwise isolated positions. His tone on the subject of the sport’s future is conciliatory, much more so than Maurizio Arrivabene’s even while ostensibly standing in support of Ferrari’s position. “Ultimately, we all have the same target,” he says, “in that we all want the sport to do well. Of course there are always opportunistic agendas within that, but we understand that you cannot look out only for yourself. We all need the platform that the sport provides and so we all want to grow the audience, make the sport
more attractive. There is some animosity in discussion about how we do that, but it’s all in the right spirit. 

“The FIA is asking for a cheaper engine supply for the smaller teams – and that is absolutely an achievable goal. But we have entered these regulations with a business case based on a certain sale price and now we are being told that price is not sustainable so please change it. Much as I understand the FIA’s standpoint, I also think they understand ours. It’s a bit of a wrestle at the moment, but I’m sure the outcome will be that it will be a bit cheaper for the customer teams. Actually, we made a proposal of supplying a current-spec engine for €10 million [currently it’s between €18-24m] but instead of running four engines you ran two – which would’ve meant you couldn’t run it as spicily as those who were running four engines. But it was rejected, no team was interested in that.”

While that discussion continues, there’s a third world title to chase this year. Wolff sounds far from gung-ho about that prospect, clearly wary of how much advantage Ferrari might have gained from its Haas wind tunnel ruse. “I think the script has changed,” he says. “We achieved what we wanted to achieve – which was to put Mercedes back to where it had been in the ’50s. We won the championship, continued the story, beat many records and are perceived as a team that’s right up there. But I think Ferrari is going to be very strong. I’m relishing the battle. You know, when we had our slip in competitiveness at Singapore and were slagged off, it made me enjoy the victory at Suzuka even more.”

That’s the attitude of a racer.