The Editor: Which F1 team has the strongest leader?

Strategising, negotiating, managing star performers... and overseeing a winning racing car: the job of an F1 team boss is anything but singular

One interesting aspect of the new Drive to Survive series is the focus on team principals. Some of the strongest episodes have been those that illuminate the personalities and styles of the team bosses that can get drowned out in season noise around cars and drivers.

It got me thinking: which team has the strongest leader? As ever with such questions, it is wise to define the terms first. Against what criteria should principals be measured? What are the aspects of their job that you should rate them on? Is it just about wins or is there more to it than that? Should, for example, Andreas Seidl be credited for ensuring McLaren punched above its weight last year and steering the team back on an upward trajectory (notwithstanding its Bahrain woes) or Guenther Steiner be given points for navigating the existential crises Haas appears to permanently be facing?

Personally, I like the way that Jost Capito has breathed new life into a demoralised Williams team and, despite a good-humoured demeanour, appears to have stood up to vested interests within the factory.

Unlike drivers, the job of the team boss is anything but singular. Yes, they must win, but they must also be strategists, marketeers, business people, publicists, negotiators and above all, leaders.

“I don’t run racing cars, I run people that run racing cars.”

On this basis Stefano Domenicali, the CEO of Formula One Group, has no doubts about who is top dog. In an academic case study of the Mercedes F1 team, published by the Harvard Business School in February, Domenicali is quoted as follows: “The most difficult aspect of being a team principal is managing the complexities and sensitivities of all the personalities involved in the sport – you have to understand the environment you are in and make sure you take the right actions to maximise the advantage for your team from a business and people perspective, and at that I think Toto is the best.”

The Harvard report makes intriguing reading since it highlights the role of Wolff as the CEO of a multi-million-pound business. It describes how he is responsible for almost 2000 people (including the staff at High Performance Powertrains) and a business with revenues of £530m (again including HPP). Wolff, who owns a one-third chunk of the F1 team, himself sounds more like a businessman than a sportsman: “With the cost cap, we have had to make cuts that took our operation from being slightly negative to having EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation] of over $50m [£40m] in 2020 and likely more than double that in 2021. So all of a sudden we look like a sports franchise like you see them in America where teams cannot outspend each other any more and they generate profits for their owners.”

Interestingly, he predicts that with circuits lining up to host races we could see 30 races per year with F1 on track to generate £1bn in 2022 of which the teams will get 70%.

But as any business leader will tell you, it is the people that are your most valuable asset, and it is here that Wolff provides the best insight into the strength of the Mercedes team under his tutelage. “I don’t run racing cars, I run people that run racing cars,” he says. “I am really interested in the people that work with me. I want to understand their background, why they are thinking a certain way, and feel their emotions. I don’t know as much about aerodynamics as the engineers on the team do, but I want to know about them as people, I enjoy spending time with them. That doesn’t mean they are my best buddy and we go on holiday together. It is a professional relationship but I encourage them to open up and want them to know I have their back.”

He says that the best businesses are those where people are not afraid to speak out and that he works hard to create a no-blame culture. If a mistake happens you admit it and learn from it. The quid pro quo is that no one is allowed to hide from responsibility: “Lying is the only thing that can get you a red card.”

Like all CEOs, Wolff has a star performer he must get the most out of. He does that with Lewis Hamilton by trusting the driver. “Some people in F1 are of the mindset that a driver has to go to bed at 10pm and shouldn’t do anything but race,” says Hamilton. “I told Toto I am different. I have other creative outlets I’d like to tap into – fashion or music – which allows me to do my job best. Toto understands that.”

According to Wolff you change an organisation’s culture by sweating the small stuff: “The first time I went into the Mercedes factory to meet the then team principal I walked into the lobby and on the table was a Daily Mail from the week before and two old paper coffee cups. At the end of the conversation, I said, ‘I look forward to working together, but just one thing – that reception area doesn’t say ‘F1’ and that’s where it needs to start if we want to win.’ He said, ‘It’s the engineering that makes us win,’ and I replied, ‘No, it is the attitude. It all starts with attention to detail.’”

In Christian Horner (who coincidentally, gave a fascinating interview to the Financial Times on his style of leadership last month) Wolff has a formidable opponent this year. But I am inclined to agree with Domenicali’s assessment of the Austrian former GT racer being the best team principal in the paddock.

As James Allison, Mercedes technical director, put it pretty succinctly: “People interested in F1 always ask us about the car but they should be asking about the organisation, because that is what is special.”

Joe Dunn, editor
Follow Joe on Twitter @joedunn90

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