The making of F1’s best team boss - Toto Wolff interview - The Race
Formula 1

The making of F1’s best team boss – Toto Wolff interview

Apr 4 2021
By Scott Mitchell

Toto Wolff has turned a lot to gold. His double life as one of (if not the) greatest Formula 1 leaders in history, overseeing Mercedes’ seven consecutive championship doubles, alongside a career as an ultra-successful businessman, is a world away from the one he grew up with in Vienna.

There was no indication amid the modest means and the family tragedy which would help shape Wolff into the passionate, protective and determined individual we know as the head of the Mercedes juggernaut, that he would become a man with a golden touch. Although he was, briefly, a man with a golden face and cape.

“The story is absolutely true, just it is one of the more embarrassing [ones]” :: Toto Wolff

“Where did you find that?!” Wolff laughs. The Race explains stumbling upon the little-known story about a brief side-job raising money for his Formula Ford endeavours as a young wannabe racer. Wolff had to be dressed in full golden garb, with his face painted to match.

“The story is absolutely true, just it is one of the more embarrassing,” Wolff smiles. “I was an aspiring racing driver, and really tried to make money to race wherever I could.

“So there was this electronics shop in Austria, it still exists, that has about 100 retail places. It was an hour’s drive from Vienna. And it was before Christmas. I went there alone. And I had to wear a golden cape, which went all the way to the floor. It wasn’t only a cape, it was like a ball gown with the cape. And there was, I think, some kind of stick.

“I was handing out vouchers for this electronic shop. I was standing right in the middle of the city centre, a kind of marketplace, handing out these vouchers, and it was so embarrassing with the costume. I was hoping that there wouldn’t be anybody that I would know.”

Forced to find his own ways to fund his racing, Wolff was (unknowingly) training himself for a career in business and, latterly, the business of motorsport itself. He also quickly learned the benefits of delegating.

“I decided for the second trip that I would take a friend of mine and he would wear the cape. And I would be standing next to him. I was paying him 50% of the fee I got. But I didn’t need to do this embarrassing thing.”

The “ridiculous” fundraising scene was a “funny episode of growing up” at the beginning of a journey that led him to a special place in F1’s history books. But, he says, “some are more distressing”.

TRAUMA AND TRIBALISM

Toto Wolff

Wolff’s father was a business owner from Romania and his mother an anaesthetist from Poland. The language of their house in Vienna was Polish. It was a modest upbringing in which two details stand out.

The first is that, despite the absence of lavish means, Toto’s mother facilitated his enrolment in a French private school in the city (Lycee Français de Vienne).

The second is Toto’s father was diagnosed with brain cancer when Toto was only eight years old. By the time the young Wolff decided a decade or so later that he wanted to be a racing driver, his father had passed away.

“As a husband, as a father, as a business owner, as a friend, I just like to avoid anybody around me having the same experience that I had” :: Toto Wolff

Wolff believes that embarrassment and pain “can be a driver to compensate for what you didn’t have in your childhood”. It is not necessary for someone to go through difficult moments to be successful, he adds, because people can be driven by other factors. But he says that trying to “compensate for something” you didn’t have is “always something that makes you thrive”.

“There’s various grades of trauma,” he says. “I’m not speaking about trauma that is caused by abuse or war. But losing a parent is trauma. And everything that’s linked to it, because it took a long time for this to happen.

“That follows me every single day. Because as a husband, as a father, as a business owner, as a friend, I just like to avoid anybody around me having the same experience that I had.”

Wolff works keenly to prevent those he is responsible for feeling exposed, unheard, uncared for.

Mercedes F1 team meeting 2016

He sees a link between his early experiences and the famous no-blame culture that has played such a huge part in Mercedes’ success. There is a huge emphasis on taking responsibility at Mercedes without apportioning blame. It allows the team to identify weaknesses without throwing people under the bus.

“It is my responsibility to look after everybody in this organisation, and my family,” says Wolff. “That’s maybe also because I had to take responsibility at a very early age for my sister and I.

“What it triggers in me is an instinct of ‘this is my tribe, and I need to protect my tribe, no matter what’. It triggers an emotional response in me. It’s not even something that I’m doing on purpose. I can analyse rationally what I’m doing. But I don’t know, it just comes out.

“This is the most important part. I won’t let anybody hit out on anybody within the tribe.”

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Baku 2017

One example came in the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix, after Lewis Hamilton’s headrest came loose and he lost victory.

“I had an interview, somebody asked me to say who was responsible for the headrest coming off, and to name the person,” remembers Wolff. “It just sent me sky-high.

“It’s my responsibility to protect the group. It’s protecting every individual to the best of my abilities within the tribe.”

THE ABORTED DRIVING CAREER

Toto Wolff

If Wolff’s childhood sent him on a permanent quest for compensation, his adolescence steered him in a particular direction.

Wolff’s job in F1 combines two areas that have dominated parts of his life: racing and business. But as a rugby-playing schoolboy in Austria, “there wasn’t really anything that stood out”.

He liked sport but admits to being no great sportsman, joking that to win school titles and even play Austrian rugby internationally is like “Caribbean skiing”.

“My team boss Walter Lechner let me drive for the first hours and didn’t speak to me at all. And for the remaining five hours he gave me a huge bollocking” :: Toto Wolff

A chance trip to the Nurburgring fuelled his first real fire: watching on Saturday, dining at a local restaurant and seeing the drivers – including Wolff’s good friend Philipp Peter, who’d go on to become a works Audi driver – in the same place, and returning for the race the following day.

“We were on the grid, and it is something that really hit me,” he says. “It was love at first sight. And then it was clear for me I’d like to become a racing driver.”

Nov 09 : Secrets of Mercedes’ rise to F1 power

A few years later, Wolff would abandon the dream almost as abruptly as he embraced it. In between, with “zero money in the family” and a “pretty grim” outlook, he progressed from racing a converted SEAT Ibiza (which he bought by selling his road car) and instructing at Walter Lechner’s driving school at what is now the Red Bull Ring, and found ways to raise sponsorship.

From there, Wolff had a “real go at it”. He spent 1992 (“a miserable season”), 1993 (“an OK season”) and 1994 (“a very good start”) racing in Formula Ford.

But by the end of his first season, Wolff says he knew he probably wasn’t going to make it. At least to F1. Following compatriot Alex Wurz (pictured below when he reached F1 with Benetton in 1997) on-track made Wolff realise that Wurz could do things Wolff couldn’t.

Alex Wurz

“It was clear he has a different ability to me,” says Wolff. “There was a gap. But it was tiny, it was not a lot.”

Wolff continued to race, primarily because he enjoyed it too much to stop. But in 1994, perversely at his most competitive, he was finally minded to do exactly that.

He remembers starting from pole in the German Formula Ford opener, overheating his Zetec engine at the start and running with a power deficit in the opening laps. Then defending so hard he ended up in the gravel and failed to finish.

“On the way back home, my team boss Walter Lechner let me drive for the first hours and didn’t speak to me at all,” says Wolff. “And for the remaining five hours he gave me a huge bollocking about how stupid I was because my main competitors were actually disqualified for technical infringement afterwards.

“So I could have, if not won because my engine was down on power, finished on the podium and created a sensible gap in the championship.

“He was brutal and direct, he was angry about the race. He said, ‘You’re a decent driver. And you can make a living out of this. But I think you should go back to economics and do more about your career than a racing driver’.”

This was the second strike after the initial realisation against Wurz. The third would come not long after, in May 1994, as a mutual sponsor struggled to deal with the aftermath of Karl Wendlinger’s awful injuries sustained in his Monaco Grand Prix.

Karl Wendlinger Sauber 1993

“My main sponsor said ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’ve sponsored Karl and you, you’re the only ones, and I’ve been weeks now in the hospital seeing Karl in a coma. I don’t want to do this anymore, because I wouldn’t want to see that happening to you’.

“And he said, ‘so by the end of the year we’ll just stop all kinds of motorsport sponsoring’. All these singular experiences, put together – the gap in driving, Walter’s feedback and my sponsor saying ‘I can’t do this anymore’. I remember we sat in a bar in Vienna at lunchtime, and I said to him, then let’s stop right now.”

Wolff describes it as an instinctive decision. It was not the only one. He also decided to leave the Vienna University of Economics and Business.

“I wanted to earn my own money, not be dependent on anybody anymore. And then my business life started.”

‘SOME HAVE LOST MY RESPECT FOREVER’

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship British Grand Prix Practice Day Silverstone, England

Wolff’s life-altering decisions took him down a path that included an investment internship in Warsaw, a role in the sales management team at a steel company, and a San Francisco sojourn that opened his eyes to the potential of tech start-ups: insight he then used to excellent effect back in Europe.

But he’d roll his eyes if you used a cliched description like ‘entrepreneur’ to describe initiatives like his Marchfifteen and Marchsixteen companies (which, after the focus on internet and technology companies in its infancy, would even take him into the DTM – pictured below – via an investment into Mercedes’ partner HWA).

Pascal Wehrlein Toto Wolff DTM

And it would do him a disservice. Not just because it puts his career in a pigeon hole, but because it overlooks the personal qualities that make Wolff a fascinating case study.

Psychology-minded and emotionally-invested, Wolff is no arrogant businessman caricature. Yes, he likes making money. He’s focused on making money. He’s good at making money and furthering his own interests. But it’s not just ones and zeros.

“If somebody disrespects integrity when dealing with me, I will break with this person, no matter what” :: Toto Wolff

Wolff’s ability to see the value of people is at the cornerstone of his success as a businessman and in turn is why someone from outside the F1 bubble could be plugged in, first at Williams then at Mercedes, and thrive.

It’s evident that inherently human qualities – namely integrity and compassion – are hugely important factors in how Wolff operates.

“Integrity in a world where everything is transparent means you’re staying true to your own values,” he says. “And we don’t deal in lies here, to repeat a very famous sentence of Kipling’s poem.

“There’s just no millimetre of margin for a lack of integrity. And it’s so important to me that if somebody disrespects integrity when dealing with me, I will break with this person, no matter what.”

A mark of this is in how Wolff views others, rather than how he treats his team (which we’ll come to later). Wolff is normally such a calm and measured presence in front of the media. But there have been recent occasions – mainly Ferrari-related questions since the late-2019 engine controversy, when Ferrari was widely suspected (though never proven by the FIA) to be circumventing fuel-flow rules – where spikes of emotion were evident in Toto’s body language and even his answers.

Is dishonesty in F1 something he takes as a personal offence?

“It is,” Wolff says. “Because I’m passionate about the sport and the values of the sport. It’s a competition that should be carried out on fair grounds.

“And there are some that have lost my respect forever over the last few years, not [from] a particular incident. And others that I see through their manipulative, amateur Machiavellian behaviour.

“I see the smiles that have hatred or negativity towards us. And then there’s people within the industry that I respect a lot, and I have friendships with them. They try to do the best for the sport, whilst maintaining a neutral position to all teams.

Mercedes wins 2019 F1 title

“They don’t ask anybody to be biased to Mercedes, just to do the best for the sport because we all benefit from a good sport. We share the revenues and the better the show is the better the sport.

“That’s why, in a way, I take it personally because I want to protect the organisation. But on the other side, the case studies of individuals that are around the paddock, it’s just very interesting for me to see that.

“They speak about Formula 1 as a shark tank. Most of them are goldfishes that believe they are sharks. And there’s some baby sharks also.”

PLAYING POLITICS

Toto Wolff Valtteri Bottas Lewis Hamilton

Wolff’s critics may seek to poke holes in his own integrity: times he has used Mercedes’ influence to strengthen its position, or has shifted stance after intervention from his Daimler boss Ola Kallenius. Anything that might be turned into a moment of Wolff acting selfishly or without conviction.

Either view oversimplifies the nature of F1’s political minefield. Though it’s true Wolff is willing to get his elbows out around the negotiating table. He and Mercedes have a lot of weight and it would be foolish not to throw that around when necessary.

For example, the reversed-grid proposal that Mercedes blocked last year, and would have hit the world champion team hardest, was rejected by Wolff.

He was also vociferously against suggestions that some kind of so-called convergence system would be necessary to equalise engine performance in order to facilitate a development freeze, which had been requested by Red Bull so it could take over Honda’s engines from 2022.

Wolff had zero time for that suggestion – especially as it came from Ferrari – and called it what it was: balance of performance. As someone whose racing hiatus was ended by competition in GTs, and whose first real racing business investments came in the DTM, Wolff knows that murky world well.

“I would have voted against balance of performance and reverse grids even if I were running Williams,” Wolff insists.

“I don’t want to have any gift. I think this should be a fair competition, may the best man win. It’s always been the best man and best machine, and everything else is just a dilution of the sport and the values of the sport.

“Yes, we are creating entertainment. That’s what it is. But the entertainment is there because our spectators know that this is a real competition out there. Not manipulated towards more variability. And I believe that we need to stay true to these values.”

Bahrain Grand Prix 2021

It may seem convenient that his personal opinion also happens to be the position that suits Mercedes’ best competitively. For what it’s worth, it seems a sincerely-held view. But even if it was simply the party line, who would expect otherwise?

Wolff’s not always in the right. He cries foul when he feels he or his team is being wronged, has to engage selfishly in F1’s politics at times, has to be an ‘operator’ like so many others. He wouldn’t have assumed the executive director role at Williams, or become a Mercedes managing partner, without savviness.

“Then there are clear, obvious actions against the team with the only aim to hurt us. And I will be always fighting this” :: Toto Wolff

But there is a strong sense that Wolff will not play games for nothing. Sometimes it is necessary. Especially when trying to defend his ‘tribe’.

Under Wolff’s leadership, Mercedes has endured a few rule changes some – including Hamilton – would say are the legacy of parties pushing anti-Mercedes agendas, with the express intent of toppling Mercedes from its perch.

Last year’s ban on qualifying engine modes was one. The reduction of rear downforce for 2021 – done in the name of safety – was another, seemingly stripping away less performance on higher-rake cars, with Mercedes being one of only two teams employing a low-rake philosophy.

“There are areas where I see bias against Mercedes,” Wolff says. “And here in the group we discuss, is it a pure bias that somebody wants to just penalise us in a way which sometimes is triggered by other teams, or is this something that is really important for the sport?

“We have even accepted some of the biases, because we knew about them. We took the conscious decision to accept it. But then there are clear, obvious actions against the team with the only aim to hurt us. And I will be always fighting this.”

WOLFF PACK

Toto Wolff 2018

If Wolff is just another team boss, a hypocrite, and a bit of a bastard behind the scenes, then he hides it well in public. Testimony from respected paddock figures, who have experience across several teams, would suggest that’s not what’s happening.

Though he says he gets “way too much credit” for Mercedes’ renowned culture, there is no doubt he is responsible for its enduring success. Technical director James Allison has said that imposing a culture is only possible if it is lived in every moment by those at the top – starting with Toto – and that one slip-up will undo hundreds of good moments.

“Our brainstorming, it’s actually an overwhelming intellectual waterfall that happens when we are together” :: Toto Wolff

This is where most people in leadership tend to fail, but Wolff buys into the culture entirely. Once, he joked that the media were probably sick of hearing about his “tree-hugging” mentality. But it’s much more than that. Wolff calls it “the immune system of our organisation”.

“We’ve spent a lot of time since I joined in 2013 to think about it and think about our values, about our objectives,” he says. “And about empowerment responsibility, accountability is very important – that you measure your own accountability. And it’s just a fantastic group of people. And we jointly have had our inputs in creating this mindset and culture.”

One such example was the motto ‘see it, say it, fix it’, constructed in collaboration with New Zealand rugby team sport psychologist Dr Ceri Evans. The idea started life in the operations part of the business, designed to eliminate faults identified in the process.

“The feedback we got that sometimes people didn’t dare to speak up, didn’t have the open ear of their direct bosses for the improvement of process that they were suggesting or for a fault fix,” says Wolff.

“We tried to eliminate hierarchy in this process. That has actually done us very well in terms of reliability – knock on wood, we were among the best teams in the past few years, but it’s never down to one change in processes. There’s so many factors that influence it.

“And by the way, it wasn’t tree-hugging exercises, but we laughed about it. Our brainstorming, it’s actually an overwhelming intellectual waterfall that happens when we are together, and I learn so much from everybody that it’s pure enjoyment.

Mercedes 2016 F1 title celebration

“I think this is the power of the organisation. There is not one Jesus that you draft in. And this is the big misconception in Formula 1 that decision-makers that own teams or run teams or OEMs, they think ‘I need to hire the best team principal’ or ‘I need to hire the best technical director or the best head of aero’.

“That’s not going to change anything. One person or two people are not going to change anything. You need to have an organisation that as a whole plays well on the various areas of competence.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that might be slightly hypocritical for a works team that started its most recent stint in F1 by appointing several big names to senior positions.

That was part of Ross Brawn’s wider vision for the organisation, appointing experienced and successful people into specific roles that formed a bigger structure. Shared responsibility, maximum collaboration.

2013 Mercedes F1 launch

It took a long time to get to work properly and it started to bear fruit before Wolff arrived. So he can’t – and doesn’t – take credit for that. But he has been instrumental in putting the full scope of Brawn’s vision into practice.

Mercedes has been blessed with serious financial firepower, but has consistently outperformed two rivals (Ferrari and Red Bull) with similar means.

“One analogy that I particularly like, I don’t know who came up with it, is we’re not a group of five-year-old kids playing football that run behind the ball bunched up,” says Wolff.

“We are letting the ball run like in rugby. Because we all hold position. We play in the position we can contribute, the best to the team. And that is why we are so strong.”

HIS 2020 CROSSROADS

Toto Wolff, Sir Jim Ratcliffe And Ola Källenius With The Mercedes Amg F1 W11 Eq Performance

Wolff signed a new three-year deal late last year as well as slightly increasing his shareholding to one-third, alongside Daimler and incoming part-owner INEOS.

It brought an end to a long-running contract saga that almost rivalled star driver Hamilton’s career uncertainty.

Previously, in his business ventures, Wolff was minded to invest quickly and smartly, make his money, and move on to the next opportunity. His personal interest in motorsport meant that anything he did in racing was always likely to be different.

Claire Williams Toto Wolff 2012

It was that way in the DTM, and it was that way with Williams (pictured above) before the rare opportunity at Mercedes – including a shareholding – arose.

The Mercedes job changed something for Wolff. There was still a roughly defined end point. And in 2020 he reached a crossroads.

“I’m still at heart a financial investor,” says Wolff. “I like the variety of people that you deal with and the variety of business cases that are interesting to develop.

“Formula 1 was more like a project, and the plan was that by the end of 2020 I would sell my shares, sell the shares back to Daimler or to a third party and conclude my activity. And I spent a year thinking about it.

“Then came the shift in the autumn. I thought, ‘I want this’” :: Toto Wolff

“I decided that I love the connection to the people. I enjoy developing the organisation further, staying successful in Formula 1, not taking anything for granted and having any kind of self-entitlement, building our engineering arm Mercedes Benz Applied Science, and in an environment where the cost cap has caused us much pain to downsize, utilise the opportunity to make this a financially successful organisation, like the American sports teams have shown us when they introduced the salary caps.

“And over a year I came to the conclusion that this is what I want to do. I decided that I’m not going to sell out.”

One could compartmentalise Wolff’s change of heart into three elements. He loved the dynamic challenge at Mercedes, particularly with the cost cap era beginning and the landscape shifting so substantially. Of all the various alternatives he might have, none were better – especially once very tentative discussions about the F1 top job amounted to nothing.

And Wolff saw the opportunity for a very good business deal in the form of that revised Mercedes ownership structure, with Daimler reducing its share, Wolff increasing his and INEOS owner Jim Ratcliffe coming aboard.

Within all that, Wolff remains “the master of my own destiny”. He can pick and choose his role.

At one stage last year he suggested he would move into an ‘upstairs’ role and find a replacement as team principal – but now, he says, the challenge to “identify somebody that can do my job and the variety of my roles better than I, hand over the baton to this person, and support, mentor, and maybe have another role” is only a hypothetical consideration.

Toto Wolff

The narrative of whether Wolff would stay at Mercedes last year, and if he did then in which position, seemed to shift around the autumn. Previously he had made it clear he didn’t know if he’d be staying, then his rhetoric switched to an insistence he would be leading the team in 2021 and beyond, the details just had to be defined.

“You’re spot on,” says Wolff. “You kind of got the moment where I took the decision. And it was non-committal [before] because I didn’t know. I didn’t know whether I wanted to continue or not, and then came the shift in the autumn.

“I thought, ‘I want this’. But it was so many hours thinking about it.”

It’s impossible not to wonder how much Wolff will have achieved when he does finally “sell out”.

With seven titles in the bank it’s entirely possible that his greatest successes in F1 are behind him and that Mercedes’ time on top is coming to an end.

Mar 29 : Bahrain Grand Prix review

Though the team’s come-from-behind win against a superior Red Bull in the 2021 opener would suggest that this giant will not be going down without a fight, and judging by Wolff’s jubilant reaction the fire still burns bright.

Even if that win proved to be Mercedes’s last, Wolff’s place in team and F1 history would be preserved forever. He didn’t start the Mercedes juggernaut but as his predecessor Brawn once told him, he assumed control of it superbly.

He put a favoured business tactic – bet on something and help make it better – to use with unprecedented success.

Wolff doesn’t drop the balls he picks up, he runs with them. His experiences, good and bad, have all counted for something and shaped him into a fascinating, multi-dimensional, prosperous person. What we see on any given F1 weekend – a soundbite, a fist slammed on the table, an arm aloft with joy – is the sum of all of that.

The appeal of a good origin story is fleshing out the character’s background and discovering their journey to who they became. It’s learning what the superhero went through before he got his cape.

Tragedy and triumph is usually a hallmark of such tales. Wolff’s is the same, minus the superhero part. Although he did briefly have the cape.

What did you think of this story?

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap