Interview with Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff

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Mercedes has dominated F1 for seven years under the Austrian – but he’s not finished yet, he tells us.

Just as Alfred Neubauer set the template for leading a grand prix team as Mercedes-Benz’s racing manager from 1926 to 1955, so current principal Toto Wolff has in the 21st century. They’re profoundly different characters – Neubauer an autocratic, trench-coated man-mountain, Wolff a more collaborative, lean figure – yet both hugely successful.

Different times call for different styles, and the nature of the teams is very different. While Neubauer’s set-up had reasonable autonomy, it operated out of the Mercedes headquarters in Stuttgart. Modern Formula 1 teams are highly specialised, stand-alone entities on which leaders like Wolff must stamp their own character.

Based across two sites in Northamptonshire, the operations centre in Brackley just nine miles down the road from Silverstone and Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains in Brixworth, Wolff’s team has dominated modern F1. Wolff, a former racing driver with a relatively modest family background in Vienna and an archetypal self-made man, has been key to that ongoing success.

“In Stuttgart, they’ve always appreciated that we’re the ‘special forces’ that operate under a different framework while totally complying to the governance of [Mercedes parent company] Daimler,” says Wolff. “That’s something that we’ve really embedded in our organisation. We’re being held on a long leash. We have great responsibility for the brand, but they let us get on with the job, and we haven’t let them down in 10 years.”

Much has changed with the team recently. When the modern works team was established in 2010 by taking over the Brawn outfit that was born from the ashes of Honda’s works effort, it was majority-owned by Daimler.

That remained the case until late last year, when British petrochemicals company and team sponsor Ineos became a shareholder. It’s now one of three shareholders, each owning a third. The others are Daimler and Wolff himself, whose stake was upped slightly from its original 30%.

With Mercedes stressing the need for its F1 team to become a cost-neutral – and ideally profitable – organisation, this isn’t the traditional model of an automotive manufacturer being willing to pour endless resources into racing. But the Mercedes name is still on the door, and Wolff argues that little has changed, with the focus still success on track in terms of results and off track in terms of finances.

Wolff also welcomes the input of Ineos, which is led by Sir Jim Ratcliffe, one of the UK’s richest people. He describes the firm as “another sparring partner”. That’s a phrase Wolff often uses and previously applied to the late Niki Lauda, who was non-executive chairman of the board and a shareholder from 2013 until his death in 2019.

It’s revealing of Wolff’s approach: he’s someone who welcomes dissent, discussion and new ideas, and lacks the combination of a fragile ego and unshatterable certainty that undermines many people in leadership positions.

“All my life, I’ve asked many questions to people who I thought could educate me and optimise my decision-making,” says Wolff. “So with Ineos, I have another pool of people who are interesting.

“In terms of what Ineos brings to the table, it’s run with a very small, efficient headquarters while generating more than $50 billion [£36.2bn] annual turnover. The efficiency, the straight talking and the lean hierarchy is something that we also have, and it’s something we can learn from.

“As in any journey, there may be different points of view that need to be considered in order to come up with the best decisions. That’s tough love – to be able to talk straight and say ‘that’s how I view things’. And because we’re three shareholders trying to align the objectives, I welcome straightforward, tough discussions.

“With Daimler, I can’t remember any disagreement that wasn’t solved with consensus in the interests of the company. So I’m very much looking forward to continuing like this.”

Wolff also faces many other major agents of change. F1 will introduce its most radical change of car technical regulations in history next year, while for the first time this year its teams are governed by a cost cap. This limits spending to a baseline of $145m (AUD$196m) in 2021, dropping by $5m ($7m) in each of the next two years. There’s no lack of exemptions, but that means huge changes, including painful staffing cuts, are having to be made.

On the track, Mercedes is probably facing its toughest opponent yet in Max Verstappen and Red Bull-Honda. Ferrari stepped up in 2017 and 2018, but its challenges fizzled out before the ends of those seasons. Sir Lewis Hamilton and the team’s battle with Red Bull looks set to go the distance, and Mercedes is arguably the second-favourite.

It says much about Wolff that this is a battle he relishes. For while, he’s fundamentally a businessman; he’s also a racer in the old-fashioned sense. He’s no fair-weather competitor, and part of him is revelling in the fight, even though it has put his team under enormous pressure. There have been years when Mercedes has had significant margin for error, but that’s not the case in 2021.

“I’ve enjoyed both circumstances of putting a great car and engine on the track and then disappearing into the sunset and, on the other side, the tough fight that we have on our hands this year with Red Bull and the other challenger teams coming up that take valuable points off us if we make mistakes,” says Wolff.

“This is the current reality, and I love every bit of it, and the team enjoys the challenge. And the hard moments, while they’re painful, are so valuable and teach us so much. We always ask ourselves the question: ‘Can we keep our heads, can we stick to our values while in a serious fight?’

“We’re demonstrating that we do, but obviously there are our own expectations and brutal honesty about shortcomings. And I think these principles and the idea of empowerment and blaming the problem rather than the person has made us win seven championships.”

That no-blame culture is vital to Mercedes’ success and often misunderstood. With F1 teams being such large entities, it’s so easy for them to descend into politics, with energy being directed into blaming other departments for failings rather than fixing them. In one of its earlier guises, the Brackley team famously suffered from that.

Instead, it’s about ensuring that individuals are happy to hold their hands up for their errors rather than fearing the worst. Look back over the past few years and you will find plenty of cases of Mercedes admitting to mistakes, be it simple number-input blunders that caused strategic errors or, in 2019, underdoing the cooling capacity of the car, and that reflects the internal culture. It’s not about scapegoating, it’s about improving. That’s one of the reasons why, while Mercedes has faced rivals with similar resources over the years (Ferrari and Red Bull), it has so far always beaten them.

Some of Wolff’s rivals would argue that he has played political games, with the raft of technical directives – effectively rules clarifications – aimed at curbing flexible bodywork, clever tyre-pressure manipulation and even pit stop speeds. But that’s in keeping with a sport where every legitimate advantage must be sought – especially as Wolff has a keen sense of what constitutes fair play when it comes to the regulations. As he showed during the 2019 controversy over how Ferrari was operating its engines, which led to the Italian team co-operating with the FIA to formulate technical directives to stop what it was suspected of (but never proven to be) doing, he takes the rules very seriously.

“Where I come from is a regulated market with clear regulations and severe penalties,” says Wolff, comparing the sporting battleground to the business one that he has also thrived in. “We don’t play in unregulated markets, because of the [lack of] transparency, and I believe that if we want F1 to stay attractive or to be attractive for the fans and sponsors, it needs to act based on the principles of integrity, honesty, transparency and clear regulations.

“This isn’t club sports on a global scale any more. It needs to be more than just a racing team operator; it’s being responsible and accountable for running a mid-size company, and there are clear rules and regulations.”

This sense of fair play has occasionally led Wolff to be unusually forthright in his public comments – although he stresses that he never says anything that he doesn’t want to say on the record. But he’s someone with a clear and proven vision not only for how an F1 team should operate but also how the sporting business of grand prix racing should be conducted.

He’s also in it for the long haul. Last year, there was speculation about how his role with the team would change before he signed a new three-year deal as team principal. While he has been there and done that in F1 and thought that he might be ready to focus on new challenges, it has drawn him back in.

This means that even if Red Bull prevails this year, there could well be many more wins and titles to come for one of F1’s great team bosses.

Toto Wolff on…

The 2022 F1 car rules changes: “Regulatory change is always perceived as an opportunity rather than a risk. While you can’t rely on the past, we can be carefully optimistic. A guarantee for success? Certainly not: you need to stay at the top of your game.”

F1’s new cost cap: “It’s a much harder job for big teams to come down on costs. We’ve seen the positives and believe it’s going to make us more efficient in the future, but in the short term the time spent downsizing provides an advantage for teams that were below the cost cap.”

The evolution of the works team: “It has changed over the years. The works team under [Alfred] Neubauer was Stuttgart-based, the works team in the 1990s [McLaren] was Woking-based with a minority Daimler shareholding and the works team in 2010 was majority-owned. Now it’s a new structure.”

Mercedes’ no-blame culture: “This translates into lap time and has done for all these years. Our culture is a solid building block for future performances. It’s the immune system of the team.”

Where Mercedes stands among the F1 greats

Mercedes is Formula 1’s third-most successful team in terms of victories, with 118 (at the time of writing), behind only Ferrari (238) and McLaren (182) and has racked up nine drivers’ titles and seven constructors’ championships. Only Ferrari (31) and McLaren (20) have a higher combined total, while the additional five titles taken with Mercedes engines by McLaren and one by Brawn shouldn’t be overlooked.

Most of the success has come since Mercedes took over Brawn ahead of 2010. This formed the modern F1 team; the first two drivers’ titles in 1954 and 1955, with Juan Manuel Fangio driving the legendary W196, were achieved by a team based at the marque’s Stuttgart HQ.

The modern Mercedes leads the way in terms of dominance of an era. Seven consecutive drivers-and-constructors doubles from 2014 to 2020 is an unprecedented run of success – and one that was all achieved under Toto Wolff’s leadership.

Having taken the lead in 2014, when F1 switched to 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid powerplants, the team stayed on top through the major car changes in 2017, before weathering the 2019 simplification of front wings. And it’s still winning races despite the aerodynamic tweaks that mitigated against its low-rake design last year.

With F1’s biggest-ever car-rule changes coming in next year, who would bet against Mercedes staying at the top?

Ed Straw

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