Toto Wolff now ranks among For­mula 1’s most suc­cess­ful team prin­ci­pals. What’s the se­cret be­hind keep­ing the Sil­ver Ar­rows up front?


Mercedes’ team prin­ci­pal on a dif­fi­cult but tri­umphant 2018

Dark­ness has long since de­scended upon the Abu Dhabi pad­dock as we wait pa­tiently to see the top man at Mercedes. Ours is his fi­nal ap­point­ment of the day.

Up a flight of stairs, at the end of the cor­ri­dor, is Toto Wolff’s of­fice. Hang­ing on the wall next to his neatly ar­ranged desk is a large black and white print. The im­age is of the start of the 1955 Bri­tish Grand Prix, with a huge Ain­tree crowd look­ing upon Juan Manuel Fan­gio and Stir­ling Moss blast­ing into the lead. The tri­umphant Sil­ver Ar­rows were vic­to­ri­ous over Fer­rari that sea­son, much as in the one just past. Plus ca change, as the say­ing goes.

The sig­nif­i­cance of Mercedes’ past glo­ries is not lost on the man who has just guided the mod­ern day out­fit to a record-equalling cham­pi­onship suc­cess, match­ing Jean Todt’s

achieve­ments with Fer­rari in the early 2000s.

“In 2013, if you would have given me the ob­jec­tive of win­ning five con­sec­u­tive driv­ers’ and con­struc­tors’ ti­tles, I would have thought you were mad,” says Wolff, re­flect­ing on these years of dom­i­nance. “Ev­ery sea­son we have done it, but it has been dif­fi­cult for var­i­ous rea­sons. This year, with the fierce com­pe­ti­tion from Fer­rari, it has been very hard – and men­tally drain­ing at times.” Mercedes started the sea­son on the back foot. Strate­gic er­rors, dif­fi­cul­ties get­ting their tyres to op­er­ate in the right tem­per­a­ture win­dow and the re­sult­ing speed deficit meant Mercedes lost ground to Fer­rari early on in the ti­tle fight. Maranello had also un­locked a straight­line speed ad­van­tage. Since the turbo hy­brid era started in 2014 this had al­ways been Mercedes’ strength, but Fer­rari seemed to have out-in­no­vated them in the en­gine bay. Al­though a few un­forced er­rors crept in to Se­bas­tian Vet­tel’s game, the mo­men­tum was with the red cars.

“At times this sea­son, I thought it was go­ing to be very dif­fi­cult for us to win, since they seemed to have the bet­ter pack­age,” says Wolff. “But it mo­ti­vated us and we came back stronger.”

Aus­tria was one of the low­est points of the sea­son. Af­ter a front-row lock-out, the team suf­fered its first dou­ble-re­tire­ment in over two years. Valt­teri Bot­tas re­tired with hy­draulic fail­ure, while team-mate Lewis Hamil­ton stopped later on with a fuel pres­sure prob­lem. That was his first re­tire­ment since Malaysia ’16, end­ing 33 con­sec­u­tive points fin­ishes. And it wasn’t the only calamity of Mercedes’ race day.

Ear­lier in the race, chief strate­gist James Vowles took it upon him­self to pub­licly apol­o­gise to Hamil­ton over the team ra­dio be­cause he was the only fron­trun­ner not to pit when a Vir­tual Safety Car was trig­gered for Bot­tas’s re­tire­ment. At the time, be­fore Lewis had to re­tire his car, this mo­ment of strate­gic in­er­tia ap­peared to have squan­dered po­ten­tial vic­tory.

“I’ve thrown away the win,” Vowles said to a dis­grun­tled Lewis in front of mil­lions of view­ers on TV. “But we still be­lieve in you. Keep cool.”

That evening, Wolff de­scribed the race in Aus­tria as “bru­tal” and “one of the worst” in his ca­reer. How he dealt with the af­ter­math is re­veal­ing. He could have hung Vowles out to dry, and in­deed there were many – out­side the team – call­ing for a scape­goat­ing, but Wolff’s management style is the op­po­site to that em­ployed by other teams in F1.

“What James Vowles did in Aus­tria, is only some­thing you can do in a safe en­vi­ron­ment where you are not in fear that ac­cept­ing blame or re­spon­si­bil­ity will cost you your job,” ex­plains Wolff. “Hav­ing this sit­u­a­tion is some­thing that takes years of trust. The bru­tal hon­esty we have with each other is be­cause we have a goal to win races and cham­pi­onships, and only trans­parency will al­low us to un­cover the deficits we have.

“It’s not only mem­bers of the team, but driv­ers who put their hands up too. At Spa, Lewis was the first to ad­mit his open­ing lap could have been bet­ter, but this year we have made more mis­takes than he has – he has kept it to­gether.”

As the sea­son pro­gressed, it was Vet­tel who was prone to mak­ing er­rors, ei­ther col­lid­ing with ri­vals, get­ting into trou­ble with the stew­ards, or slid­ing off the road. In con­trast, Hamil­ton steered clear of trou­ble – not hit­ting the bar­ri­ers once.

Af­ter clinch­ing the cham­pi­onship in Mex­ico, Wolff said af­ter­wards that of the four ti­tles they had won to­gether, this was the one in which Hamil­ton was at his best. Part of that is a re­sult of the har­mony in­side the garage. The fierce ri­valry he had with Nico Ros­berg has gone, thanks to Bot­tas’s easy-go­ing per­sona. Se­condly, the re­la­tion­ship Hamil­ton has with his team boss has evolved. A deeper trust has de­vel­oped be­tween the pair, and Wolff has given his star driver the free­dom to ex­press him­self out­side the cock­pit – quite a de­par­ture from the nor­mally re­stricted prin­ci­ples of a large cor­po­rate en­tity.

“There is not an is­sue with that at all,” says Wolff. “First of all, we are em­pow­ered by Daim­ler to man­age the team in a way we be­lieve is right. It’s all about pro­vid­ing a frame­work for high per­for­mance, so ev­ery­one can per­form at their best. Lewis needs to fol­low his dreams and those ac­tiv­i­ties of his which are much more than a hobby. Prob­a­bly the busiest time for him this year, with the launch of his own fash­ion col­lec­tion, was just be­fore Sin­ga­pore and we didn’t see any lack of per­for­mance from him.”

While Hamil­ton has con­sis­tently ex­tracted speed from a car that hasn’t al­ways been the quick­est on the grid, Mercedes, too, have never re­lented in their quest to de­velop the W09 to out-per­form the op­po­si­tion. The ap­pear­ance of the rear-wheel rim spac­ers af­ter the sum­mer break, to help reg­u­late tem­per­a­tures and air­flow, was an ex­am­ple of their de­ter­mi­na­tion to ex­plore the bound­aries of what is pos­si­ble – even though they re­moved them for the Amer­i­can leg af­ter Fer­rari ques­tioned the le­gal­ity of the de­vices.

“When you set the bench­mark you are run­ning around with a tar­get on your back, and ev­ery­one knows what you need to achieve – and push­ing those bound­aries in ev­ery area of per­for­mance is dif­fi­cult,” con­tin­ues Wolff. “But what I think played a big­ger part in this team’s suc­cess is the abil­ity to re­cover af­ter the bad week­ends. It’s see­ing those mo­ments as a way of im­prov­ing that was the big­gest strength of the team.”

Af­ter the sum­mer break, the point where Mercedes were un­der the great­est pres­sure was the Bel­gian GP at Spa. Fer­rari’s strength on the straights was mighty, and since the hal­lowed straights of Monza were next up,

We are not sur­ren­der­ing. I will not ac­cept los­ing this cham­pi­onship The fol­low­ing Mon­day, where where we had re­ally been de­feated, I felt the most un­be­liev­able buzz There was such a strength in the team. A feel­ing that ‘we will do this’ on the back of a bad per­for­mance Toto Wolff Toto Wolff


fol­lowed by the streets of Sin­ga­pore – where Mercedes have tra­di­tion­ally strug­gled – it was a de­ci­sive mo­ment in the cham­pi­onship. On the night of the Bel­gian race, which Vet­tel’s Fer­rari had dom­i­nated, Wolff sent an im­pas­sioned, mo­ti­va­tional email to the whole of the team.

“In it I said, ‘We are not sur­ren­der­ing. I will not ac­cept los­ing this cham­pi­onship.’ The fol­low­ing Mon­day morn­ing, where we had re­ally been de­feated, I felt the most un­be­liev­able buzz. It was the big­gest buzz I’d felt in the past six years,” says Wolff. “There was such a strength in the team. A feel­ing that ‘we will do this’ on the back of a bad per­for­mance.

“What we re­alised is that we needed this for­mi­da­ble com­peti­tor [Fer­rari] to make us bet­ter. They helped us un­cover our de­fi­cien­cies. In the days af­ter Spa I couldn’t sleep and it


wasn’t just me. There was a large group of peo­ple not sleep­ing, as we were think­ing over and over again, ‘where can we im­prove, and how can we get our­selves out of this?’ It’s in these re­ally bad days where we make the big­gest steps.”

The drive and com­pet­i­tive spirit to suc­ceed worked. Hamil­ton drove supremely in Monza to out­fox Fer­rari, and his Sin­ga­pore Q3 lap was one of the stand­outs of the sea­son. The mo­men­tum con­tin­ued into Rus­sia, where Mercedes tight­ened their grip on the ti­tle, and where Wolff de­cided – con­tro­ver­sially – to use team or­ders.

The de­ci­sion to sac­ri­fice Bot­tas to aid Hamil­ton’s quest – with five races re­main­ing in the cham­pi­onship – left a bit­ter taste with some, who likened it to Jean Todt’s tac­tics at the height of his suc­cess with Fer­rari.

“Our tar­get was to win these two cham­pi­onships and we had to make an un­pop­u­lar call be­cause our com­peti­tor would have done the same,” says Wolff, calmly but firmly.

“When you look back at the more suc­cess­ful win­ning streaks in For­mula 1 with Fer­rari, Mclaren or Red Bull, at a cer­tain stage you need to put all your force be­hind the driver that is math­e­mat­i­cally bet­ter po­si­tioned to win the cham­pi­onship. This is the harsh re­al­ity, a de­ci­sion that isn’t pop­u­lar, but one we had to take be­cause it was nec­es­sary.”

In Toto Wolff, Mercedes have a team leader who has cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment that brings the best out of his em­ploy­ees. A cul­ture of trust and open­ness, brought about by a col­lec­tive com­pet­i­tive de­sire. He’s per­son­able and thought­ful, but will not shy away from dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions. He’s matched Todt’s achieve­ments and proved that when the com­pe­ti­tion is stronger, it mo­ti­vates his team even more. That alone should strike fear into the op­po­si­tion. Just like tableau dis­played on Wolff’s of­fice wall, the Sil­ver Ar­rows are beat­ing Fer­rari once more.

Wolff has presided over a record­e­qualling run of five con­sec­u­tive ti­tle dou­bles and, once again, Mercedes rule the F1 world as they did in the pic­ture hang­ing on his of­fice wall (be­low)

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