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
“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”
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
“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.”
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)