‘I’m obsessive about detail’ Merc’s F1 boss on how to win almost everything (though it does mean cleaning the toilets…)
The DRIVE-MY inquisition
TOTO WOLFF MERCEDES-AMG F1 TEAM BOSS
Few endeavours stress, strain and wring people out like Formula 1. But Toto Wolff wears its burden lightly. ‘I haven’t worked a single day in my life,’ the Austrian tells CAR at an event celebrating 125 years of Mercedes motorsport. ‘That’s maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s almost true. I really enjoy what I do.’
Wolff has good reason to be content – the Mercedes team he’s responsible for is enjoying a run of crushing dominance in F1. No other team has won the drivers’ or constructors’ title since the dawn of this hybrid era, and Mercedes kicked off the 2019 season with five consecutive one-two finishes. Poor Ferrari. Poor everyone else, frankly – even Wolff admits that ‘one team running away is not great for the show’.
This success doesn’t come cheap, with Mercedes – the sport’s biggest spender – funding its F1 outfit to the tune of an estimated £371m a year. Can Mercedes quantify the return on its gargantuan investment? ‘No company in the world today can afford to be involved in activities that don’t aim to make a return,’ says Wolff. ‘The aim is to generate a return for the brands we advertise, be it Mercedes-Benz, AMG or Mercedes-Benz EQ [Merc’s electric brand, which currently extends to one car, the EQC], and in that regard [Mercedes’ F1 team] functions very well. The returns on F1 are very good. We are generating the equivalent of £2.38bn in advertising value for our partners more than £790m for the Mercedes-AMG brand alone. You could almost call it profitable investment for Mercedes.’
In recent months concerns have been voiced about a decline in F1’s audience, but Wolff maintains that the audience is in fact growing. ‘When you look at the traditional TV channels, streaming and our digital models, we see strong growth,’ he says. ‘Some of the linear channels are stable to slightly positive, and the digital channels are up, with solid double- if not triple-digit numbers.’ He talks of how the freer access to footage on YouTube by owners Liberty Media has grown audiences on Mercedes’ own social channels. ‘You have to think about who today from younger audiences watches TV on a Sunday afternoon. They are on different channels and on different screens.’
Wolff is wearing a race suit, fresh from a few laps in a Mercedes-Benz 190 DTM W201 car. He’s no stranger to driving; Wolff made his first steps in motorsport as a driver rather than a manager. ‘I raced in various single-seater series and had to stop because of a lack of money. I went into finance, and spent 10 years without any connection to motorsport. Then a friend contacted me to participate in a touring car race, just for fun. It was like riding a bicycle – you don’t forget how to do it. Then I had a spell driving various sports and rally cars, enjoying myself with motorsport as a hobby.’
Wolff was quick for a hobbyist, winning international GT races and setting an unofficial lap record at the Nürburgring in 2009 before suffering a puncture-triggered monster shunt on the following lap. ‘It would have been 15 seconds faster, a 6m 45sec. It’s a shame, but this was when I took the decision not to drive competitively anymore. Ending up in a hospital, injured, as a businessman didn’t feel right.’
Instead Wolff found himself merging the worlds of finance, investment and motorsport, first by buying Europe’s largest rally parts firm, followed by a DTM team, HWA. From there he found himself at the Williams F1 team, initially as a investor but quickly in a much more active role.
‘In 2012 Sir Frank Williams and I managed the team together in what was his last really active year. I was lucky to work with him in a really good phase of his life. He is a person I very much look up to for his resilience and determination. He is very hard in personal relationships but my professional relationship with him was very good.’
Now Wolff oversees all works motorsport activity at Mercedes; previously F1, F3 and DTM, the latter now replaced by Formula E. ‘I hadn’t run any company operationally before I got involved with Mercedes. I was a finance guy, that’s why they suffer so much now,’ he jokes, looking to his colleagues. In the F1 operation alone there are just short of 1000 people in Brackley and around 600 in Brixworth [the powertrain HQ]. Of those 600, around 500 are on the F1 programme. ‘Although I know many of them by name or by face, it’s impossible to know 1500 names, which embarrasses me. When I meet all these people that have contributed I feel I should know their name.’ If this suggests an obsession with every last detail, Wolff won’t argue. He never stops thinking about how to keep Mercedes at the front. ‘My attention to detail is maybe borderline obsessive,’ he admits. ‘But the standard I aim to set for us as a team and for Mercedes is very high, everywhere. You will see [me] on race weekends making sure that the toilets are clean in the VIP area. And I have no problem with that.’
Six questions only we would ask
Tell us about your first car
‘A Volkswagen Beetle 1303 S, 50 horsepower, metallic blue.’
What is your proudest achievement?
‘My own personal achievement is my marriage, and from a sporting side it was 2014: first in the constructors’ championship with Mercedes and third with Williams, when I was still involved.’
Tell us about a time you screwed up
‘I do every day. But I think the most important thing is to reflect on your screw-ups and try to avoid them in the future.’
Best thing you’ve ever done in a car?
‘I had some drives in rally cars in the night on tricky stages where I felt afterwards that I’d given the maximum I could, and that was good enough at a regional level. Rallying is fantastic. It’s the real racing.’
Supercar or classic?
‘Supercar. I am more about tomorrow than the past.’
Company curveball… when did Mercedes win its first ever race?
‘Let’s be clever here… this year is the 125th anniversary of Mercedes in motorsport. So it was… 1893? Ah, one year out.’ (A Daimler/Maybach engine won the Paris-Rouen race in 1894.)