As the new Formula 1 season gets under way in Australia this weekend, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff tells us about his hopes for the 2017 season and beyond
Steve Cropley Autocar
23 March 2017

Toto Wolff is grabbing a sandwich downstairs when we arrive for a chat in his refreshingly unpretentious office in the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 team offices at Brackley, just down the road from Silverstone.

Wolff’s previous appointment has overrun, which is understandable. In these important days leading up to the season’s first F1 race, everyone wants a word with the team’s executive director and managing partner.

In any case, a few minutes’ delay is a bonus for the interviewer. There is time to note the orderly state of the glass-topped desk, the neatly folded jumper over one of the chairs, and the fact that the one and only photograph in this office is a signed image of Frank Williams with Toto (real name Torger) beside him. It is from the 2014 Austrian Grand Prix, Wolff’s home race, where Mercedes cars finished first and second and Mercedes-powered Williams cars were third and fourth.

I’m getting the strong impression that nothing in this relatively austere room is there without very good reason, which is why my own jacket, initially parked on the floor, has been tactfully transferred to a nearby wardrobe. Toto likes things tidy, says one of his helpers.

At this stage, I’ve only ever seen 45-year-old, Austrian-born Wolff on TV, in his role as the usually victorious principal of a team that has won the past three F1 constructors’ and drivers’ championships – a total of 54 victories – since he arrived at the beginning of 2013. That’s enough to tell me his English (just one of the six languages he speaks) is perfect. I also know he’s tall and imposing and looks directly at interviewers through intense, all-seeing eyes, and that he seems to have a nice sense of humour. Today, I’ve seen the attention to detail, which makes me wonder whether he’s somewhat of a control freak, and if so, how this squares with a sport-cum-business like F1 that contains so many uncertainties.

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While I’m speculating, Wolff walks in with a smile that’s almost shy, and a word of apology for his very few minutes’ lateness. He sits co-operatively where asked by the photographer, and suddenly we’re talking as if we’d been doing it all morning. One of his secrets – he’ll tell me later – is very deliberately to do his best at everything, so he immediately impresses me by knowing something of our magazine, by understanding the hoped-for direction of our interview and by giving this encounter his full attention. No phones, no interruptions from the PA.

We tune up on one of my hobby horses: F1’s Bernie Ecclestone-led tendency to take its fans for granted – and whether things will change now the sport has new owners and Ecclestone no longer controls its reins. I soon discover that, in sync with every other F1 leader, Wolff has no appetite for Bernie-bashing. “I owe him my entry in to F1 and I’ll never forget that,” he says. “You have to remember Bernie’s main objective was to earn money for his shareholders and he did that brilliantly. It was not to embrace the teams’ customers. He invented a sport that wasn’t there before and made it into a $90 billion business. Now it has been put into other hands and they have a big responsibility to continue his legacy. They seem open-minded and have started to ask the right questions. We will do everything we can to help them maintain the sport’s attractiveness and make it better.”

Does that mean Wolff himself might one day play a part in the sport’s governance, as some (including Ecclestone) have suggested? He doesn’t exactly deny it. “I’ve just renewed my contract with Mercedes until 2020, so the only badge on my hat is the Mercedes-Benz star and I will be doing my best to further their interests.

“Equally, it’s important that we race on a platform that is successful. We can’t just view things from an opportunistic standpoint and say we’re not interested in anything beyond our own success. That might have us winning eight more championships, which might kill F1 overall. So as I see it, we have to find a compromise between winning – which is how we are incentivised – and keeping the show interesting.” Which sounds to me like a recipe for Wolff’s longer-term involvement on the governance side.

None of this is to suggest that winning isn’t the Mercedes team’s total 2017 focus. Wolff says they think about success – and the reasons for it – every single day. The company’s top 30 people recently spent several awaydays discussing exactly why they’re successful, even forming management groups to play the roles of their team, their rivals and the F1 race authorities as a way of investigating their own strengths and weaknesses. “I was at the Ferrari team and I loved it,” says Wolff. “We found out so many things. I remember thinking how exposed we were. It has certainly changed our behaviour…”

Wolff is surprisingly sanguine about F1’s rule changes this year, especially since he believes, along with many pundits, that as well as improving the spectacle and the driver challenge, the 2017 rule changes were partly designed to stop Mercedes. The received wisdom is that when you change the rules, you also give unfancied runners a better chance: witness Brawn GP’s remarkable 2009 drivers’ and constructors’ championships. Despite the threat, Wolff broadly supports the changes…

“When the talk started, the plan was for faster cars with more g-force that were more spectacular for drivers and spectators. We pointed out that this might make overtaking more difficult.” There was a risk, Wolff felt, of going back to the 2004 season, when genuine overtaking was very rare. Early testing seems to confirm that overtaking is tougher – Lewis Hamilton has reported intensive helmet buffeting when following other cars – but the matter won’t be proven until the first races.

“On the whole, we think we’ve  made a good step forward with the latest cars,” says Woolf confidently. “But let’s see how they go. If we need to optimise their overtaking ability, we can work on that.”

F1’s quiet hybrid powertrains, he believes, are “the most amazing, most technologically advanced engines you can have. But I believe we can optimise them further next time around. When the present engines were designed, the engineers were told to come up with solutions, but not given instructions about what sound they should make. Next time around – in 2019 or 2020 – we need to be more responsible for the show.”

What does testing say about likely race results this year? Precious little, it seems. Wolff says the only real use for test sessions is to collect mileage for reliability and to investigate the behaviour of the new tyres. He notes the speed of Ferrari (“we don’t know the weights, but the car seems to corner on rails”) but he believes that most of the cars were not using the aerodynamic settings they will adopt for Sunday’s first race in Melbourne.

Talking drivers, Hamilton seems in fine shape. “This is the best Lewis I’ve seen in four years, pre-season,” says Wolff. “You can only compare pre-season with pre-season, because once it gets tough, the racing gets close and bad weekends happen. But as I see him now, Lewis is the most diligent and hard-working I have seen in the last four years.”

One 2017 change Wolff won’t miss is the break-up of the Lewis Hamilton-Nico Rosberg pairing that led to four years of intra-team rivalry. But now it’s over, he’s proud of what those years achieved. “When I look back at the years of [Alain] Prost and [Ayrton] Senna, then Prost and Niki [Lauda] I think we held it together pretty well. Four years is a long time.” However, Wolff doubts whether even the calm Finnish demeanour of Rosberg’s replacement, Valtteri Bottas, will protect the team completely against driver disputes. “I don’t think it’s possible to prevent some kind of difficulty,” he says. “It’s the nature of the business.”

Wolff is a very late arrival in F1. As a young man, he was a reasonably handy campaigner in Austrian Formula Ford and he had some successful GT races in wider Europe, so he knows what winning feels like from behind the wheel. But he realised he didn’t have enough talent for the big time. Besides, his eye was on an investment career: at first, he founded and acquired companies that caught the internet and technology booms and has more recently specialised in improving medium-sized industrial companies. His net worth is estimated to be around £300 million.

Wolff took an interest in the Williams F1 team (for whom his wife, former DTM racer Susie Stoddart, was a test driver), then in 2013 moved to Mercedes (one of his companies had already built DTM cars for them) as an investor. At the time, he says, the Brackley project was a team of survivors. They’d survived British American Racing, Honda and Brawn but weren’t competitive. “Surviving means learning not to get caught by a bullet,” says Wolff, “so you’re never going to expose yourself. It wasn’t the ideal philosophy. What we do now is to support people. We don’t blame individuals. We blame problems.”

As Wolff describes it, the deal with Mercedes F1 was simple. “They said: ‘We’d like to sell you 40%. You are the managing partner. You run it. Keep the bullets away from us if it doesn’t go well. If it works, shine the sun on the brand.’ They handed me their trust – which I still find extraordinary – and, well, here we are…” 

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