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‘I like ego but it needs to be channelled’: Toto Wolff on how he harnessed Hamilton’s ability

F1 Racing Confidential: Inside Stories from the World of Formula One, peers under the bonnet to reveal the sport’s characters from big names such as Toto Wolff and Lando Norris to the unsung engineers and strategists who keep the show on the road

‘One of the advantages and perhaps disadvantages of my character is that I take everything personally,” Toto Wolff says. “When I joined, the team became my tribe; it was all-encompassing. Every day, the minute I woke up to the minute I fell asleep it was all I did. Caring about the people, about what we needed to be in order to be successful.”

At 52, Wolff shoulders a Mercedes team that has been at the very top of F1 and also fighting to return to those heights. In 2013 – when he joined – it employed about 520 people at the Mercedes High Performance Powertrains engine facility in Brixworth and 660 at the Mercedes F1 team. Today the total number across the organisation is 2,500, while sponsorship revenue has grown from £50m a year to more than £300m. Yet Wolff insists the challenge, the intensity of competition, is carried lightly.

“I have never felt pressure,” he says. “I take calculated risks that mean I can cope with the worst outcome. If the worst outcome would really influence the quality of my life I would not take the decision. If you have the tough moments in your life that everyone has, F1 is a walk in the park in comparison.”

When Wolff joined Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton also switched from McLaren. He would win a title in 2014 and deliver five more by 2020; the team would take eight constructors’ championships between 2014 and 2021. But there are two drivers in every team and handling their relationship is key. Wolff entered driver management in the early part of his career as co-owner of a sports management company that counted Pastor Maldonado, Bruno Senna, Rubens Barrichello and Nico Hülkenberg among its clients. Advancing their careers was his aim. At Mercedes, however, the task has been altogether different.

Wolff brought his overarching philosophy of team above all to bear. “Because Lewis and Nico [Rosberg] were big stars and I was relatively new to F1, it was an interesting journey for me,” he says. “But straight from the beginning I said to them and to everyone that I am not having two superstars; I have a thousand superstars. I register no difference between any single employee and the drivers.”

Hamilton and Rosberg clashed on track at Belgium and Monaco in 2014, there was ill temper after Hamilton took the title in Texas in 2015, and famously they took each other out of the race in Barcelona in 2016, the year Rosberg would go on to win his only title. The pair had been friends as youngsters in karting but the relationship came apart as they were vying for the title. These are strong characters that are hard to contain.

“Well there is ego but I really like ego because ego is a strong driver,” Wolff says. “But it needs to be channelled, it needs to be conditioned. I believe the best performers have ego, they have edges but that makes them very strong.”

To that end he also sees a level of plain speaking and honesty as crucial, something he had to address from the moment he started at Mercedes, delivering some uncomfortable truths to the Mercedes-Benz board. Wolff, then executive director at Williams, had been asked to assess the team in the summer of 2012, specifically as to why they had not been more successful since buying the marque from Brawn. What he discovered did not please the board.

“I told them: ‘I am at Williams running exactly the same budgets and my expectation is top six and you have the same budget and your expectation is world champions – that’s what is wrong,’” he said. “They were very angry but I said: ‘Don’t shoot the messenger …’

“So when I came in I told Mercedes I need to have the same budget as our main competitors, Ferrari and Red Bull. I won’t guarantee that this will make us win the championship, but I can guarantee that if you don’t give it to us you will not win it. The board said: ‘Tell us what you need.’”

The expense may not have been in the original Mercedes plan, but the extraordinary success that followed doubtless more than made up for it. Wolff had displayed the same critical honesty that he had applied to his own career. He was born in Vienna in 1972 but had no interest in motor racing until he was 18 when on a weekend away with friends he stopped at the Nürburgring to watch an F3 race. “I remember walking on to the grid and standing next to those F3 cars and I was thunderstruck, realising this is what I wanted to do,” he says. He describes it as “the moment I found my identity” and was captivated by it. “I don’t remember watching the race but it was the drivers, in those cars on the grid, ready to go in their machines,” he says. “I wanted to do it immediately, but I didn’t even know where to start.”

Typically Wolff just threw himself into it to find out. He gained sponsors, bought a Seat Ibiza, attended the Walter Lechner racing school and took to the track. He then moved to a Formula Ford 1600 but was unlucky at the opening race in Brno. After a spin he was T-boned by another car, the bones in his fingers were smashed and he was taken to a nearby hospital in the old Czechoslovakia.

“I was in this ex-communist hospital,” he recalls. “The X-ray machine looked like an antique and they said to me: ‘Operazion’. So I call my mother who is an anaesthesiologist and I tell her I broke my hand, and she says: ‘You idiot. I told you it was a waste of money.’

“‘I told her they want to operate on me and she just says: ‘Get out of there!’ So I am there in my hospital dressing gown and I put on my trousers and ran outside. I jumped in my car and drove to Vienna, a two-hour drive with broken fingers, one-handed, flat out.”

He laughingly describes it as his “first Formula Ford racing adventure”. More would follow but ultimately Wolff’s pragmatic side won out over his driving ambitions. He accepted he had started late in his life and decided to call it a day in 1994. “I felt rather than being on the back foot I am going to stop studying and stop racing. I am going to launch myself into business. I never looked back.”

There is one thing in his Mercedes career that has caused some retrospection, however: the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2021 when errors by the then race director Michael Masi were instrumental in deciding the race, won by Max Verstappen, and in so doing denied Hamilton his eighth title.

Wolff and Mercedes were incensed at the time but while it clearly still rankles he insists it must be considered in context. “It certainly wasn’t the hardest moment that I had in my life; there were a hundred that were harder than this,” he says. “I also understand that there are far worse tragedies happening in the world – look at Ukraine.”

The sense of injustice does nonetheless remain. “What happened was extreme unfairness in a sport that should be fair. All the competence, the hard work, the commitment of many people can still go in the bin within a few seconds because someone takes a bad decision.

“Life is full of surprises. I would never have imagined I would be here or the success of this team. I am 52 now. It sounds old but hopefully there are another 30 years of Mercedes F1 for me. It’s important that when you hand over the baton at 80, you can say: ‘That was pretty good. I am happy with myself – I met my own expectations of my life.’”

This is an edited extract from F1 Racing Confidential, Inside Stories from the World of Formula One, written by Giles Richards and published by Michael O’Mara Books on 29 February, £20

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