F1 Boss Toto Wolff Talks Lewis Hamilton, Niki Lauda and His Obsession With Winning
The Mercedes-AMG Petronas boss is considered one of the greatest managers in Formula One racing history.
Where to begin with Toto Wolff? For even casual fans of Formula One, Wolff looms as a giant. In less than a decade the 48-year-old Austrian has elevated his name to equal the greatest managers in the sport’s history—paralleling legends like Enzo Ferrari, Colin Chapman and Sir Frank Williams. Since becoming a shareholder, Team Principal and CEO of Mercedes-AMG Petronas in 2013, Wolff has galvanized what had been a mediocre midfield team into an unassailable scimitar of domination.
Earlier this month with prize driver Lewis Hamilton’s victory at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix the Mercedes squad captured their record seventh consecutive Constructors’ Championship. Then just this past weekend when Hamilton, widely considered the motorsport’s GOAT, crossed the checkered flag at the Turkish Grand Prix he earned his seventh Driver’s Championship title, matching Michael Schumacher’s once-thought-unbreakable record.
It’s no hyperbole to argue his team’s hegemony is unmatched in Formula One’s history, the pairing with Hamilton now elevating the duo to a rarefied status matched only by the likes of perhaps Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan.
We caught up with Toto earlier this season as he prepared for the Russian round of GP action.
Although you raced as a young man, you made your name in venture capital. But finance seems completely different from the operational aspect of running an F1 team. How did you make the transition?
I think running a Formula One team, you need to have a knowledge about motor racing. Certainly my previous racing experience helped me, but then running a team is a lot like a normal company. It’s about finance. It’s about making the right investment decisions. It is about forming the right organization, understanding which insight is needed, identifying weaknesses and strengths. This is very much what I did in private equity, putting together the best possible team. And I think today we have a very strong group of people that has joined on this journey [in F1]. We have tripled the sponsorship. When I joined, it was on a level that was almost ridiculous.
Today we probably generate the highest income in sponsorship in all of Formula One. We’ve really uplifted our broadcasting revenues; we are almost profitable. On top of that, we have €3.5 billion of advertising value that we generate for Mercedes-Benz and the partners. So it’s very much like a conventional company with the difference that we are being benchmarked 21 times a year, and we are only as good as our last race. This is an area where I basically learned on the job how to motivate our people, how to energize the organization, how to develop everybody, and how to implement culture and values that bring us performance. This is actually I would say my core competence in the exercise and something that I really enjoy doing.
This is the apex in motorsport. It’s hyper stressful, yet you’re always cool and collected. Others are tearing their hair out, and you manage to be the calm in the center of the storm. How is this possible?
I think first of all it’s important that you’re able to laugh about yourself and not take yourself too seriously. Then I have the great advantage of having a fantastic family, a wife and children who always talk straight to me. It is important to have a close environment where sport plays no role. Furthermore, what I said about the sport, obviously it’s a business. This is a company and I have the responsibility for my tribe, for the 2,000 people and their families that are part of it. I will do everything to protect them and the interest of our group.
Equally I have the feeling that some of my peers are never able to look beyond that. They genuinely believe that the world turns around motor racing. You see that in many other sports. There are very successful people that think it all revolves around their sport, be it golf, motor racing, tennis, football, soccer. It’s really like the lack of acknowledgement that we are tiny little individuals in a big world, and it must be believed that this is the most important thing in the world. It’s not politics. It’s not war. Nobody’s going to die because of it. None of the decisions we make will have a global impact. We are here to race. We are here to develop innovations and technologies. Fundamentally, we’re here to entertain. That’s it. No more and no less.
That’s a very Buddhist perspective. Would you say that Lewis Hamilton shares your perspective, or is he more of a Tom Brady/ Kobe Bryant must-win-at-all-consequences athlete?
I think the relationship that Lewis and I have formed over the years kind of gravitates around the most important value that two individuals can have: trust. But we found out that we are a little bit the same animals. We are very competitive. We are obsessed with perfection, about doing our job the best we can whilst not losing sight of the larger picture. We give it 100% of everything we have. But equally we are able to understand that there are other things that are important. The values of family, of friends, faith, and the real problems of the world that exist. That’s why I’m so very proud, and very much being supportive of his campaign against racism, and having the whole of Daimler and Mercedes-Benz with us.
But equally, we found out that the joy of winning is actually something that is just a very short-lasting drug. Being obsessed with winning, you forget about your victories pretty quickly, because you think about the next race. The pain of losing is much more intense and lasts much longer than the joy of winning. Certainly the names that you mentioned, Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady, are superstars. I think we all are in a way different people driven by different values, different personalities. I think there is not one philosophy or one recipe for success. It’s very important to be nonjudgmental and not put somebody in a box and say, this is how you need to be in order to be successful.
The success you guys have enjoyed is unprecedented in F1. The only comparisons are in other sports—Belichick and Brady, Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan, Pep and Messi. Is it possible to look at it now and have some sort of recognition of what an astonishing accomplishment you and Lewis have created together?
So I think none of these people you mentioned would say it’s all about me, I’m the superstar. If so, they’re going to fail in their second careers, in my opinion, because it’s not about you. You can’t change the world on your own. You need a group of people that are around you. In terms of the stats, I think whilst being on the journey I have no interest in looking at stats. Because you can only judge your success once you terminate the job.
We have a good chance of winning several championships in a row, 14 titles, Constructors’ and Drivers,’ and that would probably put us in a league of pretty successful people. But that’s not the right attitude. I always forget about the last race. If you asked me how the last season went, I have no idea. I wouldn’t be able to tell you the specific races and how it went. I’m always looking forward. When you listen to our debriefs after we’ve won a race, you’d think you listened to a debrief of Williams that finished last.
That is just the attitude that we all have on the team. There will certainly be a moment when I relinquish my executive position and move to something else. Then I will look back, look at the stats, then judge for myself if it was successful or not. You know, you need to stay true to yourself. People looking at you, people judging you, people having an opinion, it doesn’t contribute in any way to my own happiness. My happiness happens within my family, and if I can live beyond that, if I can meet my own expectations, that’s all I need. If I fail, I know at least I’ve given it everything.
When was the last time that you allowed yourself to feel true 100% contentment in what you had achieved?
I have a very sad response to this. The last time I felt true contentment about the achievement was on a flight back from Japan in 2017 with my best friend Niki Lauda [F1 legend and former non-executive chairman of Mercedes-AMG Petronas]. How can I say best friend, it’s even too little. The two of us were on this joint journey, and I remember we were on an overnight flight, and having dinner. Then we went to sleep. That’s the last time that I felt this incredible contentment and happiness about our professional achievement.
Certainly linked to my relationship to him, that we could do it together. [Then] Niki got very ill in 2018 and died in 2019. This story and my journey is never going to be the same after his passing…. Having said that, of course every victory and every championship is great and gives me a very good feeling to do this with my team, with this unbelievable group of competent and great personalities.