Big shoes to fill - Exclusive Q&A with Williams Toto Wolff 18 Sep 2012
Williams Executive Director, Toto Wolff, is the man Frank Williams now sees as his natural successor. Wolff may insist he is still learning the ropes, but the teams improvement in form relative to 2011 is hard to ignore. They may not yet be title contenders, but they have at least rediscovered their winning ways and Wolff is determined to maintain the upward trend. Speaking exclusively to Formula1.com, he discusses his rise, his role, his drivers and more
Q: Toto, you came to the Williams team as a shareholder some years back - now you seem to be the strongman in the team. Is that so?
Toto Wolff: Physically, yes (laughs) Seriously, Im certainly not the strongman because I am still the new kid on the block. I am learning every day and sometimes I have to sit down and recap situations to understand what is going on (laughs) and I still have to rely a lot on Franks (Williams) experience and his know-how. That is why I talk with him every day many times. We are doing this - meaning the team - together.
Q: With Frank no any longer attending every race, does that mean the new kid is running the team?
TW: I think that is what Frank wants me to do one day, but to be honest I hope that hell still be coming to many races in the coming years. Of course, he is not coming to all the flyaway races even now, so I am already in charge then, but I still rely on him and call him. He is so important for the team, the partners and the sponsors - such an iconic figure - that nobody will ever be able to walk in his shoes, because they are just miles too big for all of us. So lets not talk about him not coming to races any more - I would like him to be at as many races as possible.
Q: You are an entrepreneur whose hobby was racing. Now you seem to have grown into a full-blown F1 figure. Your choice of career switch?
TW: It all just happened. The racing happened and as I was an unsuccessful young driver with no money I went into financing - and then I went back to racing as a hobby. I was always passionate about racing, so one day I got involved in DTM, in the company building the DTM cars for Mercedes and F3 engines - a pretty successful German company. Hans-Werner Aufrecht, the founder of AMG, took me under his wing and taught me a lot about the business of racing. He is one of the few - just like Bernie Ecclestone - who is making money from motorsport and that was inspiring. Together we then got the opportunity with HWA Limited (a car manufacturer - the HWA being Hans-Werner Aufrechts initials - running motorsport activities for Daimler AG and also involved in the production of specialist road cars for Mercedes AMG) to get involved in a Formula One team. At that time we didnt do it as all the manufacturers were still involved, but a couple of years later the chance came again with Williams. I came to see Frank and I got involved in the team.
Q: So what about the full-blown F1 personality?
TW: The bad news is that until I got involved in Formula One I was making money and doing business. Now that I am involved in F1 and being an executive, I have stopped making money and I try to run the team in the best possible way and make money for the team. And of course I take great pleasure in what I am doing in F1, but at the end of the day it is still a business and we have to finance operations and have to make a living for 500-plus families - and that is a huge new challenge. If I think about it now, I must say that I wouldnt have thought that it would turn out this way.
Q: Are you living proof that as petrol heads move on, entrepreneurs move in?
TW: We must never forget that Formula One teams are tiny little enterprises. How much revenue do we do? One or two hundred million in turnover? This is ridiculously small compared to a global company. There are many people out there running multi-billion dollar corporations, but who are not in the media spotlight so are able to run their companies in a totally different way to us. What we do here is sport. This is why we are in the media. But on the other hand it is also a little company that needs to be run. So yes, it is true that more people from the business community get involved, but you should at least have an interest in motorsport to fully understand what you are doing. Otherwise it can get very tricky, because it is still the sport that is making the money - the success on the track - and if you have no understanding of that and no respect for what the engineers and drivers are doing, then failure might just lurk around the corner.
Q: Was change at Williams overdue? Are the new brooms - you for Adam Parr, Mike Coughlan for Sam Michael - sweeping clean?
TW: I think what happened with us happens to many companies with two iconic founders who have run the business for many decades. In our case it was Franks decision almost 10 year ago to step aside and let a new generation take over. This has not worked out on the first attempt. I am the second try, so I hope that the saying third time lucky is not ultimately true (laughs) I honestly hope that the second time works out. Yes, there is a wind of change in here. We must never forget that the performance is what we get judged by. I am not really involved in the performance of the car, although I try to also be there and understand. I am involved a lot on the recruitment side. What is clear is that we are only at the beginning of the journey.
Q: Williams fortunes definitely seem to have taken a turn for the better in 2012. What would you identify as main factors?
TW: There are many factors. I think that the founders have stepped aside a little. Although Frank is there, he is sharing things with me. That is one factor. The second is that we became a public company, which means that we have a board, and therefore decisions are not made by one iconic leader but by a board - and we have many intelligent people sitting on the board. But of course it all takes time. We have two young drivers and a very good young test driver, but then you have to find the money to finance the operation, you need money to find the right guys - and to motivate them! With the win in Barcelona weve seen a lot interest from people who would have never thought of joining Williams. We see that things are running in the right direction and next year we are going to take the next step. We are good on track and last Monday we published our annual half-year results and that is good. We are healthy and financially solid for that period.
Q: That all sounds like a bit of a fairy tale
TW: It actually isnt. (laughs) We are only eighth in the championship and that is the reality right now- and we need to work on that. Our short-term goal must be to at least jump up a position in the constructors championship, which is difficult, and we need to look out for sponsorship for the next few years.
Q: Pastor seems to be a bit of a rough diamond - who is taking the edges off him? He has demonstrated many times that hes got the speed, but he is also one of the most feared guys on the grid
TW: Yes, hes got a huge raw talent - he is extremely fast. And he is a nice guy, which is important because you need to be socially competent to function in that environment. The new generation of drivers needs to be like that. Yes, he seems to struggle in some situations in the race. From one stupid, heated incident in Monaco it has almost become an avalanche - and this is affecting his performance. But I think he has understood now that he has to take a different approach - this is not GP2. But he is an intelligent guy and he will learn from it. He understands that he is in a difficult situation, but he will rise above it. Of that I am 100 percent sure. Remember Ayrton Senna in the beginning? Nobody wanted to touch him. In those days there werent many grid penalties, but had there been he would probably have had to go back 10 places on the grid many times. (laughs) We accept all the decisions made by the stewards - we must as they are the police - so maybe Pastor has to change the way he is driving and he has accepted that. So we take it from there. I am sure we will see many more successful races from him in the future.
Q: What about Bruno? Will he stay with the team? Some might get the impression that the name paved his way into F1 racing but that now it is more of a burden
TW: Bruno is very intelligent and very sensitive and that means he is putting a lot of pressure on himself. Whether it is the name or not, I dont know. Every racing driver in F1 is very competitive and Bruno is trying to fight the fact that he hasnt had a huge racing education, as the family didnt want him to go racing. But he has made his way into F1, which means that he is good. He has an extremely fast team mate and he needs to follow his path. He is pushing very hard and we are trying to support him as best we can.
Q: Are Williams thinking of sticking with the same driver line-up for 2013 then?
TW: Its too early to say. Sure, we are taking different looks at the issue, but the minute we discuss it we are going to mess-up Pastor and Bruno - and maybe others that we try talking to - so I would give it another month before we are going to have the first idea of what we want.
Q: You say another month. Does that mean an announcement before the season is done, or will we have to wait until sometime in the winter break?
TW: Well, announcing a driver line-up is always an interesting topic so I think we take the approach of making an announcement when it will excite people. Whether it will be in-season or not, I dont know yet, but we dont want to drag it out too long.
Q: What are the short-, medium- and long-term plans for the team? Where would you like to be at the end of this season? What about in two years time? And when will the heydays return for Williams?
TW: Obviously you have to have targets, because if you havent got targets you wont reach them. When I joined the team in 2009 my personal goal was to try to understand this F1 business - to sit aside and watch and slowly get into the process. For 2012 our target is to have solid results, which we can have as the car is able to deliver. Can we have another podium? Yes we can. Where do we want to end up in the championship? Id like to move up one position. A realistic target would be seventh. By formulating targets you are putting pressure on yourself - and that is why I am doing it! In 2013 we will have a carry-over of the car so Id like to see us in the points more regularly. Pastor hopefully stays with us and has learned his lessons - so the next logical step would be the top six in the constructors - or even top five. In 2014 all is new - new car, new engine - so everything is up in the air again, but nevertheless I see us as one of the top teams. Whether this means winning races regularly or challenging for the championship, I dont know, but the perception should be that this team is winning races and is on the podium regularly.
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