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Winning streaks, ‘Professor Rosberg’, and the ultimate F1 driver - Toto Wolff Q&A

08 Jul 2015

As head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, Toto Wolff has helped lead the German marque’s team to the forefront of Formula One competition, securing both titles last year and winning eight of this season’s nine Grands Prix to date. We caught up with Wolff for an exclusive chat about domination, drivers, and the future direction of F1 racing…

Q: Toto, success breeds envy: that much we know. Did you ever envision how much envy you would generate when having such a winning streak?

Toto Wolff: It is clear that you have a more enjoyable - and nicer - life as the underdog. But the situation that we have now is something that we in some ways expected. We’ve seen this with previous title-winning teams. Red Bull is a good example - or Ferrari in the early 2000’s - and it is something that you have to be aware of, as it is hard to ignore. As a team you need to take your brand and the way it is perceived seriously, but then the number-one objective is winning. And we can’t compromise on this target.

Q: When looking at your CV it is hard to believe that you would have ever felt comfortable being the underdog…

TW: Ha, we were the underdogs when I started here in 2013. In that season we very much felt like the ones with some serious catching-up to do - and I also had that role at Williams back in 2012 and before. So I can definitely tell you it is the happier life. But would I trade that for success? Probably not.

Q: You fell under the spell of motor racing at an early age, even racing yourself. Would you say that we have the best Formula One racing there could be? Or does success whitewash everything?

TW: The best Formula One is the one which will come next. We need to develop the product - we need to develop Formula One in the direction the world is moving in. The world has moved on and we need to take this into considerations when we discuss how the cars should be - and the racing itself.

Q: How would F1 racing look if you had your say?

TW: That is difficult to answer, as my primary objective is to run the Mercedes team…

Q: But when you got hooked on racing some 20 odd years ago, that was surely connected to the adrenalin, the engine noise, the speed…

TW: …yes, I was fascinated by the speed, by the drivers who were able to control these ‘beasts’ - all that attracted me. But I don’t want to take myself out of the responsibility for the product. We all have responsibility for F1 beyond our own team - and I think we are making the right calls. In the last couple of years F1 has reduced downforce, has reduced the speed of the cars and probably now is the time to take a step back [to review things] - and this is what we are doing for 2017 with very exciting new regulations. The cars will be much faster than they are now. We are putting the drivers back into the centre - giving them back responsibility for what they do in the car and giving it less a perception of being remote controlled by the pit wall. We know now that noise is a factor for the acceptance of F1 and we must not forget that some of the smaller teams need to be supported. All that is happening.

Q: When you talk about drivers who could control these ‘beasts’, were you a fan of anybody in particular?

TW: I have never been a fan of a particular driver. I ‘assembled’ my own driver! I took the passion and focus of an Ayrton Senna, the stamina of a Nigel Mansell, the dedication and discipline of a Niki Lauda and the strategic intellect of an Alain Prost.

Q: If you take your two drivers, what would you attribute to them?

TW: Nico would be willpower and focus, and Lewis would be instinct and race craft.

Q: What about the kind of traits that made Alain Prost a four-time champion? Are they somehow missing…

TW: I think that Nico is very much on the side of having an analytical spirit. He was a key part of the rise of the team.

Q: So should we call him ‘Professor’ from now on?

TW: Yep, you can call him Professor Rosberg!

Q: The time line for any 2017 changes is running out. What is the maximum concession from Mercedes’ side?

TW: Well, we have until February [2016] to vote for the 2017 changes and I think it was pretty unanimous among the teams to implement those radical changes of having wider tyres with more grip, having wider cars - that’s going to happen, definitely.

Q: Who is agreeing these changes from Mercedes’ side?

TW: In the Strategy Group it is Niki [Lauda] and myself.

Q: So you don’t have to report back to Stuttgart?

TW: No, we operate in the frame which we are given by Stuttgart - but Stuttgart understands very well that F1 needs a quick decision-making process and we have a very good relationship with the decision makers in Stuttgart.

Q: So Niki and you are not simply following guidelines set by Stuttgart?

TW: No. We are managing partners and co-shareholders of the team. Yes, we have a responsibility towards Mercedes, but the management of Mercedes F1 makes the decisions.

Q: Red Bull won four championships in a row, but there was often another driver from another team also challenging this win. Now it is Mercedes and Mercedes. Might people might find that boring?

TW: I don’t think that this is true. Take Ferrari at the beginning of the 2000’s: they were very dominant. It was Michael Schumacher only - only one driver - so it was much less competition than we have today. We really let our drivers race each other. That is the maximum that you can expect from a team that wants to win both titles.

Q: Every time Nico is written off in the media he seems to bounce back. How much is the team investing in that process - or is he recovering all by himself?

TW: The team is very neutral to both drivers. That is the philosophy under which we operate. But every time somebody tells me that Nico is ‘dead’, I tell them, ‘Don’t write that boy off!’ He is mentally strong and very talented.

Q: Lewis’s personal schedule seems to be enormous if you read where he has been and what events he has attended. Sometimes you wonder how he finds the time to come to a race. Is that something you worry about?

TW: He lives a completely different life. Lewis is a young, single man and the way he organizes his life is all up to him. We will never interfere in his life as long as the performance in the car is there - and we have seen again at Silverstone that it is. Even after a thorny start he can fight back and turn things around.