Latest News / Interview

Exclusive - Toto Wolff on F1’s future, the title race, & not being Bernie

02 Oct 2016

Mercedes have dominated Formula One racing of late, with the German marque set to wrap up their third successive constructors’ crown in Malaysia this weekend. But next year’s regulation changes could level the playing field, and beyond that, Liberty Media’s planned acquisition of the F1 business will have significant future implications for motor racing’s top tier and its stakeholders. We discussed all this and more as we caught up with Head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, Toto Wolff, for an exclusive chat in Sepang…

Q: Toto, Mercedes have won 14 out of 15 Grands Prix so far this year - even your ‘bogey’ event of last season, Singapore. What - and who - can stop you? And when?

Toto Wolff: Certainly the stats look really good. But they are not important, as they tend to end up in a book on a shelf that is covered with dust after a while. Our way of working is always to be sceptical about our own achievements, but we are very confident in our people. And our main aim is always to look ahead - and not behind. Yes, we want to finish the season winning the constructors’ championship and having a real good and fair sportsmanlike race to the drivers’ championship. And simultaneously we are equally fully focused with our engineering team on 2017. That will mean all points back to zero and a completely new challenge - and with the new regulations, equal opportunity for many teams.

Q: So there is the chance of one or more teams stopping you in 2017?

TW: Yes. Theoretically. Think back to 2009: a team that nobody had on the radar - Brawn GP - won the championship. So never underestimate any team.

Q: The driver standings have bounced back in Nico Rosberg’s favour again and he now leads Lewis Hamilton by eight points. Lewis has won in Malaysia before, Nico hasn’t - is that a slight advantage in a fight where there is so little between them?

TW: Everybody wants to do well in Malaysia. It is somehow a pivotal race, as it is either Lewis breaking the winning streak of Nico, or Nico adding another win to his tally. It will be very interesting to watch.

Q: Lewis was quoted as suggesting that Mercedes want to win the constructors’ championship, but that it does not matter to them who takes the drivers’ title…

TW: He is right, as long as it is a Mercedes driver - and not Sebastian Vettel, or Daniel Ricciardo or Max Verstappen. With that caveat, it is equal opportunity for both Lewis and Nico - and we want to see it battled it out on the track, fair and square. And, of course, we want to win this race!

Q: F1 racing is facing some major changes in the coming months, with new owners due to arrive in the form of Liberty Media. They look set to be more ‘hands-on’ in their approach. From the talks you’ve had so far, how do you see the journey going?

TW: Well, we are pretty much on the side lines. As a team we are engaged on the platform and it is with curiosity that we are observing who the new shareholder is going to be. As per the nature of the business, CVC is a private equity company that needs to maximise the profit and to generate a financial return, and that does not necessarily contradict the positive long-term development of the sport. But, of course, it is interesting that a media company like Liberty bought a stake, bringing a lot of understanding in various areas that could add to the potential of Formula One without jeopardising the solid pillars that already exist.

Q: New Formula One Chairman Chase Carey was very much in evidence in Singapore. What has happened since? Is he in permanent contact with the teams - with Mercedes? He said that his prime occupation in the near future would be to listen and to learn...

TW: The transaction is happening right now. I have met Mr Carey once in Singapore, where we had a small chat - and that was it.

Q: So no calls asking questions?

TW: Not so far.

Q: There have been various signals from Liberty Media. Their CEO Greg Maffei attended a Goldman Sachs investors conference last week saying that F1 should embrace gaming and gambling. What is Mercedes’ stance on that?

TW: I can’t comment at this stage on which areas they should really develop - I am focused on my job with Mercedes. There are some very strong revenues streams from sponsorship, from sanctioning fees and TV - so Formula One is a very profitable business case that is growing year on year. And if we can add new revenue streams without putting at risk these other strong pillars, then why not?

Q: What about strengthening F1 racing’s presence in the US? Is that an interesting issue for Mercedes?

TW: The US market is a very important market for every major company - and that is valid for Mercedes as well. So if they can help F1 become more popular in the US, that would definitely be positive for the sport and the company involved.

Q: American sports generally operate in a significantly different way to those in Europe. F1 racing is traditionally very much European. Where do you see the possible touch points?

TW: There are only a very few global sports accepted everywhere and Formula One is part of that small group with a strong footprint in Europe, in the Middle East and South America. Then, of course, there are the classic American sports like IndyCar and NASCAR in the motor racing arena, or NFL and basketball that are not strong in Europe. I think it also will be a matter of what is understood and what has been growing historically - so it is definitely a challenge to grow something that is not fully embraced. But having said that, F1 has historical roots in the US, and with Austin there is a spectacular venue with potential for growth. So let’s do it.

Q: Bernie Ecclestone indicated not so long ago that he could imagine you doing his job in the future…

TW: …and that was very flattering. But also remember the second part of what he said: that it’s because I am getting the character traits of a used-car dealer - and that’s why I could do the job! (Laughs) I appreciated that Bernie said that, but it is not in my game plan.