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It’s not over till it’s over - exclusive Q&A with Mercedes’ Toto Wolff

05 Aug 2016

For the third year in a row, Mercedes headed into the summer break with both championships in their grasp - and both of their drivers vying for the crown. But, as he explains in this exclusive interview, head of motorsport Toto Wolff isn’t taking anything for granted in either title race…

Q: Toto, twelve races, eleven wins and Mercedes only loses when your drivers screw up - and that for the third consecutive year. Is there still a thrill in winning?

Toto Wolff: If you lose the emotion around winning - you also lose the passion for the sport! We love motor racing because of the competition every single race weekend - and we love to win. Of course, you could start a philosophical discussion: is the fear of losing bigger than the joy of winning? Or the pain of losing! Maybe for me personally, yes! But nevertheless for three years I get good emotions around race weekends!  

Q: The best racing scenes this year have been your two drivers making contact with each other. Have you seriously talked to them about avoiding that when a scrap heap brings you more publicity than a win?

TW: After all these years we have accepted that driver rivalry can create painful friction among them - but it also creates headlines. Nevertheless we are responsible for delivering results. And results are what really count! Scoring points is what gets you championships - and not front pages full of crashed cars! Therefore contact between the cars is unacceptable. Period! 

Q: But as Bernie Ecclestone has put it: you are most popular when your two drivers are daggers drawn with each other…

TW: I am sure he still has fond memories of Barcelona. And indeed: it was a good one! It was the complete wipe-out of both Mercedes cars and provided ground for the next generation superstar: Max Verstappen. So putting our pain aside, you could say that it was a good weekend for Formula One!  

Q: And if you talked to them it seems to be pretty fruitless. So what comes after the talking? What is the plan for insubordination?

TW: If they make contact again in such a way that we deem one or both drivers being responsible for it - throwing away the work of 1,500 people and risking the reputation of a big brand - then we will take action and both drivers know it. We have always said we need to consider whether the line-up is sustainable long-term if that keeps on happening, if we can keep riding this wild horse, and we haven’t changed our opinion. 

Q: After eleven races F1 had a new leader in the drivers’ championship - and with the German Grand Prix win Lewis Hamilton extended his lead. Some people would already bet money on him. Do you honestly believe that Nico can turn it around?

TW: He does. We are half way through the 2016 season and only nineteen points separate both. That’s less than one race win - and Nico is superb in qualifying. So both are on the same level.

Q: Success is a mind game as we all know - is Nico ready for the ‘big bang’?

TW: No doubt!

Q: Lewis was always in the privileged situation to continuously win - even when he entered formula One he won in his first season. Nico won the GP2 championship - and then it took him five years to win again. Doesn’t that do something with you mentally?

TW: No I don’t think it does something mentally. If you end up in Formula One and win races, you are mentally very strong. Nico’s circumstances were completely different to those of Lewis who immediately started his F1 career in a winning team with McLaren. Probably if he wouldn’t have won back then, that would have meant something. Right now Nico is paired with Lewis who is probably the best driver in F1 at the moment - and yes, that is a tough challenge. That is a benchmark - and he accepts that.

Q: Formula One without any other driver wouldn’t be a big deal. Without Lewis Hamilton it would be a pretty boring thing as no other driver matches him: aside from his driving skills he is the only one accepted in the coterie of the ‘most influential people in the world’ like Rihanna, Kayne West, Pharrell Williams or Kim Kardashian. What are you doing to keep him happy?

TW: As long as he functions as a race driver on the weekend and delivers results, we don’t interfere in the private life of the drivers. Everybody is allowed to have friends in the social environment he chooses. This goes for both the drivers - and each member of the team. And so far over the last three years our results show that this has worked out well. Is it a recipe for future success? I don’t know!

Q: Does that translate into: to keep Lewis happy - as he definitely has the most ‘sophisticated’ lifestyle - you leave him alone?

TW: Not quite right: my role is not to keep anybody happy.  It is about keeping everybody in the team in a good place and providing a framework that makes it possible to deliver top results - and the driver is very much part of that. So considering what makes the drivers function well is an important part - but I am not ‘Santa Claus’! (Laughs)  

Q: As for Mercedes you already could pack your things and go home and come back again next season - so sure seems your constructors’ title win. Red Bull are still suffering from a Renault engine that needs to catch up, but Ferrari seems to be completely beside themselves. Are you surprised about the Ferrari slump?

TW: I am not aware that we have received the trophy for the constructors’ title yet - so we will come back nine more times! We are sceptical people and believe that you haven’t won until it is mathematically over. Not one single day earlier. Looking at our competitors: the expectations for Ferrari are always very high - and living up to those expectations is a different matter. It needs time to develop - and many times it is not a steady upward trend but you also have setbacks. And probably after a strong 2015 season we see a setback for Ferrari this year. But I do believe that they are improving. And Red Bull clearly have a more competitive package as Renault has improved a lot - and next year the new regulations clearly give huge opportunities. So let’s see.

Q: Red Bull has ousted Ferrari from P2 in the constructors’ standings - is that the true pecking order?

TW: There are still many more races to do - and as nobody will be bringing major parts any more it is all about managing what you have. And one car dropping back this season can end up having a huge advantage next year. So you have to have a long-term view about how things are panning out.  

Q: To poach someone from another team is habitual in the paddock - and Mercedes has practised that to quite some extent. Whom would you be dying to unglue from where?

TW: Nobody, because we have very capable guys and girls in the team. People with the right energy and the right spirit, who fit to us. And that is mutual because no other team managed to ‘unglue’ somebody from us. We are with a stable group for quite some time now.

Q: From what we have seen on paper about the 2017 changes, the aero side will be of greater importance again - so no longer so much of an engine driven championship. How are you on the aero side? No wandering eye to other teams there?

TW: I love our aerodynamicists! (Laughs) I would not change them for the world!

Q: Coming to Toto Wolff. You’ve pulled off an incredible career in Formula One in a scarily short time. Is there anything you still want to achieve here - or is your next destination a pigeon fancier in Bali?

TW: That sounds like the most dangerous question in a long time! (Laughs) But let’s be serious: I enjoy what I do - and I very much love to work with everybody in the team. As stressful as it is going to the races - the minute I am at the circuit and I interact with them I only can say these are my best days. I much rather do that than be with the pigeons in Bali! But who knows what the future holds. When I run out of ideas or when the satisfaction level drops I will stop - but I haven’t reached that point.

Q: But the planning whizz that you are, there must be something on your agenda that you want to do later…

TW: Yes, I have always set objectives for myself. I motivate myself to reach these objectives and, when I do, then my experience shows me that eventually other doors open. In what direction I am looking for this door I can’t tell. But as we have incredible years with Mercedes there could be more good years to come - still.

Q: So you do not have the kinds of ‘manager dreams’ where you dream of settling for a more quite life in the countryside, watching potatoes grow?

TW: No potatoes, no pigeons. I am 44-years-old and enjoy what I do. Maybe when you get older these kinds of ideas pop up - but I get bored after 48 hours of holidays. I need an interesting and even stressful job. There is another gentleman - the one who runs F1 - who is also of that mould: we do what we enjoy most - no matter how intense.

Q: Then what means success for Toto Wolff?

TW: Achieving my own objectives. Enjoying what I do. Even dealing with setbacks as inspiration for long-term success.