It’s just over three months since Toto Wolff left his position as executive director at Williams to become part of a high-profile management triumvirate at Mercedes, with Niki Lauda and Ross Brawn. Since then, the 41-year-old Austrian, who is now a shareholder and executive director with the Brackley-based team, has witnessed the Silver Arrows score two podiums and two pole positions from the opening four races. In this exclusive interview Wolff discusses, amongst other things, the season so far, his plans for the future and why there is still much work to do…
Q: Toto, even if the Bahrain result was a bit disappointing, you must feel like you’ve landed in the land of milk and honey since joining Mercedes…
Toto Wolff: Ha, yes, two pole positions so far – that goes down really nicely. But milk and honey would be if we were to do the same on Sunday and finish at the top of the sheet. Maybe we could persuade Bernie (Ecclestone, Formula One group CEO) to also allocate points on a Saturday! So yes, I am happy, not so much about the results, but more about being part of that team. We have a fantastic spirit that means besides the hard work we are able to laugh together. That is very important for establishing a sense of ‘we’.
Q: Could it be that you all are somewhat taken aback by the sudden and rather unexpected success? You must feel very lucky…
TW: Well, I don’t feel that it is knocking on wood that propels us. If you look at our races so far we’ve had two pole positions and finished twice in P3 – that translates to a very solid upward movement through hard work. Yes, we have to consolidate our race results, but our two guys in the cockpit and our engineers and mechanics are doing a top job and I think what must be on our agenda now is to dovetail all elements a bit better – then we will have the race results we want. It sure is nice to have a pleasant Saturday evening, but I would settle much more for a great Sunday evening! (laughs)
Q: A few garages along from Mercedes you find Williams. With what emotions do you watch their early-season struggles?
TW: Of course, I see them struggling and I would say that it didn’t help that I left. I think with all the changes in the team they have to refocus. The team has a solid financial basis and I think what is needed now is that step-by-step they build on that. I hope that they drive through that hard time very fast.
Q: Coming back to Mercedes, at management level nobody – you, Ross Brawn, Niki Lauda – had ever worked together before. At what stage of the bonding process are you right now? Surely success must help…
TW: Niki I’ve know a bit longer – and I would say that we do get along very well. Niki is very outspoken and in daily business to get to the point in plain language helps immensely to sort out problems faster. Ross I pretty much only knew by name and fame, so we had a different starting point. What I witness is that we are on the way towards a non-verbal communication where a glance is all that is needed to understand what’s on the other’s mind.
Q: What qualities have you learned to appreciate in Niki and Ross? You three make a very interesting trio – but also good bedfellows?
TW: The quality I value most with Niki is his straightforwardness and his efficiency and, needless to say, his value as a sportsman. Ross has all the virtues that a great engineer must have: the preciseness, the focused and structured working mode, the calmness and the leadership he exhibits with his technicians.
Q: Everything is pointing towards the arrival of Paddy Lowe from McLaren next season. Now that you’ve spoken so much of Ross’s technical leadership qualities, is friction to be expected?
TW: Why? One doesn’t obviate the other. Ross is team principal and I don’t want to change that. We need to get stability in the team as we have a mountain of work to do. From where this team is coming it is important to have as many good people as possible – that is my focus in all these discussions.
Q: Are you surprised that Lewis Hamilton has advocated Ross so strongly?
TW: No, not at all. Everybody has the highest esteem for Ross and I would be completely mistaken were I to question Ross’ technical skills – someone who has won seven or eight titles. Who am I in this respect? I have been in Formula One for only three years. So I completely agree with every word Lewis said.
Q: What about your two drivers? After almost three months of working together, what qualities do you appreciate in them? After the Malaysian Grand Prix there were suggestions that Lewis must be your number-one driver…
TW: Three months is not an overly long time. I have seen a bit of their private side, but of course much more of their professional side, and what I can spontaneously say is that I not only admire their talent, but also their very focused working style. Nothing can distract them from their goal: to win. Sure, they are different in their approach…
Q: How so?
TW: Well, maybe you could say that Nico (Rosberg) has a Teutonic way of approaching things. That starts with his daily routine and ends with how he solves problems. Lewis’ approach is more emotional – and he has a lot of emotions. But if you look at the lap times, both ways work equally well – it’s only a different avenue! (laughs)
Q: How far are you on your way to rebuilding the team? What is the main focus for the next couple of weeks? Hiring? Firing?
TW: I am in a very exciting situation as I get to know the people around me better and better and can judge their contribution. It is not about revamping everything – it is all about nuances. I am speaking with everybody, I am listening – and I give my opinion. I want to establish a structure that exudes success. Of course what I do is based on experience from my other businesses, and not necessarily from running an F1 team, but success is spelt the same anywhere.
Q: What is the most useful lesson you’ve learned so far in your short new career?
TW: To understand what it needs to make Ross function – or how he functions.
Q: And how is that?
TW: Extremely structured. Accurate. Focused on sustainable results and not on short-term optimization. An excellent manager who gives his people room.
Q: It’s still a young season – how do you expect 2013 to progress? Mercedes have obviously got to build both an engine and a chassis for 2014 so at some point you’ll have to make pragmatic decisions…
TW: We’re already working on 2014 and we’ll gradually raise the percentage of people working on next year’s car. I would say that in May we will reach a point where more than 50 percent will work on the 2014 car.
Q: What will that mean?
TW: There is no doubt that at a point in the summer everybody will switch their main resources to the 2014 car, as this is a very complex and complicated machine. Of course it all depends on where you are in the standings. Those who are fighting for the title will of course concentrate longer on this year’s car.
Q: When everything is said and done at the end of November, what do you want to go home with?
TW: I want to be among the four top teams in the constructors’ championship and have a driver among the top four as well.