In the world of Formula 1 racing, the name Toto Wolff is as legendary as the Lewis Hamiltons or Michael Schumachers of the sport. Yet unlike the pantheon of champions sprayed with champagne while holding their trophies above the F1 tarmac, Wolff’s brilliance shines behind the scenes. The Austrian entrepreneur, motorsport executive and investor is Team Principal & CEO of the Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team. He also holds a 33 percent stake in the team and has played a major part in its sweeping success over the past decade. The importance of all this is not to be taken lightly: Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS is the only team to hold eight consecutive constructors’ titles, from 2014 to 2021, in the sport’s history.
Formula for Success
Team Principal & CEO of the Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team Toto Wolff on what fuels his passion, and his new role as worldwide brand ambassador for Bombardier.
By Ève Laurier - May 24th 2023
Wolff has hardly taken the fast track to stardom. Long before becoming a giant in the F1 world and taking the reins as Bombardier’s worldwide brand ambassador, he developed his entrepreneurial spirit and sense of adventure. A former racing driver himself, Wolff is a man who understands every fine-tuned detail of F1, from the technical to the physical. He has the passion and decisiveness to lead his team to victory, but it is his charm and charisma that have earned him celebrity status.
Wolff, 51, is the definitive Übermensch: He travels the world, speaks five languages, appreciates contemporary art and Brutalist architecture, is a loving husband and father, and is involved in several organizations helping those in need (Save a Child’s Heart, United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and the Mary Bendet Foundation among them).
It’s a seemingly fairy-tale life that has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with drive. In fact, Wolff is self-made in every sense of the term. As a child growing up in Vienna, he witnessed his father’s 10-year battle with brain cancer and subsequent death (Wolff was only 15 years old at the time). As he told Insider magazine, the tragedy taught him self-sufficiency: “I remember being a child and saying, ‘I just want to be responsible for myself.’ I think that is a large part of who I am today.”
At age 22, Wolff gave up a brief racing career to focus on his other love: finance. He founded his own investment company, Marchfifteen, in 1998, followed by Marchsixteen in 2004. He returned to racing for a short period and at one point partnered with Mika Häkkinen, a two-time F1 world champion, to form a racing-driver management company. But it wasn’t until 2009 that Wolff made waves in the Formula 1 world by investing in the Williams Racing F1 team. He quickly moved into an operational role as executive director, leading Williams to its first win in eight years during the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix. Wolff moved to rival Mercedes just a year later, and it’s fair to say the past decade has been nothing short of exhilarating.
Wolff started with the Mercedes team at the same time as Lewis Hamilton and together they have been responsible for making history. It’s a move that helped Mercedes achieve unparalleled success: Hamilton went on to win six World Championships titles with Mercedes.
Many experts attribute the team’s accomplishments to Wolff’s leadership style. Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse, for example, wrote a recent case study on Wolff’s management practices. Her lessons for building a winning team, as demonstrated by Wolff, include setting the highest standards for everyone and continually analyzing mistakes, even when winning. “We are ruthless and transparent in the analysis of our own performances,” Wolff can be heard saying in an episode of Formula 1: Drive to Survive, a popular Netflix documentary series on the sport. “Very quickly, we know why we haven’t performed well. If you understand why you fell short of your own expectations, you can move on and improve for the next race.”
Such self-awareness has served Wolff well. Following a decade of triumph, Mercedes has experienced some setbacks over the past couple of years. Lewis Hamilton lost the driver title in 2021 during a controversial race at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that saw Oracle Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen beat Hamilton after a last-minute change in rules passed by F1’s race director at the time, Michael Masi. Then in 2022, Mercedes placed third in the F1 standings, behind Red Bull and Scuderia Ferrari. For Wolff, these challenges only strengthen his resolve.
“I’ve changed personally through the process,” he tells Harvard Business School’s Elberse in a recent interview with the Harvard Business Review. “Self-reflection and introspection is something I’ve always done. And this year, I got it wrong on several occasions… probably to [the] effect where my control-freakishness... annoyed some of the people that were actually in charge of the science… There are certain areas where I have to dial myself back a little bit and trust.” Yet Wolff is confident about his team’s future, viewing its recent obstacles in a positive light: “The days we lose are the days our competitors will regret the most because these are the days that we learn… This will make us overall much stronger. We will rise again.”
When it comes to Mercedes’ success, Wolff is quick to share the spotlight with his fellow team members (several reports rave about the team’s family-like atmosphere). “Every person in the team matters, there is no job too small,” he tells me shortly after a tribute to the late Niki Lauda—the F1 driver and aviation entrepreneur who was non-executive chairman of Mercedes until his death in 2019. In November, Mercedes renamed the road that leads to its technology center in Brackley (70 miles northwest of London) Lauda Drive.
“Every person in the team matters, there is no job too small,”
Wolff has fond memories of Lauda, attributing many lessons learned to the F1 legend. “He was my closest friend… We traveled to all the races together. I’ve never had mentors but I have had relationships with people that I could learn from. Niki was one of those people. We were both entrepreneurs. He had a very different style of management than I did but he influenced how I developed as a human being and as a manager. He would say things like, ‘You’re overthinking this,’ or ‘Your thinking is too complicated.’ This simplicity is something I’ve since embraced.”
Simplicity isn’t a word one would typically associate with Wolff, though it’s surprisingly apt when it comes to his personal life. In 2011 Wolff married Susie Wolff (née Stoddart), a former professional racing driver, Formula E CEO and Team Principal. Together they have a five-year-old son, Jack, and despite living a nomadic life, he calls home “the place where my wife and children are” (Wolff has two children from a previous marriage). These days, they’re based in Monaco—a place where he can unwind with his family, perhaps grab a coffee from his favorite spot, Cova, or take in views of the Mediterranean. Outside of Europe, he favors big cities such as New York and Los Angeles: “These are places with a heart and with a history. They have soul.”
Wolff’s approach to downtime is equally as uncomplicated. He enjoys reading (anything on philosophy, finance, history), and insists that even the busiest people can find time to do the things they enjoy. For Wolff, pleasure should inform business, and he considers literature in its many forms to be a business strategy. “People say that they can’t find time to read or they can’t find time to reflect—they are not managing their time properly,” he says. “If you want to be effective as a manager, you need to have these periods where you’re able to put your brain in standby mode and gain energy.”
Nonetheless, Wolff is often on the move. In 2022, there were 23 races around the globe in the F1 season. That means he’s traveling more than 200 days a year. “At the moment, I’m spending something like 450 hours on an airplane,” he tells me. It’s no wonder he’s fastidious about craftsmanship. “When we designed the interior of my last plane, we spent weeks and weeks designing the seat, the stitching, the materials. I love it. Seeing someone with a great skill, crafting an object, is something that I could follow for hours and hours because it’s the details that matter. Whether it is gardening or crafting something, I like the sense of perfection.”
He speaks with as much passion about airplanes as he does about race cars, which explains why Bombardier recently chose Wolff as its worldwide brand ambassador. He has been a Bombardier customer for more than 15 years, starting with the Learjet and Challenger Series through to the Global 6000 jet. “I’m interested in flying overall because of the precision. There’s such a commonality with Formula 1,” he says. “Every single detail matters to me. I think we had God-knows-how-many iterations of Pantone until we found the right color to use on my plane. Someone else will collect art or buy vintage cars. For me, the combination of technology and travel with the aesthetics and aerodynamics is just fascinating.”
As always, technology is top of mind for Mercedes. The team plans to keep fine-tuning the W14 car, which was already an improvement to 2022’s W13. Part of Wolff’s genius is how he monitors each vehicle’s mechanical prowess. “It’s about the airflow, it’s about weight distribution, it’s about the aero map,” Wolff told PlanetF1.com. “It’s full of surprises.” With this type of attention to detail, Wolff is primed to face any fork in the road as an opportunity to guide his success.
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