Before our Lunch has even begun, Toto Wolff has bent the FT’s rules. It is hard enough to pin down the globetrotting leader of Mercedes’ Formula 1 team to a specific continent, let alone a city, so when his handlers suggest a late dinner in Wolff’s native Vienna rather than a rushed midday meeting, I relent.
Presumably, Wolff has not clinched 15 of the past 16 F1 world championships (for drivers and constructors) by being overly accommodating. Yet courtesy of the hit Netflix documentary series Drive to Survive, the man who can credibly claim to be the most successful sports manager of all time has achieved celebrity status less for his executive nous than for his impish on-screen charm.
The series, which dramatises the travelling circus that is F1 with a mixture of race footage and amped-up rivalries, has turned the 50-year-old Wolff and his fellow team principals into unlikely TV stars. More significantly, it has — alongside media-savvy reforms brought in by F1 owner Liberty Media — brought tens of millions of new supporters to the formerly shrinking sport. The value of Mercedes’ F1 team, of which Wolff, an unsuccessful racing driver turned canny investor, owns a third, has more than doubled since Liberty took over.
“It is athletes in high-performance machines . . . it is about life and death, and on top of that we added Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” is Wolff’s summary of how the product broadened the appeal of a carbon-intensive sport beyond ageing male petrolheads. The majority of Drive to Survive viewers are aged between 16 and 34, and the show has helped attract record crowds to race weekends. High-profile attendees at recent grands prix have included Tom Cruise, Tom Brady and Michelle Obama — proof that F1 has finally made inroads into the coveted US market after failing for decades to engage American audiences.
We start with Wolff’s choice of venue. Do & Co, a rooftop restaurant teeming with members of the international white trouser brigade, is “not fancy”, he protests. For him it is an old haunt, owned by a friend of Niki Lauda, the legendary racer who was Wolff’s longstanding business partner and mentor. Lauda’s funeral in 2019 took place a few feet away in St Stephen’s Cathedral, whose Gothic gables bear down on us through panoramic windows.
The duo, who were brought in by Mercedes in 2013, had the Midas touch, creating a team that won the constructors’ championship for eight years in a row, and the drivers’ championship for seven. A controversial decision in the dying minutes of last year’s Abu Dhabi finale ended this spectacular run by awarding Red Bull’s Max Verstappen the drivers’ title. Wolff’s desperate response (“No, no Michael [Masi], that was so not right,” he hollered at the race director) quickly became a social media meme.
Mercedes’ opportunity for revenge in this year’s contest was over before the season really got going, as drivers Lewis Hamilton and George Russell struggled with a new car that — partly as a result of rule changes — offered neither the pace nor control to compete with leaders Ferrari and Red Bull. “We got the physics wrong. F1 is physics,” Wolff admits.
Mercedes’ results have begun to improve. But for the first time in a decade, Wolff finds himself at the helm of a team that might not win a race all season, never mind any silverware.
“I often get the question: ‘How hard is that?’” Wolff says. “I had so many periods, so many episodes in my life that I would judge as difficult, that this is not on the same scale.”
I suspect he is referring to his childhood, and the loss of his father to brain cancer, but a waitress approaches to take our order before I can dig deeper. I quickly choose from the slightly baffling Euro-Asian menu — a baby spinach and aubergine salad followed by a Wiener schnitzel. My companion, declaring he is “going hot”, opts for the tom yam gung fish soup and a pay ca paw beef curry. He puts me in charge of the wine order, and I pick a Pinot Noir from the Burgenland, near the Hungarian border, out of curiosity.
Wolff defines his next goal as “sustainable success” and, perhaps sensing my scepticism, pulls up an image on his phone showing the teams that have won in the last five decades of F1. The bottom, most recent row is full of Mercedes silver arrows. But Wolff is focused on the first few. “There’s a lot of yellow,” he says, referring to Ferrari’s logo, “in almost every decade.”
Emulating this feat is the new target, Wolff adds. “If you stop dreaming, you’ll run out of purpose, in my opinion. That is not some kind of Instagram bullshit,” he says. “That is something that I learnt from Niki, that yesterday is irrelevant.”
Do & Co
Stephansplatz 12, 1010 Wien, Austria
Tom yam gung soup €14
Pay ca paw €34
Baby spinach and aubergine salad €19
Wiener schnitzel €29
Glass of Pinot Noir x2 €17
Mineral water €8.50
Total (inc service) €140
After Wolff’s short career as a racing driver collapsed, he went into banking before launching an investment company during the 1990s tech boom. Years later, he returned to the sport by mentoring a few younger drivers, then becoming an executive director at Williams, in which he had built a stake. The ailing team notched up its first race win in eight years during Wolff’s tenure, and Mercedes soon came knocking on the Austrian’s door.
Despite the successes that have followed, however, Wolff concedes he has “a shelf life as a team principal”, and gives himself a “couple of years” to turn things round at Mercedes or recede into the background as chair.
Already, Wolff’s management style, which has been studied at Harvard Business School, is more hands-off than most. His task, as he sees it, is to motivate more than 2,000 Mercedes F1 staff and work out what makes them tick. “I can’t do aerodynamics,” he says, “but I know everything about the guy who can.”
This season’s shock has led some to question his approach, and consider how much of Wolff’s success may have been down to a big budget and talented drivers. But Wolff thinks it is only natural that some of his employees were unable to keep operating at peak performance.
“I studied why great teams were not able to repeat great title [runs],” he says, name-checking Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. “No sports team in any sport has ever won eight consecutive world championship titles, and there are many reasons for that, and what is at the core is the human. The human gets complacent. You are not energised in the same way you were before. You are maybe not as ambitious.”
While losing “is very painful”, Wolff is philosophical about Mercedes’ humbling. Had the team’s dominance continued, “we would kill Formula 1 because nobody would watch it any more”.
Soon after the wine arrives (“It is a good one or can we mix it with cola?” Wolff enquires of the restaurateur) we head off in an unexpected direction. Hearing me speak German, he asks where I learnt the language, and when I start to explain that my Jewish grandfather fled Vienna in the late 1930s, Wolff reveals that, while baptised, he is of Jewish heritage too.
Born to a Romanian father and Polish mother who fled communism, Wolff grew up in a household that hardly acknowledged religion. But after his father’s tragic death, the young Toto was raised with the help of a local Jewish family, and frequented Jewish youth movements. “Anti-Semitism was pretty present when I grew up,” he says. “I saw what my friends were being called in the streets — I’ve seen how a group can be isolated.”
The topic is a timely one. We are dining days after Brazilian Nelson Piquet, a three-time F1 champion, used a racist slur while discussing Hamilton, the only black driver on the grid. Some F1 celebrities came out in support of the British racer but it took the FIA, which governs the sport, about 20 hours to issue an anodyne statement in which it said it backed Hamilton’s “commitment to equality”, and failed to condemn Piquet by name. Days later, Verstappen, who is dating Piquet’s daughter, insisted Piquet was not racist. Then former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone took to the airwaves to defend Piquet, as well as telling the world he would “take a bullet” for Vladimir Putin.
While careful not to equate his experience with Hamilton’s, Wolff says the anti-Semitism he saw in his teens helped him empathise with the Mercedes driver, and led him to publicly urge the sport to do more than just create a “few Instagram posts” in response.
But he dismisses the recent outbursts as unrepresentative of the Drive to Survive generation. Of Piquet and Ecclestone, he says: “One is 80 or whatever it is and the other one is 105” (Piquet is 69, Ecclestone 91). The backlash to their comments means that “people are going to think twice” before using such terms. “I don’t see any racism in the current state of Formula 1,” Wolff says. “I could call some of my colleagues [many] names, but not racist.”
I wonder whether Hamilton, who in 2020 appeared to accuse others in F1 of “staying silent . . . in the midst of injustice” following the murder of George Floyd, would agree. “He can put the finger where it hurts,” Wolff says of his star driver, while Mercedes as a commercial entity must be more conservative in its communications.
The pair, whom Hamilton admitted had their “rough times” at the start of their relationship, have since developed an understanding. The seven-time world champion’s off-track capers (such as skydiving between races earlier this year) and provocative social justice campaigns are endorsed by the team principal, who has come to believe that allowing Hamilton to be Hamilton even enhances the driver’s race performance.
“Lewis has never caused any headache, neither for me or the team,” Wolff claims. “You need to push people out of their comfort zone, and this is what [Hamilton] is doing.”
The mood is lightened by the rapid arrival of our starters, leading Wolff to try another one of his jokes on the staff: “Have you sold the table twice?” The waitress laughs like she has heard that one before.
We turn to F1’s broader environmental and social shortcomings, which I posit are in danger of spoiling the Netflix-induced party. While scoring highly on geographical diversity, F1 is nearly homogeneous in ethnicity and gender. Wolff cites a McLaren junior with Nigerian heritage and Luna Fluxa, a 12-year-old Spaniard in Mercedes’ junior programme. “Not that I’m saying ‘woo hoo we have a girl’, but she is capable.”
But even if one or two women make it through, Wolff believes it is “not realistic” to expect a mixed-gender grid in the next decade. “I’m sure there are girls out there that can make it on merit,” he says, but there is still a stigma.
Wolff knows this better than most, I say, given who he married. Susie Wolff made history in 2014 by becoming the first female driver in a generation to take to an F1 track on a race weekend, when she drove a Williams in practice at Silverstone. Nonetheless, “the final chance was denied”, Wolff laments. “She was within a few tenths of [fellow Williams driver] Felipe Massa,” he says, but the team “never dared to make that call”.
As our mains arrive, I challenge Wolff on why Formula 1 won’t commit to going fully electric. The current hybrid engines are “the most thermally efficient engines in the world”, he says. From 2026, F1 cars will be powered by biofuels, which will increase investment in the technology needed to decarbonise vehicles in the developing world. That “is what Formula 1 can credibly contribute to sustainability”, Wolff claims of a sport whose sponsors include Saudi Aramco.
I protest that these arguments are rather feeble. Wolff says the sport could go electric by the end of the decade “if we solve the audiovisual experience problem”. F1 fans love the noise of a combustion engine but “there is a generational shift that may be helping us”.
Will all this talk of diversity and sustainability burn the sport’s bridges with legacy fans before that shift occurs? “I love that they hate it,” Wolff says of the old loyalists. “As long as we provide great entertainment, we are not going to lose them because we are running hybrid engines or less noisy cars, or drivers are kneeling on the grid.”
Wolff is similarly sanguine about the race calendar, which will include a Las Vegas night race from next year, much to the chagrin of traditionalists who fear the sport is drifting from its European roots. “Nothing is sacred, everything needs to evolve,” he says. Even the annual race in Wolff’s adopted home of Monaco, loved by the super-rich but criticised for producing a boring race on narrow roads? “The racing has to be better.”
Are the characters in Drive to Survive putting on an act for the cameras? Many of the people who made it to the top in F1 are “edgy personalities”, Wolff says. “I am not proud of smashing headphones,” he says, referring to his viral reaction to an incident in Saudi Arabia last season. “But that is how I am. That is still the aggressive kid who had a really tough upbringing that comes out. I literally had to fight for feeling adequate.”
I ask about Wolff’s recent revelation that he has been in therapy since he was 18. “You see my facade, you don’t see the dark episodes,” he says. Watching his father — “my only hero” — succumb to cancer and “change personalities” has left its scars. “I fall in a dark hole that I can’t get myself out [of] any more without professional help.”
One incident stands out. Wolff’s parents scraped together just enough money to send him and his sister to the prestigious Lycée Français de Vienne, but when his father’s art transport company went bust, his mother’s anaesthesiologist salary was not enough to cover the costs.
“I was taken out of school because the tuition fees weren’t paid. I remember sitting in class in the afternoon and [being called] to the headmaster’s office. I go down, Lili sits in the foyer, the headmaster said, ‘I’m sorry, you need to leave the school . . . Get your school bags.’
“Everybody stares at me . . . and then I had to walk to the tram station and . . . explain to my 10-year-old sister what just happened,” Wolff recalls.
I ask if he feels like an outsider among the paddock’s pampered rich kids, particularly as he was forced to abandon his own racing career due to a lack of funds. “Rich people have it easy in our sport, but it doesn’t make them champions,” he says. Everyone on the grid has “either a minority complex, inferiority complex or a strong desire to win”.
Perhaps a generation of young progressives see in F1 what the tortured teenager who went on to become its most dominant team principal saw in the late 1990s. When the lights go out at the start of the race, “whatever your background, whatever your upbringing, that is irrelevant at that stage”.
Joe Miller is the FT’s Frankfurt correspondent
Data visualisation by Alan Smith
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