Formula 1: How Toto Wolff made Mercedes one of sport’s greatest teams

Mercedes

Toto Wolff is more or less on time for our interview, which is a bit of a novelty for the boss of the Mercedes Formula 1 team.

Such are the demands on the time of the 47-year-old Austrian, as head of Mercedes’ motorsport programme, that his lateness for appointments has become a bit of a running joke between Wolff and his closest advisers.

But it’s a joke that misrepresents the reality of the expertise with which Wolff runs his finely honed organisation, which is poised to become the most successful team in the history of F1.

After winning eight races in a row at the start of this season, Mercedes are firmly on course for a sixth consecutive double of drivers’ and constructors’ championships, which would break the record of five set by Ferrari in the era of Michael Schumacher.

Typically, successful F1 teams start to fracture sooner or later – through stasis, or ambition, or complacency, or a combination of those and many other factors.

Somehow, Wolff has prevented that happening at Mercedes. It’s little wonder Lewis Hamilton calls him “the best person I know for managing a business”.

Wolff ascribes the team’s success to “permanent scepticism” and says the “relentless pursuit of excellence” seen in Hamilton as he marches towards his own sixth title this season is “something that is very ingrained in the team”.

“Lewis has played a big part in that,” says Wolff. “He never stops pushing for performance. He is very self-critical. He is the only driver I have ever seen coming into a debrief and saying: ‘Don’t look at my data because my driving was not good enough.’ And that from a five-time world champion.

“This relentless pursuit of being a better you tomorrow than you have been today, and brutal honesty with yourself, transparency within the organisation to overcome mistakes and shortcomings, is something that is a very big part of Lewis’ character – and the mindset of the team.”

BBC Sport sat down with Wolff to discuss leadership and success, how Mercedes have avoided the pitfalls that usually befall successful F1 teams – and intend to carry on doing so for some years to come.

It is a story of open-mindedness and humility. It includes unexpected and unusual details – 20 engineers meditating together in a room, for example. And it reveals the reasons behind the remarkable achievements of a team who show no sign of slowing down.

Setting the right objectives

Since Mercedes started their winning run, with the advent of the turbo-hybrid engine formula in 2014, hints of weaknesses have been few and far between. And the desire to win is as strong five years on as it was when Mercedes were setting out to end Red Bull’s four-year domination at the start of this decade.

The secret, Wolff says, is framing targets that keep motivation high throughout the organisation.

The “right objectives keep you motivated and energised,” he says.

Although the target is the same every year – winning the world title – each season has offered a different angle which has allowed the team to “reinvent” themselves.

“Winning the first championship was a huge mountain we wanted to conquer,” Wolff says. “And then we wanted to prove we were able to do it a second time.”

After that was achieved, a major change of rules for 2017 – introducing wider, faster cars – created the ambition “to be the first team to win through a regulatory change”.

This year, that was the case again – but more important was the desire “to beat the all-time Ferrari record, which means six double championships in a row”.

Wolff sums it up: “You can see that the ultimate target of winning the championship always remained the same, but there was a little nuance to it that motivated us.

“You need to wake up in the morning with a sense of purpose and clear objectives, and that keeps you going.”

Twenty engineers sitting in a room chanting ‘om’

Mercedes

Wolff describes the F1 environment, where advanced technology is combined with the intense psychological strain of being measured in public 21 times a year, as “tremendously challenging”.

“Staying energised, physically and mentally fit, is not trivial,” he adds.

Mercedes provide support for their staff, employing physical and psychological coaches.

“We do mindfulness,” Wolff says. “We have actually rolled out meditation across the whole team over 1,000 people. You need to utilise those marginal gains in order to extract the most out of your group of people.”

Wolff is well aware that the idea of F1 engineers – people who spend their lives engaged in science and data – embracing meditation sounds incongruous.

“Yes,” he says with a smile. “There is a funny story. I have actually been quite into meditation for many years and I am an active practitioner. But when we started, we chose a group where we believed there would be some of the most hardcore, stubborn, hard-line engineers who would think this is some kind of tree-hugging exercise.

“We put them all in a room – there were about 20 of us – and you will be surprised to hear that after the full course, which was six or seven sessions, the ones we believed would drop out immediately because it was all just ‘nonsense’, they did the whole thing to the end and actually improved their mental wellbeing and their performance.”

This was 20 engineers sitting in a room, all chanting “om”?

“Yeah, we actually sat in a half-circle in the first session and started by closing our eyes and opening the palms of our hands,” Wolff says.

“I didn’t dare to open my mind because I felt it would be quite a funny situation and I wouldn’t be able to hold myself [back]. But we pushed through that initial phase of resistance and I must say that I have increased the quality of my life tremendously by doing it, and the feedback we received was very positive.”

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Fear of failure as a motivation

This open-minded approach to maximising the team’s potential extends to learning from other successful sports teams.

Mercedes work with a forensic psychiatrist, Ceri Evans, who has also been instrumental in the success of the New Zealand All Blacks. Evans’ “see it, say it, fix it” mantra, Wolff says, “encourages everybody in the organisation to speak up and point out our shortcomings and deficits, and he has been very instrumental in making us successful.”

This openness and lack of blame culture is key to keeping the team together, Wolff believes.

“I think the people enjoy going to work. They are well incentivised – but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is all about money. It is also about recognition and having a place where you enjoy being and the interactions and the relationships that you build in the team. And I think this has been one of the strong points within the team.

“We keep our values up very high. It is a place where there are no internal politics. Integrity and honesty are most important. It is an environment where people dare to speak up.

“We actually encourage people to say their opinion because it is important for your own development. So, overall a positive environment in a world where things are not always very funny.”

But success at Mercedes has not solely been about ensuring the team works as efficiently and effectively as possible.

After difficult races, Wolff often talks about learning from failure – a favourite phrase of his is “turning your worst days against your rivals”.

“The days we fail are the days we learn the most,” he explains. “You never leave a track with a great victory saying: ‘Why the hell did we win?’ But you leave the track saying: ‘Why the hell did we lose?’

“Indeed the diligence of the analysis to leave no stone unturned is much deeper and intense when you have lost.

“The pain of losing lasts many days, probably up until the next race. The enjoyment of winning disappears on the Monday morning after the grand prix. And this has kept us going.”

A table showing the number of Grand Prix wins attributed to top racers including Hamilton, Lauda and Schumacher

The tension between stability and change

To watch Mercedes over a grand prix weekend is to see a team of people who have worked together for well over 10 years. Key personnel such as chief engineer Andrew Shovlin, chief strategist James Vowles and sporting director Ron Meadows have been with the team since it was Honda in the mid-2000s, and through the Brawn year of 2009.

But this contrasts with the car-design operation. When Wolff took over running the team from former boss Ross Brawn at the start of 2014 – having joined as executive director a year earlier – he kept the technical team in place and installed former McLaren technical director Paddy Lowe to run it.

After three years of success, Lowe left and was replaced by James Allison, formerly of Ferrari and Lotus/Renault. Under Allison, there has been a period of organic change and a gradual shift as the men who led the design department under Brawn have moved into different roles, and a new leadership team has emerged.

Wolff says: “In areas of weakness, you mustn’t be afraid to change. But change is only the last resort.

“First, it is about trying to reposition, develop, help, support. And sometimes when the organisation develops in a different direction – because the regulatory environment changes, for example – you need to look at the individuals.

“But, overall, I believe the people in this team have high potential and when we were able to motivate them and energise them, we have seen the results.”

There has also been a change on the car front this year. Mercedes have struggled on low-speed circuits in recent times, but this season Allison, technology director Mike Elliott and head of aerodynamics Jarrod Murphy developed a new design philosophy – and slow corners are now the car’s biggest strength.

Wolff says: “What you need to achieve is to try to have an environment where you can develop your strengths and reduce your weaknesses.

“It was very visible that on tracks like Budapest and Singapore we under-performed – high-downforce tracks, for example. And we really tried to improve our game there.

“We completely turned the aerodynamic philosophy of this car upside down, because we knew it would fit the new regulations, or we were hoping it would. And it was absolutely the right call they made.”

The Hamilton factor

Toto Wolff congratulates Lewis Hamilton

The car is not the only key area of Mercedes in which the bar has been raised in recent times. That also applies to the team’s lead driver.

Hamilton has said that in the second half of last year he found a “sweet spot” – and that he has held on to it ever since. The result has been 12 wins in the past 17 races.

This has coincided with a marked change in the Briton – over the past two and a half years he has become a much more serene character than the occasionally anguished figure of his first three or four years at Mercedes, or his McLaren years.

Equally noticeable is a recurring theme in Hamilton’s life, and coverage of it – he receives criticism for what is perceived by some to be an irresponsible lack of commitment to his job, such as flying from Shanghai to New York to launch his new clothing collection before last year’s Singapore Grand Prix, only for him to turn up at the race and smash it out of the park.

Wolff is unapologetic about the freedom he gives his lead driver to live his life the way he wants to – in fact, he says it is key to his on-track performance.

“Most important is to acknowledge that we are all different individuals and we need different frameworks in order to perform well,” Wolff says.

“Lewis is somebody who needs to be able to pursue his other ambitions and interests. And rather than putting somebody in a box and saying, ‘This is how a racing driver needs to behave – you need to be on time, you need to avoid jet lag before the race, or don’t record music overnight when you are jet-lagged but try to sleep,’ I realised very early on that giving him the freedom of pursuing his interests, we were able to extract more performance on track.

“I have the feeling that he needs to get his mind off motor racing. If he’s able to do a fashion show that excites him, or record some music, or do some snowboarding with his friends, he forgets about the racing side, and he can come back stronger and more energised.”

And yet Wolff did not know this the first time he allowed it to happen, after which he needed the courage to continue to let it happen. Not everyone would have found that an easy idea to embrace.

“I realised in previous roles that you need to be able to accept that we all function in a different way,” Wolff says. “And sometimes the most creative people, the ones that are able to outperform others and perform on a different altitude, are the ones that live a different life. And you just need to be able to embrace that.

“When you take the analogy to a very popular sport in the UK – rugby – you need the solid members of the team that keep the team going. But you realise that probably the geniuses score the tries, and these are the ones that are sometimes not easy to integrate in a structure that needs process.

“But with Lewis, we love who he is and he is clearly an absolutely outstanding athlete, and we have been able to embed him in the organisation. And he has been able to inspire us and drag us with him.”

What about the future?

While Mercedes winning the championship this year looks close to a certainty, Wolff says he “struggles to talk about a possible scenario that we haven’t achieved yet”.

Beyond that, Mercedes will inevitably start favourites to raise that bar to seven consecutive titles in 2020.

The introduction of a new set of regulations is due for 2021, including a budget cap, which will, as Wolff puts it, “put the F1 world upside down”.

But that simply creates the latest in a series of motivational targets for Wolff and his remarkable team.

“This current championship is the one we need to concentrate on most,” he says. “It could be our sixth consecutive championship, something that has never been done before. So all eyes are set on this target this year.

“But equally we want to maintain our levels of performance in the years to come.

“In 2021, we want to be able to prove we are a team that wasn’t a flash in the pan but we have been able to sustain maybe a decade of success.”

And Wolff’s own future

Toto Wolff

As for Wolff himself, he runs a successful investment business alongside his role as head of Mercedes Motorsport, which expands next year with the car company’s formal entry into the all-electric Formula E series.

With his track record, it is perhaps inevitable that he has recently been linked with a role running F1 itself after his existing Mercedes contract expires at the end of next year.

But listen to him talk, and that sounds far from his mind.

“Restlessness is an important personality trait that you just want to be better tomorrow,” he says. “And fundamentally I really enjoy what I’m doing. But I have been thinking over the winter what is it that I enjoy most, and it’s actually the relationships with the people.

“We had a coach that asked me the question, ‘Which are the places you enjoy being the most?’ And I realised it was in the garage with the mechanics and seeing them work on the cars, or being in the engineering treehouse at the track and listening to the intelligence of these unbelievable people who are able to put a fast car on track.

“You can sum it up as a relentless curiosity that drives me.

“Mercedes is entering into Formula E at the end of the year and that is an exciting new chapter. And then with all these rumours out there I have been trying to think about what actually drives me.

“It is the pursuit of lap time. I enjoy the benchmarking, the competition of racing. The bad days and the good days. And lap time is somehow so brutally honest. The stopwatch never lies.”

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