Mercedes boss Toto Wolff ‘often’ considered leaving F1 during 2020
Ahead of this weekend’s Styrian Grand Prix in Austria, ESPN joined a Zoom call with Mercedes CEO and team principal Toto Wolff to discuss his early days in racing as a driving instructor at the old Osterreichring (now the Red Bull Ring) and why he still loves the sport 30 years later.
Toto Wolff knows the road from Vienna to Spielberg like the back of his hand. Nearly three decades ago, his life was split between the two ends of the 200km highway, studying business administration at Vienna University and working as an instructor at the Osterreichring race track.
Looking back now, it’s easy to see how the combination of his studies (which he opted to quit before graduation) and his desire to race cars (which was put on hold in 1994 when his main sponsor pulled out) combined to lead him to his current position as a co-owner and CEO of the most successful F1 team of the past decade. Yet back in the early 1990s, his only goal was to follow in the footsteps of Jochen Rindt and Niki Lauda and become the next great Austrian Formula One driver
He first witnessed motor racing in 1989 during a flying visit to the Nurburgring and caught what is known in motor racing circles as “the bug”. In the following months, it didn’t take him long to suffer from the bug’s most common symptom: a sudden urge to spend all his available money on motor racing.
But times were tough for Wolff in the early 1990s. This was long before he’d made his millions investing in internet and technology start-ups, and as a student from a modest background he described his life at the time as a “hand-to-mouth” existence.
After doing some research, he decided to sell his road car and put the money towards a lease deal for a brand new SEAT Ibiza race car. In many ways it was a logical choice as the Ibiza was road legal, allowing him to drive to race meetings without a tow car and trailer, while complying with the entry regulations for the SEAT Ibiza Cup.
In his first qualifying session he finished 18th in a 30 car field, but blamed the middling performance on his Ibiza’s new engine needing a 1000km run-in period before it performed at its best. To remedy the issue, he drove the car all night to build up the engine’s mileage, but when it came to his next qualifying session he was still 18th, resulting in a new conclusion that the lack of performance might, in fact, be down to the driver.
A young Toto Wolff (right) with his SEAT Ibiza race car. Toto Wolff
The next step was to save up one year’s worth of Christmas and birthday presents and use it to book a three-day course at the Walter Lechner Racing School at the Osterreichring. Driving old Formula Ford cars, he unlocked more performance from himself and made a contact with the school’s owner, Walter Lechner, who would be crucial in the next stage of his racing career.
It was clear from his early performances that he had some talent and he made the step up to Formula Ford, the first rung on the single-seater ladder, in 1992. Money was still hard to come by, but he managed to cut a deal with Lechner to work as an instructor at the racing school in exchange for a discount on a drive in German Formula Ford.
“Because I was a student beside my racing, I had a lot of free time and I worked as an instructor for Walter in the same racing school I attended some years before,” Wolff told ESPN.
“I was based in Vienna [at university], but working at the track was a good opportunity also to meet potential sponsors because some people went through the racing school and it was always interesting to meet them and talk cars.
“There were times where I was based at the Osterreichring in a farmhouse with a lovely family for weeks at a time. The family still lives there, actually.
“I remember it was wonderful because I got a glass of milk in the morning with some brown bread with butter and off I went to the circuit.
“I have only positive memories of that time. The fun part was every day before lunch time and every evening when the running was finished because I was allowed to shake down all the cars from the driving school.
“So getting in the car, doing two laps flat out and getting in the next car, the next car and the next car.
“There was always five or six school cars and that gave me a decent amount of laps, no matter what the conditions were — hot sun, rain, snow!”
Lechner, who died at the end of 2020, is fondly remembered by Wolff but was also a tough team boss.
“He was the most brutal teacher I could have,” Wolff recalled. “He was never shy of giving his opinion.
“I remember I qualified on pole for a German Formula Ford race in Zolder [in Belgium], which had a really strong field — mostly with English.
“I qualified on pole but the Formula Ford Zetec engines had a limp-home mode when they overheated.
“The limp-home had like 20 or 30 horsepower less and I didn’t realise I had overheated the engine at the start and was defending in lap one like there was no tomorrow, not realising that I was down on power, and I ended up in the gravel pit.
“My main rivals for the championship won the race, but were disqualified for technical infringements — they were all in the same team — so I could have just cruised home with my deficit, finished third or fourth and left Zolder with a decent points advantage, but I didn’t.
“So on the way home, Walter told me I needed to drive the van, but I wasn’t allowed to drive quicker than 130km/h.
“I can tell you from Zolder to Salzburg is quite a way, and for this seven or eight hours he gave me a bollocking the whole way until Salzburg!
“He said I was too stupid to make it as a racing driver and that he couldn’t help me against stupidity — there was nothing that could help.
“It was really brutal!”
Yet the overwhelming memories from that time are positive for Wolff, and the two hour drive from the flatlands of Vienna to the peaks of the Styrian Alps surrounding the modern-day Red Bull Ring is still an evocative one for the Mercedes team boss.
“It’s still the same road now that existed back then, apart from a tunnel where in the past we drove over a mountain, and it’s just so familiar,” Wolff said.
“So many times during my time there I drove that road and I know every corner.
“I had a SEAT Ibiza race car and I knew exactly which corners I could take flat with the SEAT.
“I know every millimetre of that road.”
Toto Wolff has been in charge at Mercedes throughout its seven-year period of success. Clive Mason/Getty Images
It was returning along that road to Vienna last year that Wolff, in his role as the team principal of the Mercedes Formula One team, wrote an email to his staff following two victories for the team at the season-opening Austrian and Styrian Grands Prix.
The email read as follows:
Twenty six years ago while working as an instructor at the old Osterreichring (today’s Red Bull Ring) I commuted 200km between Vienna and Spielberg at least one hundred times.
I was a 20-something young boy living his dream and hoping to become a racing driver. I enjoyed every single journey, although sometimes barely had the money to pay for fuel.
Today I drove the same highway from Spielberg to Vienna with the same joy but also huge satisfaction and pride. I am thankful to all of you who have contributed their part in making this team what it is today and giving me this special moment.
Last year’s Austrian Grand Prix represented the start of a record-breaking seventh consecutive constructors’ championship victory for Mercedes with Wolff at the helm, but it also proved to be a crossroads in Wolff’s relationship with the team and motor sport. His contract with Mercedes was coming to an end and he was faced with the decision of selling his shareholding or increasing his investment in the team by a further three percent to commit long-term.
Asked by ESPN if he considered walking away from the sport, Wolff said: “Often.
“Last year I was really beating myself up to come to a decision of whether I wanted to go back in finance and have a hedge fund or continue with my private investment company or stay in motor racing.
“At the end motor racing won.”
So what kept him from walking away?
“I think it’s the sheer fact that the stopwatch never lies,” Wolff answered. “You always have a benchmark.
“There are new challenges that are coming and that continue to develop the organisation and the team into the next generation.
“It’s about diversifying the business while not distracting from racing — as a company we are growing at a tremendous rate.
Toto Wolff considered leaving F1 in 2020 but ultimately stayed with the team and increased his shareholding. Mercedes
“So it is a fact that we are a sports franchise, only ten exist in a spectacular global sport, and with an enterprise that is Mercedes that’s going to generate $550-600 million in revenue. We are not a small company anymore.
“But still, it all comes down to the lap time, always down to the stopwatch.”
It seemed for a while that the next logical step in Wolff’s career after Mercedes was to become the CEO of F1 itself. It’s now known he held initial talks with F1’s owners Liberty Media via its CEO Greg Maffei, but ultimately opted against it, pointing out in an interview with F1 last year, “it wouldn’t have gone anywhere anyway because [Mercedes’ rivals] Ferrari wouldn’t have accepted that”.
Ultimately, F1 appointed former Ferrari team principal, Stefano Domenicali, as its new CEO at the start of 2021.
“The job appeals to everybody, but first of all, I think Stefano is the better CEO for such a company,” he said.
“He has been the CEO of Lamborghini, has run Scuderia Ferrari and obviously his role at Audi, and he is fantastic for that role.
“I enjoy being a co-shareholder and co-owner of the team that is a franchise and diversifying in many other interesting areas. So I have no regrets at all.
“I think Greg Maffei absolutely took the right decision to go for Stefano and he is better for that job than me.”
Wolff has signed up to staying in his current role as Mercedes’ team principal and CEO for another three years, but says his shareholding commits him to the team beyond that period.
“I may end up in a non-executive function one day, but not today,” he said. “It took me one year to think about it [committing to Mercedes long-term].
“I really tried to make a career out of racing and it wasn’t financially feasible and then I went into finance for 20 years. But in my current role, my status as co-owner of the team with Mercedes, I was able to join these interests.
“The interest in finance, the interest for motor racing, while managing it and not being in the car — I guess the combination works for me.
“I believe in specialists and I believe in keeping the focus ultra-narrow and that’s my ultra-narrow focus.”
For someone who has lived such a diverse life, it is hardly surprising that Wolff, at 49, has found and settled on his niche.
Just as was the case when he was setting off from Vienna in his SEAT Ibiza in the early 1990s, it seems like a race track will always be at the end of the road.