Toto Wolff signs a new deal at Mercedes – ‘I’m not going anywhere’

Toto Wolff of Germany and Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team during the F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2023 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Toto Wolff will remain at Mercedes' helm for at least the next three seasons - Getty Images/Qian Jun

Toto Wolff celebrated his 52nd birthday – or “49 plus three”, as he prefers to call it – last Friday, at home in Monaco, with his wife Susie and their six year old son Jack. In the evening, the Wolffs took George Russell and his girlfriend Carmen out for dinner, spending a bit of precious downtime with the couple as well as their friends and neighbours the Farfuses, another Monaco motorsport family. It was a rare moment of calm before Toto heads back to Brackley to oversee final preparations for the new season, which begins in Bahrain in early March.

After successive seasons spent choking on Red Bull’s exhaust fumes, it is fair to say Wolff is a man under pressure. Even eight constructors’ titles in as many seasons from 2014 to 2021, not to mention seven drivers’ championships, cannot shield you from criticism. And towards the end of last year, after the Mercedes team principal lost his cool with reporters in a press conference in Las Vegas, then got caught up in a furious row with governing body the FIA over swiftly-dropped allegations that his wife, who works for Formula One, might have passed confidential material to him, there were some who felt that pressure might be telling.

Did Wolff need the hassle any more? Was he still 100 per cent committed?

There have long been whispers that Wolff, who owns a third of Mercedes F1, might step down as team principal. Hell, the Austrian has admitted to having had those thoughts himself, notably during Covid when he experienced something of an existential crisis. Others maintain Wolff still hankers after the job of Formula One chief executive, a role Wolff briefly discussed with Liberty Media boss Greg Maffei before Stefano Domenicali took over.

Wolff, though, has news for his doubters: He is not going anywhere.

In fact, he says, right at the start of a wide-ranging interview from his home in Monaco, he has just signed a new three-year deal to stay on as team principal and chief executive of Mercedes F1, taking him through to the end of the 2026 season, the first season of the next set of regulations.

Wolff’s reasoning is simple. He still feels he is the best man to lead the team. Just as importantly, he says, so do Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Ola Kallenius, representing fellow co-owners Ineos and Mercedes-Benz.

INEOS Founder and Chairman Sir Jim Ratcliffe (L) and Toto Wolff, Team Principal & CEO of The Mercedes AMG-PETRONAS F1 Team (R) react during a press conference regarding INEOS and Mercedes future partnership at The Royal Automobile Club on February 10, 2020 in London
Wolff and fellow Mercedes F1 shareholders Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Ola Kallenius felt it right the status quo at the top of the team was maintained - Getty Images/Bryn Lennon

“I think the most important thing between the three of us is that we trust each other,” Wolff says of how talks over his role progressed. “At the end of the day, as a shareholder myself, I want the best return on investment. And the best return on investment is winning. I’m not going to try to hang on to a position that I think somebody is going to do better than me. I make sure that I have people around who can tell me otherwise. In the end the three of us decided: ‘Let’s do it again’.”

‘The risk is more bore-out than burnout’

Wolff sits back. It was a bruising end to last year, no question. The Austrian picks his words carefully when discussing the controversy over the FIA’s aborted probe into a possible conflict of interest in the Wolff household. It is clear he is still livid about it. But he insists he is “in a good place” heading into 2024 and fully focused on getting back to winning ways. There are no performance clauses (“I’ve never had a performance clause. You either trust each other or you don’t. And we are aligned as shareholders.”), and no plans to exit Mercedes, either now or in the future.

“I’m part of this team in various functions,” he says. “I’m a co-shareholder. I’m on the board. These are things which will not change whatever executive, or non-executive, role I have. But I feel good. The risk for me is always more bore-out than burnout. And that’s why I embrace the challenges we have today, even though they sometimes feel very, very difficult to manage.”

Wolff has described the challenge of overhauling Red Bull this year as akin to climbing Mount Everest and even that feels like an understatement. But having got it completely wrong in 2022, doubled down with disastrous consequences in 2023, only to admit midseason that a radical redesign was required, Wolff is at least hopeful that 2024 will see Mercedes become more competitive. When we speak he has just got off the phone to Ant Davidson, the Sky Sports pundit who still acts as one of the team’s simulator drivers. “He was driving Melbourne [in the sim],” Wolff reports. “And he said: ‘The car feels like a car for the first time in two years…’ Wolff pauses, aware that talk is cheap. “Obviously I would love this to correlate to the track but we’ve seen in the last two years that this was not always the case,” he adds hastily.

Toto Wolff, the Mercedes GP Executive Director, hugs Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain during a press conference at the annual Mercedes Benz Stars & Cars event in front of the Mercedes Benz Museum on November 29, 2014 in Stuttgart, Germany
Wolff oversaw one of Formula One's mos tdominant eras alongside Lewis Hamilton - Getty Images/Alex Grimm

Still, the hope for Mercedes fans is this could be a better season. Wolff says he is happy with the engineering rejig last year, which saw the “mega” James Allison return as technical director in place of Mike Elliott. He is happy with how Mercedes’ strategy team have adapted post-James Vowles. And he makes a point of saying that he expects his team to be a lot sharper this year in pitstops, having put more resource into areas such as wheel-locking mechanisms and axle materials. “I think the regulations, how they were laid out a few years ago, we interpreted them in a very conservative way,” he explains. “And we’ve seen other teams doing it differently. So watch this space. I think it’s going to be very different.”

Most of all, Wolff says, he is happy with his driver line-up. George Russell had a trickier second season at Brackley, but Wolff insists the 25-year-old has “absolutely met the team’s expectations”. “George is our future,” he insists. “And you know, when I look at all the young men, of the current Formula One drivers, he’s the one I would want to have in a car.”

As for Lewis Hamilton, ask Wolff whether, at 39, he can still win that elusive eighth world title and he does not pause for breath. “The answer is clearly yes in capital letters,” he replies. “There is a reason Lewis is a seven-time world champion, and has broken all the records… his ability is on a different level. If we are able to give him a car that he actually feels, that drives in a way that he can trust, he will be on the level that’s needed to win the championship. 39 is no age.”

The next big change in regulations is not until 2026. And it may be that Hamilton, like Wolff, has to sign another contract, taking him beyond his current two-year deal, if he wants that eighth title. But Wolff is not ruling out doing it sooner than that.

“Always believe it’s possible,” he says of whether Mercedes could actually scale Everest this year. “You cannot start the season with an attitude of ‘This is not going to be possible.’ We saw last year with McLaren, what a huge step they made with a single upgrade. We’ve signed a two year deal with Lewis, and we owe it to him, to George and to all the team to give it our full attention in 2024 and 2025. I think it’s possible.”

Wolff: FIA needs more stability – it is concerning seeing so many people leave

Toto Wolff has raised concerns over the leadership of motorsport’s world governing body, saying the FIA needs more “stability” and to act with greater “transparency”. Wolff also questioned why so many senior FIA employees were suddenly leaving the organisation.

The FIA triggered a huge controversy when it announced last month that it had opened an investigation based on “media speculation” regarding “an allegation of information of a confidential nature being passed to an F1 team principal from a member of FOM personnel”. It did not specify to whom it was referring but certain outlets were seemingly briefed before the FIA’s statement dropped that it referred to Toto and Susie Wolff. The FIA also briefed outlets that more than one team had raised concerns. The probe was dropped after all nine of Mercedes’ rivals issued identically-worded statements denying that they had made any formal complaint.

Mercedes GP Executive Director Toto Wolff and his wife Susie Wolff walk in the Paddock ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of France at Circuit Paul Ricard on July 24, 2022 in Le Castellet, France
Susie and Toto Wolff were left furious by the FIA' allegations of conflict of interest - Getty Images/Bryn Lennon

Mercedes have threatened legal action – which is understood still to be a possibility – but Wolff said the damage was done now. “I think because we have a billion people or more that watch our sport, we are role models,” he stressed. “And we need to be wary of the impact of what we do and what we say. What has been said and the way it was done was very, very damaging.”

Wolff would not comment specifically on any possible action, legal or otherwise. Nor would he criticise FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem directly. But he did question the state of the FIA more generally, saying it was “concerning” to see the departures in recent weeks of sporting director Steve Nielsen, single-seater technical director Tim Goss and the head of the FIA’s commission for women, Deborah Mayer.

“It’s concerning to see so many good people leaving,” Wolff said. “Losing Steve Nielsen is a big blow. I couldn’t think of a more knowledgeable and fair sporting director.

“As a leader, it’s about the culture and environment you create for people to thrive. When people as competent as these leave an organisation there is a vacuum. That’s clear. And you’ve got to ask yourself why is it suddenly that so many people have decided to call it a day?”

Ben Sulayem, who was elected in 2021, has been involved in a number of controversies during his two-year tenure.

Wolff added: “What [the FIA] needs is stability. The FIA is one of three key stakeholders of the sport [along with FOM and the teams]. And as the leadership of these organisations, we need to set the tone for everybody else. We need not only to say that we’re acting transparently, and ethically, but actually to live to that standard every single day.”

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