Illustration by Michael Freeman
With five races left in the 2021 Formula One season and 12 points between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, the question on everyone’s mind is ‘who will win the Driver’s World Championship title?’. I sat down with Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO of Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One team and Bradley Lord, Motorsport Communications Director, to talk about everything from the tense championship battle and the importance of team culture to favourite racetracks and fashion.
Though Lewis is on the back foot with the Driver’s Championship, Mercedes currently lead the Constructor’s Championship by 23 points. Strategy is everything in Formula One and Mercedes have traditionally prioritised their success as a team over that of individual drivers. This year, however, Mercedes are in new territory. So, I asked Toto which he’d choose if push came to shove; the Driver’s or Constructor’s title. Though he said it was a complex issue, he admitted, “We had the discussion with top management and with the engineers and in a normal year you would say that the team championship counts more.” However…
Maybe in 20 years we’ll say we’ve been part of Lewis’ journey winning, hopefully, eight or more Driver’s Championship titles. That is pretty special.
Perhaps surprisingly, Toto conceded that this year he would value the Driver’s Championship title more. How to achieve that, though, remains an issue. With the end of the season fast approaching, Toto made it clear that absolutely all opportunities had to be capitalised on.
We just have to be successful on all of the circuits in order to win the championship… we just have to score in every single race.
Pressure is always present in Formula One, not only in the G-force experienced by drivers on the track but also in the tiny margins of constantly shifting strategies, the millisecond margins of pitstops and minute engineering details. The importance of team culture in this highly pressurised environment of elite sport cannot be underestimated. In fact, it can be the difference between winning and losing.
From the moment I walked into Toto’s office, it was evident that Mercedes has an impressive team culture and, as with any team or business, that originates at the top. You need only listen to Toto talk about strategic decision making during a race to know that he has complete trust in his team. He says of James Vowles, Mercedes’ Chief Strategist, “he’s flying the aircraft” and tells me that he has overruled strategic decisions during a race so few times in his eight years as Team Principal that you can count them on the fingers of one hand.
Trust is not something you can write on the wall and then everybody trusts. Trust is something that needs to be lived, that you need to demonstrate to each other.
The results of the Turkish Grand Prix highlighted just how important trust within a Formula One team is. Lewis Hamilton’s uncertainty about the strategy and initial refusal to pit contributed to a later pit stop that saw him drop from third to fifth, losing valuable points in the championship. Media headlines at the time criticised Lewis’ tone to his race engineer, Peter Bonnington, on the team radio.
The trust we have within the team means he (Lewis) can freely express himself on the radio even though it’s being broadcast… we just want the feedback.
Toto stressed the importance of open communication within the entire team, whatever the media may make of it. In fact, they have a motto; ‘see it, say it, fix it’, which is on the walls in various places throughout the factory in Brackley. This even goes so far that if someone doesn’t speak up, Toto said it was seen as damaging to the team.
You’re driving at 300 kmph in the rain, you’re not sure about the strategy, you’re fighting for the world championship. You can call me much worse words if you want.
Though Toto is extremely sincere about the importance of a safe working environment where mistakes are accepted and people are encouraged to speak up, it is implicitly clear that there are also high expectations. Success comes not in the absence of pressure, but when people are given the support to thrive under it. After all, you don’t win seven consecutive Constructor’s Championship titles by wrapping people in cotton wool.
Mercedes have not only been leading on track but off track too. In 2020 the FIA introduced the We Race As One campaign to encourage inclusivity and diversity within Formula One. It marked the beginning of a sport-wide acknowledgement of the need for change. Formula One has traditionally been a sport dominated by wealthy white men and though this has been shifting gradually for years, the Hamilton Commission and subsequent report highlighted how much there is still to improve. The Hamilton Commission was launched by Lewis Hamilton, in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Engineering, to understand why underrepresentation of BAME people persists in British motorsport.
We already started much earlier. We have the privilege of having Lewis as a driver… something [issues of racism and inequality in motorsport] that we felt first-hand with him and for him.
Though Toto admits “we are not where we want to be… minority ethnic background groups are still not represented enough”, Mercedes are making real changes.
We can be very proud of our track record… Putting our money where our mouth is.
These are changes that predate the Hamilton Commission. For example, in 2020 when Mercedes introduced their black livery, they also made a commitment to promoting greater diversity within their own team and motorsport more broadly. To manifest that change the Accelerate 25 programme was introduced whereby at least 25% of their new recruits each year, up to and including 2025, come from underrepresented groups. In only one year the success of this programme is visible;
We started last year at 3% people from minority ethnic backgrounds which has risen to around 6% in the past 12 months.
This year alone approximately 40% of those recruited are from underrepresented backgrounds in motorsport. These are, as Bradley says, but “the first baby steps on a long road to changing the face of the team and therefore also setting a positive example in the sport.”
However, Toto acknowledges that significant change will take some time, in part because an unconscious bias exists within Formula One, “one of the biggest mistakes that CEOs make is they hire people just like them.” Another reason is that a large part of increasing diversity within British motorsport involves creating role models.
We need to provide opportunities for children in schools to aspire for a role in Formula 1, we need to provide them with work experiences, internships. They need role models, to see that it is actually possible, be it for more female representation in top management in Formula 1 or for those of minority ethnic backgrounds. In that respect, you just need time because in order to create role models in a meritocratic environment, you need to bring up more.
That Mercedes are committed to understanding where their own blind spots are and where the issues are within the pathways to Formula One was exceptionally evident from my conversation with Toto and Bradley.
Understanding where the challenges are, where the barriers are, and then tackling them with targeted action takes firstly an understanding journey and the time to understand what the right actions are to address that imbalance.
For example, there is high representation of black engineering students at degree level, but a low conversion of this into the workplace and then an even lower conversion into leadership roles. Changing this requires both an understanding of the causes and of the correct actions to create change.
Part of our conversation centred on the fact that Formula One is purported to be a meritocratic environment but that this has sometimes been used as an excuse for the lack of diversity within the sport. Again, in a reflection of their real understanding of the situation, Toto and Bradley acknowledged that, whilst Mercedes is meritocratic, they had been offering opportunities to too narrow a cross-section of candidates.
We’d fished in 10% of the talent pool and there’s 90% that we’ve been neglecting. So, part of our approach has been to advertise jobs more widely, advertise them to people we wouldn’t normally have reached in the approach we’ve previously had… making sure that our talent search is going as far as it can because then you can truly be a meritocracy.
Whether Mercedes is truly a meritocracy may well be tested next year when George Russell joins the team, replacing Valterri Bottas. It is a long-anticipated move, not least because Russell proved how formidable he can be in a Mercedes at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix. I had to ask Toto just how long before it was announced that the decision had been made.
For me, one of the most important values is integrity and loyalty… I didn’t want to commit to George before I knew that Valtteri was going to Alfa and the contract was signed.
Though Russell is familiar with the team from his time as a Mercedes-Benz Junior and as their reserve driver in 2018 when competing in Formula 2, the move will be watched closely as fans are eager to see how the relationship between a young, hungry new driver and the seasoned Lewis Hamilton who may by then have eight consecutive Driver’s Championship titles to his name. Toto is well aware of the tension that could possibly result, but he is certainly a man with a plan.
You shouldn’t start such a project without a plan. The way we approach this is always expecting the worst. Then you know how to reverse engineer from that situation, and you are better prepared. There is only so much you can really plan. As Mike Tyson said, ‘everyone’s always got a plan until they get punched in the face’.
For all the intensity of the job, it is clear that Toto is still up for a laugh. When asked for his thoughts on Lewis’ fashion sense he admitted he thought that the blue kilt sported by Hamilton at the Turkish Grand Prix was very cool, “the blue kilt, I loved it. I’d like to wear that.”, but suspected Lewis wouldn’t fancy an outfit swap given his wardrobe of classic middle-aged man-in-management outfits.
There are few people I have met that I would consider true leaders, but Toto Wolff is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of them. Mercedes’ great success over the past seven years is often credited to their engineering prowess but I’d argue it’s no coincidence that their winning streak began only a year after Toto Wolff became Team Principal in 2013. Though the 2022 season brings with it new regulations and a new driver, Mercedes is absolutely in a safe pair of hands. Success here is cultural, not just engineered.