Mercedes: Meet the men driving the revolution at F1 team

By Andrew BensonChief F1 writer
Lewis Hamilton and Toto Wolff

Mercedes are a Formula 1 team in transition. That much you understand the instant you walk into the office of Toto Wolff, the German car company's new motorsport director.

Wolff, a 41-year-old Austrian businessman and entrepreneur, has been charged since January with ensuring Mercedes succeed in F1 after three years of painful failure, and the still-bare walls and almost-empty desk make it clear he is moving on.

He refers to his office on second floor of the team's base in Brackley, Northamptonshire, as "the ivory tower". "Nobody needs these kinds of directors' offices any more," says Wolff, who will move downstairs to be close to team principal Ross Brawn.

The reorganisation of the factory is part of a wider shake-up at Mercedes. But how far will change go? And is even the position of team principal Brawn - architect of all Michael Schumacher's seven world titles, as well as Jenson Button's in 2009 - under threat?

This question has been hanging over the team for some time. I meet Wolff for an exclusive interview to try to establish the answer. Amusingly - and by total coincidence, all involved insist - Brawn himself walks into the office and joins in the interview for a while part-way through.


Wolff started work in January in a dual role running all of Mercedes' motorsport programmes and as an executive director of the F1 team. His appointment was part of a series of swingeing changes by parent company Daimler, based on its dissatisfaction with the team's poor performance in F1.

In December, Mercedes' long-time motorsport boss Norbert Haug left.

Wolff's appointment as his replacement was announced at pretty much the same time as BBC Sport exclusively revealed Mercedes had signed McLaren technical director Paddy Lowe, with the intention of him taking over from Brawn.

Then, in March, the impression of ongoing seismic changes was intensified when Brawn's long-time partner Nick Fry left his position as chief executive officer.

Wolff will not talk directly about Lowe - although he is careful not to deny he is joining Mercedes at the end of the year - but it is clear from our interview that plans are in flux.

Before we get to that, though, it is instructive to look at why Wolff was appointed in the first place.


Last season was disastrous for Mercedes in F1. After a promising start - including a dominant win by Nico Rosberg in China - the team slipped from the pace alarmingly.

Brawn had told the Daimler board in Stuttgart that the team needed restructuring, including appointing new senior engineers and modernising the wind tunnel. But this process affected the car's development.

Brawn says: "The reality was that although the board agreed with the plan when it was made, maybe I wasn't good enough at explaining the pain there was going to be in the second half of the year while we implemented it. So they got anxious about the situation - I think understandably."

The board's first action was to bring in triple world champion Niki Lauda as non-executive director. Lauda's new role was announced in October at the same time as the recruitment of Lewis Hamilton and departure of Michael Schumacher.

"Niki was called in when Daimler didn't understand why the team was finishing 10th and 12th," Wolff says.

"They got the messages 'we are shutting down our wind tunnel, we are recalibrating it, we are changing the personnel, we have made the right steps'. But these things need time.

"So what they saw was every weekend it was getting worse and worse and they didn't know what to do any more. So they got Niki in."

Lauda is a direct character and he made waves almost immediately - and continues to do so.

Last autumn, he was instrumental in persuading Hamilton to join. And as recently as the last race in Bahrain, it became clear he had approached the highly rated Lotus technical director James Allison. Wolff puts this into context.

"Niki, being in charge of helping them out, was trying to figure out who were the good guys in the paddock and who were the bad guys," Wolff says. "And he started to speak to the good guys and ask them what their current employment situation was, and one was James Allison."

The approach to Allison, Wolff says, was "historical", adding: "I think it was December and this is when I came in and we stopped all that."

He does, though, admit a frustration with the F1 grapevine, saying: "Everybody calls everybody and it's like Chinese whispers. Dumber and dumber and dumber. And at the end it's not true anymore."

Inevitably, Lauda's influence and outspokenness have led to questions about who is in charge at Mercedes F1. Wolff says the confusion is unnecessary.

"The truth is Niki is a non-operational, non-executive chairman," he explains. "He is our Jackie Stewart (Lotus adviser) or our Helmut Marko (Red Bull).

"He is the one who is helping us with our contacts to the board. He is a cruise missile - put it on the record - about decision makers with sponsors.

"He is a legend. He is somebody who when you sit him on a table with decision makers he helps us in raising sponsorship and getting the right contacts. But he is not involved in running this business."


Lauda, as Brawn describes it, "is very effective if you need to get something done quickly but he's not a guy who is going to spend days and weeks (at the factory) understanding how people work, what they need, how it can be more efficient".

That is Wolff's role. The Daimler board, Wolff says, "came to the conclusion that for whatever reason they had no real visibility of what was going on at Brackley".

He adds: "They got lots of reports, but fundamentally for them they bought a world-championship winning team (Brawn) in 2009 and what they got was (effectively) a fifth-placed team with a dreadful second half of the season. So they figured out: What can we do?

"They decided they wanted a managing partner, someone who was taking a risk, coming in, running the company for them, with the same kind of risk and reward ratio. Someone who was used to the German mentality and with whom they had an experience."

Wolff fitted the bill - he had been associated with Mercedes for several years through his involvement with the HWA company that is involved in the company's DTM German touring car programme. The fact Wolff had experience in F1 - effectively running Williams through most of 2012 - was an added bonus.

They called him in ostensibly about taking over the Mercedes DTM programme but offered him the F1 role during the interview. He accepted - and is now a 30% shareholder in the team, with Lauda owning 10% and Daimler the remaining 60%.

Haug's role was based in Stuttgart - at Daimler's request. But Wolff says: "They understood you needed someone between Stuttgart and Brackley, understanding the needs of Brackley and the team here, being based here and trying to get the best possible support out of Stuttgart but at the same time letting the guys go on with their job here and support them whatever it needs".


When Mercedes bought the Brawn team in 2009, F1 had just agreed the resource restriction agreement (RRA) aimed at lowering costs.

The down-sizing of Brawn through their championship-winning year was a necessity because of their reduced budget following the withdrawal of former owners Honda. But Brawn and Fry aimed their changes at a level at which they expected all F1 teams to operate following the introduction of the RRA.

But as the political arguments that have dominated the last three years have proved, that is not what has happened. The RRA has reduced costs - but to nowhere near the level expected.

Wolff says: "When I was first presented with the situation, I asked Daimler: 'Are you committed to F1?' They said: 'Yes, we are committed. That's why we bought the team and signed the commercial agreement (committing themselves to F1 until 2020). Our goal is to become world champion like in 2009.'

"But the universe looked very different back then, in the period when the RRA was seen as the future and the team was structured accordingly.

"So the assumptions had to be recalibrated over the past three years and this was our lucky situation - that I could go back to the board and confirm this is what Ross needs to be successful."


Under a revised leadership, which is still clearly in flux, Mercedes have started 2013 promisingly, taking pole positions in the last two races and with Hamilton sitting third in the championship after the first four grands prix.

But the shadow of Lowe looms large. Wolff has been at pains since his appointment to emphasise that Brawn remains team principal and retains his support. But for how long will Brawn keep that role?

Wolff makes it clear he has no personal designs on the 'team principal' title.

"I am a shareholder and that gives me the position I need to get things done," he says. "Then I have the Mercedes hat which gives me the possibility to come in from that angle and look after what Mercedes needs.

"I am perfectly happy to have that role. I don't need any title - you can call me number one cleaning lady if you want - but I do have knowledge of how to structure companies.

"I would be completely crazy to try to take something away from Ross: he has won 15 titles and who am I compared to that achievement? So I said to him: 'You look after the car; let me do the rest.' And that is the split - he is the engineer, I am the business guy."

Which is all very well, but if Brawn stays beyond this season, where does Lowe fit in?

Wolff says Lowe is "very visible" because of his high-profile position, but will say little else on the man who will be at Mercedes in a very senior position at the start of next year.

He makes it clear there will be more changes when he admits he is "just trying to help, retaining the good people and maybe not retaining the not-so-good people, at the same time trying to find out who could strengthen the organisation, and who could maybe change his approach, or maybe change his function a little. It is a very fine, delicate thing you have to do".

Before joining Mercedes, Wolff had already earmarked Lowe as the man to take over the sporting and technical running of Williams. And it is clear Mercedes felt the opportunity of taking on someone so capable and well regarded was too good to miss.

Reading between the lines, a few things become clear.

While the initial intention was for Lowe to take over from Brawn, the situation, emphasis and timeframe have now shifted slightly.

Brawn's technical restructuring appears to be working. And, unless they are both Oscar-worthy actors, Brawn and Wolff are working well together and with mutual respect.

Brawn is 59 this year and is clearly coming to the end of his career, but wants Mercedes to continue to be successful after he moves on from his current position. A succession plan is part of that process.

He is involved in discussions over how to integrate Lowe and there is no desire to threaten or undermine his position.

There are a number of potential scenarios, with different options concerning the specific role Lowe takes on and how and over what time frame he fades in, all decided with the agreement and involvement of Wolff, Brawn and Lowe.

The huge change to the F1 technical regulations in 2014, with the introduction of 1.6-litre turbo-charged engines and extensive energy recovery, means that the rate of technical development will be huge over the next two or three years. And that means the traditional system of one man taking on all the executive functions of an F1 team is seen by Mercedes as an outmoded arrangement.

As Wolff says: "Ross is ambitious and motivated to win the world championship with Mercedes and I think we are seeing the fruits of this.

"My job is essentially a support function, to give him and his team what they need. As far as the future is concerned, his destiny is in his own hands."

By the end of this year, that destiny will become clear.

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