Q&A with Toto Wolff: His future, driver options, reverse grids and more!
Toto sat down to be quizzed by the world’s media
Has the Coronavirus had an impact on the future of Mercedes in F1, and what impact do you think the new F1 deal package will have on Mercedes?
"First of all the Coronavirus had has an impact across all industries. It has impacted Daimler, and it has impacted the Mercedes F1 Team. Previously, we had agreed to a cost cap of 175 million. Now, we have agreed to an even lower cap of 145 million - with a downwards slope. I believe it’s just due to the environment that there is a new financial reality for all of us. Therefore, let’s see what F1 looks like when racing resumes. But it’s definitely a difficult time for any industry."
Why did Mercedes oppose reverse grid Qualifying races and was Mercedes the lone voice?
"It seems to be a common pattern in F1 that we dig out old ideas that have been analysed thoroughly and rejected and then somebody thinks it’s great. So, it’s then back on the agenda. There are three fundamental reasons why we are against it. Firstly, I believe F1 is a meritocracy. The best man in best machine, wins. We don’t need a gimmick to turn the field around to create more exciting racing. Secondly: I know it from touring car racing that strategies become a very useful tool when one race result is deciding the grid for the next one. Just imagine one of the drivers is not running well in the Sunday race of the first Spielberg weekend and you decide to DNF the car. That will be the car that starts on pole for the Qualifying race. If that car starting on pole is within the midfield teams, they will certainly be on pole for Sunday and win the race. There will be midfield cars defending and blocking as much as they can, which therefore will mean more risk of DNFs for the quick cars coming from behind and could influence the Championship."
"And then thirdly, from a pure performance standpoint, whoever has the fastest car maybe - and it is not necessarily us - will be penalised towards the second and third quickest teams because they will simply start in front. As we know, the margins are often not very large, so therefore it’s a bit of an opportunistic move to give some teams an advantage. We don’t think this is the time to experiment with things that interestingly didn’t even have the support of F1’s fan community. Because in a survey, only 15% expressed an interest in reverse grid."
There has been a lot of talk about your future. Can you clarify what the situation is? And can you share what your relationship is like with Ola Källenius and how it differs to the one with Dr. Zetsche?
"I will start with the last one. Two very different personalities, but with both of whom, I have an excellent working relationship and friendship. Ola and I had quite a laugh together when these rumours came up that there was some dysfunctionality in our relationship. We speak on the phone many times every week and he’s very involved, a very good sparring partner for myself that I wouldn’t miss in the same way that Dieter was. On my future, I have bought a few shares in Aston Martin as a financial investment. I believe in the brand, I think the strategy that is being deployed makes sense, Tobias Moers the new MD is a guy that I have known for a long time and I believe that he can turn around this business. There is a very strong group of shareholders that are backing Aston Martin today that will not let it down and therefore I have decided to be part of that group. My executive functions are unchanged. I am at Mercedes. I am the Team Principal and I am a shareholder. It’s clear that when there are no other headlines out there, that the Aston Martin thing caused some waves. But I am planning with Mercedes. I have the best intention to stay here and that is unchanged."
Is there intention for your role to change, maybe stepping back as Team Principal for example for somebody like James Allison?
"Something I am really proud of in our team is that we have always transitioned senior members of the team into different roles, we have brought up talent and the same applies to me. I have been lucky enough to be at the helm of Mercedes since early 2014, with years that I wouldn’t want to miss. I really enjoy the interaction and working with all of my friends at the F1 team and Daimler. This is something I wouldn’t want to miss. Nevertheless, I need to question myself. I don’t want to become a Team Principal that goes from great to good without realising that he is maybe not adding as much anymore to the team as you did in the beginning. I still feel that I can add a lot, but of course I am contemplating about my future, I am in discussions with Ola about how that goes. It is not a simple employment contract, but it involves a shareholding and we are in the midst of the process in carving out our joint future. Therefore, I don’t want to stick to some form of a particular wording, whether it is Team Principal or Managing Directo. To be honest with you I haven’t taken any decision yet because we haven’t even started racing. All these agreements and discussions are happening as we speak."
Has the downtime allowed you to start contract talks with Lewis?
"We didn’t see each other over lockdown. But we were in very regular contact. We didn’t work on any agreement, though. Between us there is a lot of trust. We have been working together for a long time and in these years together, never have we had to take the contract out and actually read what was written in it because it comes so naturally and therefore once racing resumes and we spend some time together, we will dig the contract out, look at the timings and the numbers and the rights and then hopefully we will have something pretty soon."
Lewis has spoken out strongly about the incidents in America. How important is this strength of character? And how does it set him apart from his contemporaries?
"We know that Lewis is always a strong supporter of any minorities. To be honest I have learned a lot from him as well. He has asked me the question once: ’Have you ever had the active thought that you are white?’ And I said: ’No I have never thought about it.’ And he said: ’Well you know, I need to think about it every day. I’m being made aware that I am.’ And I think therefore it is very difficult for us to comprehend how difficult it is and therefore I am happy and supportive that he has come out and been so vocal. He is one of the ambassadors of this sport and I think it is good."
From Lewis’s comments, what can actively be done for real change when it comes to diversity?
"I was lucky enough that I was raised in a household with different nationalities. I lived with a Jewish family for a long time, when my family faced tough times and I saw what discrimination looked like as an early child already. And I think all of us have the power to make a change and sometimes it needs events like the ones in the US to trigger a massive wave of support for any minority. I think it is good that Lewis as a sports superstar is the one up front with it in a sport that is very much dominated by white males. We, as a team, encourage diversity and we choose our people purely on performance and not based on culture, religion or skin colour. Every single one of us can make a difference and must be part of a movement to stop these kinds of things from happening."
If the pool of drivers is to become more diverse, must it be cheaper in the junior categories, to let more drivers with less resources make it through?
"I think where it needs to start is in go karting. I think grass roots of motor racing, the early years of go karting need to become much more affordable than they are today. To pay 100,000 pounds for a twelve-year-old to race in a proper Championship is simply unimaginable for most families out there. I think we need to work on a scheme, that we have a large number of kids that can actually try go karting, that can try competing in proper kit and then eventually they will make their way into F1. Somebody like Lewis Hamilton that was given the opportunity in a go kart will always find his or her way into F1 because the talent is extraordinary."
Does a 15 to 18-race Championship require different preparation? Will it have less or more value than a longer one? What are your thoughts on the overseas races, after the eight European rounds that have been announced?
"First of all this new calendar and the Coronavirus throws some new challenges at us. I think reliability is going to be a fundamental part of the opening races. The cars have come out of the container straight from Australia. There is not a lot of time for them on the dynos. We will be using every session to learn. The reduced race calendar is a challenge for everybody and again, I think that the team that has the quickest car and the most reliable package will win the Championship. Regarding the overseas races: I think it is good that we have a solid European calendar and I would hope the two races in the Middle East at the end of the year are being confirmed soon and then we have to see how every single country develops. It is a moving target and I would very much hope that we have a good overseas calendar in the Autumn."
Why do you think the quitting rumours keep reappearing for Mercedes?
"There is always some kind of campaign and agenda going on. I think it’s clear that every automotive company faces difficult and insecure times. Every single day, you open up a magazine or a newspaper and it’s about Volkswagen or Renault or Fiat or Daimler. In that respect I completely understand that a sporting platform is being questioned. The top management at Mercedes very much sees F1 as a co-activity. We build road cars and we build race cars. And actually, the first ever car was a race car. In that respect we don’t simply see it as a marketing platform that generates valuable marketing dollars. But we see it as a core exercise. There is technology transfer between the road and F1 and it’s not being criticised within Daimler. Nevertheless, we discuss all our activities and all our investments every single year and I think we are just a target of somebody that wants to create some headlines and maybe have more clicks."
Will Mercedes be able to match Ferrari’s Power Unit this year?
"Last year’s Ferrari Power Unit was much more powerful, but we haven’t seen it yet. I think only in Qualifying and the race will everybody show their hand. We haven’t seen that. I am obviously always on the pessimistic side. We need to catch up, we need to come out with a reliable and powerful and driveable engine, and I hope it’s enough. But I wouldn’t also discount Honda and Renault. I think every Power Unit supplier is pretty much on par now."
How are you going to approach negotiations with Valtteri this year?
"We were quite surprised by the early movements. It’s very tricky to develop a car without having the driver be part of it and every single driver needs to be a team player as well. That becomes second priority in my opinion. So, for us, we want to take our time. Our priority lies with the Mercedes drivers, Valtteri and Lewis and then obviously George. Beyond that, you need to not discount any driver. This is why I said I don’t want to discount Sebastian as a four-time World Champion because who knows what happens in the next months? If I would have told you in January that we would not have any racing in the first half of the year, nobody would have believed it. In that respect we are just keeping our options open at this stage."
Are you seriously considering Vettel? In the past, you didn’t want to A-list drivers together...
Toto: "First of all, it is not lip service. We owe it to a four-time World Champion not to come out and say no straight away. You need to think about it. On the other side we have a fantastic line-up and we are very happy with both our drivers and George, but you never know. One of them may decide that he doesn’t want to go racing anymore and suddenly you have a vacant spot. This is why I don’t want to come out in June and say no chance, Sebastian is not racing for us. First of all, I wouldn’t do it to him as a driver - to be that blunt - and on the other side I have seen black swans appearing when nobody expected. Remember Nico Rosberg and in that respect, we are keeping our options open. But of course, concentrating our discussions with our current drivers."
On the aero restrictions, it’s the first sign of success handicapping in F1. Are you happy with how that new regulation has worked out?
"I am a fan of the meritocracy of F1. Best man and best machine wins and this is how it always was. No gimmicky stuff like in some other sports where the show people have added components that have diluted the sport. I hate any kind of balance of performance. It becomes a political game and a political World Championship. That has no place in F1. What has been introduced is a possibility for the lower ranked teams to slowly creep back in terms of development scope to where the leading teams are. It’s tiny percentages every year, so it is not going to be a big difference from one year to the other. But it is going to balance the field out after a few years. I believe if you are not good enough to win anymore then you have equal opportunity. You are second or third you have more scope than the World Champion. I think it was done as a fine adjustment not with a baseball bat."
How big of an impact is the new lower budget cap and the reductions over the following seasons going to have on you? Does the whole new regulation package make running a satellite team more attractive?
"First of all, I think we are living in a financial reality that is very different to pre-Coronavirus. We have accepted the lower budget cap because it is a must that successful F1 franchises actually earn money rather than lose money. For us, it is also a way of making sure that Daimler not only appreciates the sporting and marketing benefit of the platform but also to make it as cost neutral as possible. I believe this is why we just need to support such a cost cap. For us it means re-adjusting, it means changing the way we do things and deploying personnel in new areas. We have a very strong department that is called Mercedes-Benz Applied Science where we work for high performance clients and deploy our services and who knows? Maybe we will look at other race categories in order to keep the human resource and the intellectual property within Daimler, within Mercedes."
add_circle Hungary 2020 - GP preview - Mercedes F1
add_circle FIA bans Wolff’s clear face shield
add_circle Bottas, Hamilton set to sign new F1 deals
More on Mercedes