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Entrepreneur

From Racing Cockpit To Executive Armchair, The Tale Of Toto Wolff

When he launched his motorsport career back in 1992, competing as a driver in the lowly Austrian Formula Ford Championship, Toto Wolff surely couldn’t have imagined that he would one day become an F1 legend, the billionaire ‘team principal’ and CEO of the Mercedes Formula 1 team

Fifty-one-year-old Torger Christian Wolff, aka Toto Wolff, is an Austrian billionaire motorsport executive and former racing driver who has come a long way from his humble beginnings in the sport, when he competed in the Austrian and German Formula Ford championships from 1992 to 1994, the pinnacle of which was his 1994 category win in the Nürburgring 24 Hours touring car and GT endurance race.

Born in Vienna in 1972 to a Polish mother and a Romanian father, Wolff grew up in the city, where he attended the French Lycée of Vienna, a prestigious French school in Vienna’s Alsergrund district. After the death of his father when he was just 15, the young Toto perhaps turned all his attention to driving and motorsports.

Following his early successes on the racetrack, Wolff founded his first investment company – Marchfifteen – which unsurprisingly focused on an area of great interest to motorsport: early-stage technology investments. One of the company’s key investment avenues has been in company HWA, which has been listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange since 2007 and is responsible for developing and racing Mercedes-Benz racing cars for the German Touring Car Championship and Mercedes-Benz Formula 3 engines.

Back on the track, Wolff finished 6th overall in the N-GT category in the 2002 FIA GT Championship, before transferring to the Italian GT Championship in 2003 and the FIA GT Championship in 2004, teaming up with fellow driver Karl Wendlinger. Runner-up in the 2006 Austrian Rally Championship and winner of the 2006 Dubai 24 Hour, Wolff took the lap record at the Nürburgring in 2009, driving a Porsche RSR, and has also served as an instructor at the Walter Lechner Racing School.

It is perhaps his enduring and diverse career as a driver that provided Wolff with the prowess, knowledge and experience required to head the super successful Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team.

He married former Scottish karting ace and racing driver Susie Stoddart (now Wolff) in 2011, and his wife has also gone on to record great successes off the track, as she is the current MD of the F1 Academy.

I make no difference between the driver and every other employee in the company

And Toto isn’t just an ace behind the wheel and in business, he’s also something of a polyglot – fluent in German, English, French, Italian and Polish – and has some enviable academic achievements to his name. For instance, in May 2021 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Cranfield University for his services to Motorsport and in November of the same year was appointed an associate fellow at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School for two years, tasked with transferring from the racetracks to the lecture hall his understanding of high-performance culture, team leadership and personal effectiveness.

His leadership of the Mercedes- AMG Petronas F1 Team was even the subject of a 2022 Harvard Business School case study and Wolff was subsequently also named an executive fellow at Harvard Business School, a role in which he will serve as guest lecturer alongside Professor Anita Elberse, who authored the aforementioned case study.

“It’s really difficult to find a team that has won what is effectively a world championship eight times in a row,” said Elberse.

Toto’s solid work on the track, but more importantly excellent business choices off it, led him to be in a position to launch his career as an F1 executive in 2009 by acquiring a 15% stake in the Williams F1 team. However, he was soon compelled to sell his Williams shares after agreeing to become Mercedes-Benz’s head of motorsport in 2013. He thus became a shareholder and executive director of Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains, taking on the responsibility for developing and managing the Mercedes’ engine programme and spearheading projects on Mercedes power units, and in the process gaining invaluable knowledge of Mercedes- Benz motorsport activities.

It was then, in 2013, that this Austrian former endurance racing driver and tech investor became team principal of the Mercedes-Benz AMG Petronus F1 team, prompting then Mercedes-Benz chairman Dieter Zetsche to say at the time, “As an entrepreneur, investor and motorsport manager, Toto Wolff has proven that this sport runs in his blood; at the same time, he is also well aware of the economic necessities of the business.”

And it is no coincidence that 2013 was also the year British driver Lewis Hamilton turned his back on British team McLaren and signed with Mercedes.

“I will give up a world championship any day of the week in order to keep my integrity. I think that’s how we operate,” he said, before adding that a win-at-all-costs attitude should be consigned to the past.

I’m responsible for hiring and development, and developing the right people. So, I should be empowering

“We need to have a degree of loyalty and integrity. And if you don’t, then your success is going to be shortlived,” insisted Wolff, before admitting that there are seemingly some organisations and sports teams that “have nothing of that” but are nonetheless successful.

Mercedes currently ranks second in the 2023 F1 constructors’ standings, immediately behind the Red Bull team.

When asked about his preferred method for resolving situations that go awry, Toto was direct and concise: “I’m responsible for hiring and development, and developing the right people. So, I should be empowering.” Admitting that most people’s instinctive response is to point the finger of blame at someone else when something goes wrong, he explains that in most cases it’s actually the process that’s failed, not the person… “And I think that is very important to actually remind yourself … we blame the problem; we don’t blame the person.” He also warns that leaders need to be selective and know when to intervene, despite often being control freaks by nature. “My experience is that people that run organisations are in a way control freaks, it’s very difficult for them to let go. So, for me, the notion of a functional control freak is someone who knows everything that’s going on, but doesn’t interfere in everything that’s going on… and who gets that balance right.”

Indeed, Toto admits that striking the right balance isn’t always easy. “I’m an emotional person, I’m very passionate about the sport.”

When it comes to managing his team and getting the best out of them, Toto stresses the importance of not giving drivers special treatment compared to other team members. “I really like to interact with high performance people, superstars. And I have 2,500 of them. I make no difference between the driver and every other employee in the company,” he said. “And if you’re able to channel that in the right way, you have an organisation and a successful team. A superstar team rather than a team of superstars,” he said, before admitting “I stole that sentence, I think from an Instagram post.”