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Toto Wolff, the compulsive perfectionist behind the Mercedes Formula 1 team

Toto Wolff, the compulsive perfectionist behind the Mercedes Formula 1 team

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A few minutes before the start of the Dutch Grand Prix, which was held in the baking sun last month at Zandvoort, a beach race track within commuting distance of Amsterdam, Toto Wolff, the director of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula 1 team, it’s the starting grid. A Grand Prix begins when a row of five red lights above the starting line go out one by one, but shortly before that the track is a crowd of twenty thousand horsepower.

Each of the long-nosed unearthly machines is assisted by a mobile ICU of generators, steel carts, laptops, tire blankets, and uniformed mechanics in crash helmets and fireproof gear. Umbrellas cover the cockpits of the drivers. Billionaires stalk the network. Race marshals hold clipboards in red gloves. The sound is unbelievable: helicopter blades, fast wheel cannons, the desperate howl of the cars, the massive eruption of the waiting crowd.

In Zandvoort, loudspeakers punctuated the sky with dance music. The afternoon was damp; the air felt saturated. Wolff was home. He is tall, dark and Austrian. He could pass for a Sacha Baron Cohen character or for someone who races past you at the airport, smells good, wears loafers and no socks. He worked on the grid in a white shirt emblazoned with the Mercedes star and the logos of twelve other corporate sponsors, black trousers, team-issued Puma sneakers, a sweet smile. He kissed people’s cheeks, touched elbows, gave impromptu TV interviews and shouted last minute thoughts to his drivers. Somewhere in the fumes was death. In the 1970s, two Formula 1 drivers died at Zandvoort in three years. At one point I was at the pit lane when three cars jumped out, red taillights flashing. The speed was like a whip.

Wolff, who is fifty, is the best team principal in the recent history of the world’s fastest motorsport. Formula 1’s ‘formula’ refers to a set of rules, first established after World War II, to bring some order to the urge to race dangerous cars on the tarmac of foreign cities. Where Nascar is all about left bends, car-like cars and spectator-friendly oval tracks, Formula 1 has a crazier, purer heart: the oldest courses date back a century. Races last approximately ninety minutes. They twist, sweep and descend hills, sometimes over existing streets. The cars, which started out as death traps for daredevils, are now examples of extreme technology, flying algorithms fighting for advantages of a hundredth of a second – the distance of one meter over a three-mile orbit. The sport is esoteric, but global. Last year’s Mexican Grand Prix drew three hundred and seventy thousand spectators. The Singapore Race drives through the city at night. (Drivers can shed six pounds on stress and sweat.) The average television audience for a Formula 1 race is about seventy million people — four times as many as the typical NFL game — and the best drivers earn a soccer star salary and enduring fame. When Ayrton Senna, three-time world champion, was killed in a race in 1994, the Brazilian government declared three days of mourning. A million people waited in the heat to pay their respects, and many spoke of their… saudade– an unspeakable state of longing for something that is gone.

“And here I can tell you that you will never achieve anything.”

Cartoon by Stephen Raaka

Between 2014, when Wolff took charge of Mercedes, and 2021, the team won the world championship eight years in a row – an unprecedented achievement. (In Formula 1, there is a Constructors’ Championship, for the most successful team, and a Drivers’ Championship, awarded at the end of about twenty races.) Each team has two drivers. The star of Mercedes is Lewis Hamilton, who made about sixty-five million dollars last season. During the team’s winning streak, Hamilton won six individual world titles, bringing his career tally to seven. No one has ever won eight. ‘I couldn’t think of a better friend. I couldn’t think of a better boss,” Hamilton told me about Wolff.

Formula 1 is currently gaining popularity, especially in the United States, in part because of a Netflix series, “Drive to Survive,” which has embroidered the sport’s nerdiness with artful camera work and bitchy insight into the lives of its protagonists. Wolff, who speaks five languages ​​and whose wife, Susie, is a former racing driver, is one of the natural stars of the show. Of the ten team leaders in the sport, only Wolff and his arch-rival, Christian Horner, a Briton who leads the Red Bull team, have ever won a world championship. But, unlike Horner and the rest of his colleagues, Wolff also co-owns his team. His one-third stake in Mercedes is conservatively estimated at around $500 million. He sees himself at the same time as a competitor and as someone who is shaping the future of a multi-billion dollar company. “The other team leaders, and I don’t mean this arrogantly, are just encouraged to perform,” said Wolff. His rivals see this. “He’s playing a game and he’s always one move in advance,” one of them told me.

But this season Wolff and Mercedes have not won a single race. The Dutch Grand Prix was the fifteenth of the season and Mercedes’ best results so far were a few second places. (In 2020, the team won 13 out of 17.) Hamilton, who joined Formula 1 as a rookie in 2007, has never passed a season without winning at least one race. Ahead of the US Grand Prix, in Austin on October 23, the team languished in third place, behind Red Bull and Ferrari, its worst position in a decade. It was as disturbing as it was refreshing to watch Wolff and Mercedes lose their way, like watching Roger Federer give his serve, the Yankees miss the playoffs, Simone Biles miss the bar. It’s understandable, up to a point. “We haven’t changed from an eight-time world championship winning team to not being able to build cars,” said Hamilton. “We just . . . this year things go wrong.”

The apparent reason was a rule change. Every few years, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, which has overseen Grand Prix racing since 1906, forces teams to redesign their cars. Normally the official logic has to do with safety, or making it easier for cars to overtake each other, but there is almost always an unspoken motive: disrupting the existing course of events and preventing a team from gaining a lasting advantage.

In the past, Mercedes took advantage of these changes and adapted faster than its rivals. But the 2022 reset was unusually far-reaching. One of the goals of the new rules was to reconfigure the downforce generated by the cars, reduce the amount of “dirty air” left in their wake, and allow closer racing. At a pre-season testing event in Bahrain in March, Mercedes’ new car – the W13 – seemed to embody the boldest interpretation of this idea. It was leaner and more futuristic than the rest. “People looked at that thinking, wow. Mercedes is going to blow the field,” George Russell, the team’s other driver, told me. “We reasonably thought so too.”

But the W13 proved erratic. Data collected in the wind tunnel or by computer modeling did not reach the track. At high speeds, the car bounced, an effect known as porpoises. “My back is killing me!” Hamilton screamed on a long straight in Baku in June, where the floor of the car repeatedly hit the tarmac at more than 200 miles per hour. Attempts to fix the problem only revealed more problems. “We have tried and tried and failed. And tried and tried and failed,” said Hamilton. Andrew Shovlin, Mercedes’ trackside engineering director, who holds a Ph.D. in the dynamics of military logistics vehicles, compared to repairing the W13 with peeling an onion. “Even the aerodynamic bounce manifests itself in about three different mechanisms,” he said.

The other reason for Mercedes’ poor performance was a sense of injustice and doom. In 2021, with five laps remaining in the final race of the season, Hamilton led the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on his way to an eighth individual world title and lone greatness. Hamilton had won the previous three races; he had the car on a string. “He was unbeatable and we were unbeatable,” said Wolff.

On lap fifty-three in Abu Dhabi, the race was interrupted by a crash, after which a safety car took over. (In Formula 1, a sports car with flashing lights leads a stately, jumbled procession of cars when danger is on the track, until the danger has passed.) Under normal circumstances, the Grand Prix would have finished behind the safety car, with the race order intact. But the race director, an FIA official named Michael Masi, made the decision to divert a group of cars to allow for a final lap of the race between Hamilton and Red Bull’s second driver, Max Verstappen. The drivers were tied in points in the world championship standings. Verstappen was on fresh tires; he slid past Hamilton and took the title. The FIA ​​later concluded that Masi had made a “human error” and left his post. But the result stood.