How childhood trauma and humiliation shaped Mercedes boss Toto Wolff into the most successful manager in F1 history
- Insider spoke to Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff about being the most successful team boss in
- Under Wolff's stewardship,
Mercedeshas won a record seven consecutive Formula One world titles.
The 49-year-old Austrian arrived at Mercedes in 2013 and set about transforming the team into a relentless winning machine.
With the help of
Under Wolff's stewardship, Mercedes has won a record seven consecutive world championships in both the drivers and constructors categories, surpassing the likes of Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull, Ayrton Senna's McLaren, and Michael Schumacher's Ferrari.
The last time a non-Mercedes driver's name was etched onto the trophy was in 2013 and in 2021, the Silver Arrows are on the hunt for an eighth consecutive victory in both drivers and constructors championships.
But life has not always been easy for the most successful man in Formula One.
As a child Wolff watched his father battle a 10-year illness
Wolff's childhood was sculpted by the illness and death of his father.
Diagnosed with brain cancer when Wolff was young, the future team principal would be witness to his father's 10-year struggle with the disease that ultimately resulted in his death when Toto was a teenager.
"My childhood was very much harmed by my father being very ill all of what I can remember whilst being a child. He was ill for 10 years before he died," Wolff told Insider.
"We can obviously only talk about ourselves and there is always a risk that our own perceptions and perspectives, we see them as the absolute truths but there is no such thing as absolute truths and I can only see things from my childhood.
"A young boy that's seeing his father in a degrading condition is something that is always going to affect you and will stay with me forever."
As his father's illness grew worse, Wolff had to navigate the fact his world was divided into "people that had and people that didn't have."
"I didn't have," he said.
That, Wolff told Insider, sculpted the man he became later in life, teaching him self-sufficiency.
"I remember being a child and saying 'I just want to be responsible for myself.'
"I think that is a large part of who I am today."
The 'humiliation and trauma' of childhood drove him into adulthood
Fueled by an adolescent realization that he had "to do more" to succeed, Wolff became interested in the twin worlds of finance and motorsport.
An accomplished driver in his youth, Wolff won the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring in 1994, and competed in high level GT racing.
He set up his own investment firm at the age of 26 and it was not long before he combined his love of finance with his love of racing and made his first ventures into the world of Formula One, buying a stake in Williams F1 in 2009.
"I think everybody that is successful above average - whatever success means - there is some kind of driver behind it.
"That driver can be you are trying to overcompensate for something which could be an inferiority complex.
"All of these things can have a very low grade or a very high grade on part of your personality.
"It's about a humiliation or trauma that you have been confronted with in your life. I think these are very strong drivers for me.
Managing clashing personalities and styles
From his difficult beginnings, Wolff has risen to become one of the most famous and recognizable faces in the sport.
"I run people that run cars," Wolff replies when asked how he sees his role in the team.
"It's an understanding of the organization and having a real interest in the people and understanding racing and understanding finance.
"It's a bit of all of that but the most important is the interest in the people."
In Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, Wolff and Mercedes have two drivers with very different personalities. Hamilton is outspoken, bombastic, and a flashy dresser, while Bottas is - publicly at least - calm and reserved.
Wolff says he tailors his approach to ensure he is always putting his drivers in the best frame of mind.
"Like with any person out there, I take an interest and what I say will always be driven by beliefs.
"That is loyalty, integrity, stick to the truths, don't deal in lies and these are the fundamental pillars of dealing with anybody.
"[The drivers] have different personalities, one will need a different way of interaction to be in the best possible place mentally and in the car then the other one."
'I won't let anybody harm the tribe'
As team boss, the Austrian is often looked towards in times of stress for leadership and he said he does have difficulty keeping his emotions in check in those stressful moments.
"I am an emotional person. I protect my tribe. This is how I see my family, my group of friends, my company and the team. I won't let anybody harm the tribe.
"This is why I can get quite emotional but I know about it so that means over the years, I can look at it and say don't take it too personally because there is always someone else who has a different agenda and you need to respect that."
Wolff's job stretches far beyond the pit wall though and on the morning Insider spoke to him, he had already sat in on two sponsorship meetings and a discussion about the Mercedes' Formula E team all before 10:00 a.m.
While Mercedes' success is his job, Wolff also has a personal interest in its triumphs - he owns a third of the team.
"There are days which are purely performance related where I'm a sounding board or a participant in meetings about the engineering side of things which is something of great interest to me.
"On the other side is the commercial aspect of our business. We are a $500+ million revenue business and sponsorships are a large chunk of it."
'The Roman Empire fell because they had no countries to conquer anymore'
As Mercedes' dominance of the sport grew stronger, Wolff and his team were faced with a different threat: complacency.
"There is a reason why not many teams win world championships.
"There are very few that win consecutive championships and there is none out there - in any sport - that has won seven consecutive titles.
"We have already pushed the needle quite far and complacency is one of the reasons why teams start losing. That means you have to tackle it straight on.
"You need to know a lack of objectives, a lack of energy, a lack of motivation, complacency, a sense of entitlement are all factors that contribute to a downfall of any team.
"The Roman Empire fell because they had no countries to conquer anymore.
Guarding against burnout during F1's busiest season ever
As well as complacency, burnout poses its own problems in today's hectic F1 calendar.
Insider spoke to Wolff two days out from the start of the United States Grand Prix weekend, the 17th race in this year's calendar.
By the end of the final race in Abu Dhabi, the teams will have competed in the longest season in the sport's history with a total of 22 Grands Prix. That figure is set to increase next year, with teams expected to cover 75,000 miles around the world.
"This is something you need to learn [about yourself] and see the early warning signals that may be different for everybody.
"I know my triggers, I know the warning signals and I know how to counter-steer. That is sometimes very brutal because I need to sit out for a few days and try to reflect.
One way Wolff manages stress, he says, is by having complete control over when his phone is on. If it's off, he can't be contacted.
"That's why over the years with the high pressure, I am much better at being able to have a stable daily routine and coping with the stress.
Sleep is also important, with the Austrian saying he needs a minimum of seven hours every night.
"I need a lot of sleep, I'm a night owl. One of the factors you need to realize in order to decompress and be the best you is: are you an evening person or a morning person?
"I'm an evening person, I've always been an evening person so in an ideal world, I stop working at one o'clock at night and I wake up at eight."
"I am ruthless from that standpoint."
Not feeling the pressure and being at a career crossroads.
Despite being locked in the tightest title race in recent years, Wolff said he does not "feel the pressure at all" this year, and that his most mentally challenging season came last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I, personally, was at a crossroads of a decision."
Wolff was out of contract at Mercedes as team principal, and was also considering his future investments in the sport, having owned 30% of the team since first getting involved in 2013.
Making these decisions, while fighting for an F1 title, and dealing with the trauma of the pandemic, Wolff says, made for one of the toughest years of his life.
"It made it much more difficult because then you have this additional dimension of the music has stopped suddenly," he said referring to the pandemic and the months-long delay it caused to the F1 season.
"For the last eight years, we've known we're going from race A to race B then suddenly that new dimension created another problem for me.
"If you're running all the time, it's quite difficult to jump out and say 'I'm standing still now.'
"It took me until November to realize that the pause button that was put upon us because of the pandemic was actually positive. Then it accelerated my decision making."
Ultimately, he signed a new three-year deal as team principal, and increased his ownership stake in Mercedes F1. He now owns 33.3% of the business. Another third is owned by key sponsor INEOS, and the final third by Daimler, Mercedes' parent company.
At the time, Wolff joked that his fresh commitment to Mercedes was lifelong, telling a German-language motorsport website: "I have not committed myself for three more years, but for life!"
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