Formula 1: Is Toto Wolff the wrong leader for Mercedes?

Toto Wolff, Mercedes AMG Petronas, Formula 1 (Photo by Daniel Cardenas/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Toto Wolff, Mercedes AMG Petronas, Formula 1 (Photo by Daniel Cardenas/Anadolu via Getty Images) /

Mercedes, led by Toto Wolff, are arguably the most successful operation in Formula 1 history. In the last two years, however, it has been a lot tougher.

Mercedes are inarguably one of the most successful, dominant teams in Formula 1 history. Since 2014, they have scored eight constructor titles and seven driver titles.

With all of those titles coming in succession, they are the only team in the history of the sport to win that many in a row. During those eight seasons, they won a staggering 111 races, set the record for the most wins by a team in a single season with 19 in 2016, and set the record for the most consecutive 1-2 finishes to open a season with five in 2019.

Nearly all of the team’s victories since their long-awaited return in 2010 have come under the leadership of team Principal and CEO Toto Wolff. In fact, Nico Rosberg’s triumph in the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix remains the only race the Brackley-based operation have won without Wolff at the helm.

There’s no doubt that Mercedes’ success and ability to maintain dominance for nearly a decade without skipping a beat puts Wolff in a class with the absolute best team principals in all of grand prix racing. But in recent times, things have not been so great for the German manufacturer.

Since the start of 2022, Mercedes have not only failed to keep their streak of world championships alive, but they have also scored only a single victory in 42 races. The 2022 Sao Paolo Grand Prix, won by George Russell, remains their only win since the regulation overhaul to ground effect cars.

Despite their third place finish in last year’s constructor standings and their current second place standing, both of their cars in Formula 1’s new era have been very tricky to drive, with extremely small setup windows, high drag, and in the case of 2022, a ton of vertical aerodynamic bouncing, known as porpoising.

While they have been able to work around these issues quite well, all things considered, what has really held their cars back is one thing: inconsistency.

Look no further than the three most recent race weekends in the United States, Mexico, and Brazil. Off the back of two runner-up finishes (though only one counted) for Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes appeared to be well and truly on the up, only to place their top car in eighth in Sao Paulo, even behind the Alpine of Pierre Gasly.

After having relatively good race pace at most tracks, they were suddenly the fifth best team in Brazil, and they suffered from major tire wear, which had ironically been one of their biggest strengths. The team even admitted that they don’t know what the problem was, nor how to fix it.

It is this inconsistency in their cars from week to week that has Mercedes in the hole they find themselves in. And in Brazil, that did not sit well at the top.

"“Inexcusable performance. There’s no words for that. That car finished second last week and the week before and, whatever we did to it, was horrible. I can only feel for the two drivers with such a miserable thing.“It shows how difficult the car is, it’s on a knife’s edge. We’ve got to develop that better for next year because it can’t be that, within seven days, you’re finishing on the podium as one of the two quickest cars and then you’re nowhere.“This car doesn’t deserve a win.”"

That is quite the critical assessment from the boss, who also said after the Sao Paulo Grand Prix that it was Mercedes’ “worst weekend in 13 years”.

Wolff’s harsh public comments have been a developing theme over the last two years now, with several soundbites making headlines across the paddock.

During the 2023 Austrian Grand Prix, amidst all of the complaining from Hamilton over the radio, Wolff was heard saying, “Lewis, the car is bad, we know it. Please drive it.”

Then during the Italian Grand Prix race weekend, Wolff spoke about Red Bull rival Max Verstappen’s record-breaking 10th win in a row, saying “it’s for Wikipedia, and nobody reads that anyway.”

These comments don’t even touch on the recent departure of top-level technical chief Mike Elliott, among others. That’s not to say that Wolff is the reason why people are leaving the team, but given how solid the team’s stability had been for so long, it certainly rings a few alarm bells.

All of these events have come during a period of what are, relatively speaking, tough times for Mercedes. It hints at the notion of spreading negativity, due to the frustration of consistently losing.

When asked about not taking anything for granted regarding what the team could potentially deliver next season, Wolff had a very telling response.

Negativity, malicious in intent or not, is no way to run a Formula 1 team, or any organization for that matter.

On many occasions in Formula 1, there has been negative, blameful, and dare we say toxic work culture within a team that has backfired. Ferrari have had a long history of that, which has led in part to their long title drought and rotating cast of leaders and employees. Alpine suffered a similar fate earlier this season.

It can’t be nice to show up to work every day and have your work be labelled as something that is “bad,” “miserable,” and “doesn’t deserve a win,” by both the team leader and drivers. Hamilton even said, “two more races with this thing and then hopefully no more driving it” after Sao Paulo.

It also isn’t a good look for such a massive organization like Mercedes, especially when the team are still scoring very respectable results.

Is Toto Wolff still the right man to lead Mercedes back to Formula 1 glory moving forward?

Wolff is undoubtedly one of the absolute best team principals and overall leaders that Formula 1 has ever had. Red Bull’s feelings about him aside, he is one of the most respected people in the paddock, and his ability to keep Mercedes at the top of the sport through several regulation changes, both big and small, is monumental.

With that in mind, it seems outrageous to even fathom the idea that he should be gone after just two mediocre yet still solid seasons. But at the same time, there is a crowd who discredit Wolff’s achievements with the team for a few different reasons and are now using those reasons to suggest his potential inability to lead following their recent fall from grace.

An argument which is often brought up is the fact that Wolff is a businessman more than an actual sporting type of leader. Wolff’s background is in financial business, and he has a large ownership stake in the Mercedes team, making him by far the richest team principal in the sport.

From this point of view only, it’s understandable why some think he is in it for the value of the operation and its profits more so than the on-track results.

Another common objection to Wolff is that the team’s dominance from 2014 to 2021 was very little of his doing, and rather a lucky inheritance.

Because he took over the team from renowned leader Ross Brawn in 2013, at a time when their incredible 2014 turbo-hybrid engines were already years in development, some insist that he has simply fallen back on the incredible foundations he joined.

Brawn’s scathing remarks towards Wolff in 2016 further put Wolff’s leadership abilities into doubt.

"“He said I was resting on my money now. I had got all this money and I wasn’t interested in the team anymore, and I wasn’t motivated…. Digressing slightly, he was very new to the team and he had been flattered by the board’s attention.“What the board had said to him, from what I understand, is ‘This team is not working for some reason, you’re a smart businessman, you know Williams, can you just go in there and tell us what’s wrong?’“Then in early 2013, I discovered Paddy Lowe had been contracted to join the team and it had been signed off in Stuttgart. When I challenged Toto and Niki [Lauda], they blamed each other. I met them to have it out with them. And they both pointed to each other…”"

The argument over whether or not Wolff is fit for a leadership role, both in terms of overall ability as well as ethics and morals, can be debated for hours.

The truth is, only those who have driven or worked for Mercedes under Wolff’s command will know which side of the argument is true, just like only they will know what he is really like as a leader behind closed doors. There have been just as many, if not more, individuals who have praised his work and leadership.

After all, it says a lot about Wolff that he was brought in to replace the legendary Brawn, plus the fact that he was thought of so highly by the late three-time world champion and Mercedes Formula 1 chairman Niki Lauda, as well as the head of Mercedes-Benz’s management board, Ola Källenius.

And at the end of the day, until Wolff pulls his own plug, he likely isn’t going anywhere. As a CEO with a 33% ownership stake in any company, it is hard to get sacked without the highest of the higher-ups collectively coming to that conclusion.

One thing is for certain, though. If Wolff and Mercedes can find their way out of this relative slump and get back to the top of Formula 1, his abilities as a top team principal will be unquestioned.

Next. All-time Formula 1 wins list. dark

And should he and the team guide Hamilton to a record-breaking eighth world championship, his reputation as not just a business heavyweight but as a team leader will be nearly unmatched.