Toto Wolff reveals admiration for ‘hard’ management style of Sergio Marchionne

Thomas Maher
Toto Wolff, Mercedes, walks up the stairs. Canada, June 2022.

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff walks up the stairs, with the team logo in the background. Canada, June 2022.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has reflected on his own management style and expressed admiration for the “hard” approach taken by Sergio Marchionne.

Wolff is approaching almost a decade in charge of the Mercedes Formula 1 team and was at the helm of the squad for their eight consecutive Constructors’ Championships between 2014 and 2021.

Wolff had been part of the board of directors at Williams between 2009 and early 2013, relinquishing shares as he purchased 30 per cent of the Mercedes F1 team in 2013 and assumed control of the Mercedes motorsport programme.

Having overseen astonishing levels of success in the years since, Wolff was joined by his wife Susie in her capacity as Venturi Formula E team boss as the duo appeared on the Performance People podcast, hosted by Sir Ben Ainslie and his wife Georgie.

The conversation centred around the management styles of the motorsport duo, where both Toto and Susie reflected on their relationship evolving through their roles in positions of power in top echelons of racing. Toto opened up on what he feels has been his biggest strength as a team leader, saying “authenticity” has been crucial to helping keep Mercedes near the front of F1.

“The most important thing is to be authentic in the way you act and be true to yourself. Because if you’re not authentic, and you’re trying to pretend to do things a certain way, people will feel that,” he explained.

“Even if it’s not a conscious, cognitive reaction. Clearly, if you look at the two sides of the spectrum, you have an absolute empathetic people’s person that avoids the controversy, tries to manage with love, and will, at certain stages, be disappointed how people abuse this kind of personality.

“On the other side, [there’s] the baseball bat, just managing with terror and with anxiety, really pushing the people over the limit.”

Wolff said one F1 personality whom he felt balanced the two sides very well was former Ferrari CEO Sergio Marchionne, who passed away in July 2018.

“I have seen this side function very well, and I’ve seen that side function very well,” Wolff said.

“There are people, one of the people I admire for being authentic, was Sergio Marchionne.

“Unfortunately, he died a few years ago, but he was the boss of Ferrari and what is today the Stellantis Group. He was hard, I mean, but he stayed true to his style and he was very successful with it. So you need to find out for yourself ‘who am I? How do I do that?’

“I think whether you’re hard or soft, whether you manage with empathy or less, that becomes irrelevant as long as you understand what you need to achieve with this organisation.”

Toto Wolff: 2022 has been a season of annoyance

Mercedes’ unprecedented run of success came to an end in 2022, with the first year of the ground-effect regulations seeing the team take a step backwards relative to Ferrari and Red Bull – the latter claiming the Constructors’ and Drivers’ Championship after a dominant campaign.

Mercedes have been the third best team all season, but are in contention to snatch away second place from Ferrari as the momentum has shifted late in the season with the W13 becoming a more competitive beast.

Regardless of the final outcome, Wolff denied this season has “hurt”, despite looking at his first season in charge without a grand prix victory.

“Hurt? Not at all,” he said.

“I think I’ve been through moments in my life that hurt. This one is more an annoyance, but annoyance not in a way that somebody else is responsible for us not performing. It’s an annoyance on myself. It’s an annoyance in all of us on the team that we took decisions that were simply wrong.

“Could we have seen this? Maybe some, others not. It is thinking about how did we react? Was the learning process with the speed that it could have been? Probably yes.

“But you set your own expectations in yourself. And not achieving them is simply annoying. But it’s important to not have any kind of entitlement either. We don’t have that in a team. When we won consecutive championships, there was never a race where we weren’t sceptical – we were always thinking the next race is gonna be a tough one. We could be losing everything.

“So it’s not too similar from this season. You try to get better from race to race, you have setbacks, you have good races, but fundamentally it’s a professional situation. It is not a personal situation. We won’t be losing any sleep in things going wrong – it’s more like you’re really digging deep and trying to understand because it’s a state of mind you don’t want to be in.”

Susie Wolff: Toto has been the same this season as any other

Susie Wolff weighed in on how the 2022 season has played out for the Wolffs, saying the lack of on-track success has not had any impact on Toto’s mood at home or how he has gone about his racing.

“Yeah, actually just the same,” she said.

“We never took the success for granted. There were times over the last eight years when it was more difficult, but there were a lot of times where the car was dominant. The success was huge, but we always very much appreciated when the success was there. We also, maybe me more than Toto…I could see how they were all going after Mercedes.

“That was clear, probably for the health of the sport, it was also important for them not to be winning everything. We always respected the competition and we always knew the day would come when it’s not as easy.

“So I think, actually, having had the challenge at the very beginning of the year, seeing the car wasn’t quick enough, it somehow…I wouldn’t like to say invigorated Toto, because that gives a connotation he wasn’t invigorated before.

“But when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And he dug in. This was the moment when he had to really look into the organisation and figure out what had gone wrong and how they could recover quickly. So it was hugely challenging and don’t get me wrong, failure hurts.

“It’s not nice not to win. But on the other hand, it’s the long game and it’s understanding how do we get back to where we want to. The races now where we are getting closer, the adrenalin is flowing way more than it did when we were out in easy 1-2s. That’s racing, and that’s what we love doing.”

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