For a man who leads the dominant force in modern Formula One, Toto Wolff makes scant concession to the trappings of success. Indeed, at home the Mercedes team principal, the architect of six consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championship doubles, hosts only two pieces of F1 memorabilia.
Neither is chosen lightly, and while one reflects Mercedes’s iron grip on the sport, the other is more symbolic, more personal and instructive of the relationship he enjoys with the driver who has shared this journey to the top, Lewis Hamilton. Wolff’s respect for Hamilton is palpable, not least recently for his strong position on promoting racial equality and diversity. It has brought his driver criticism but the Austrian has only admiration for his stance.
“Lewis has been for some time one of the leading, most recognised people within F1. There are not a lot of personalities even near that,” he says. “He is like a lightning rod, because he wears his heart on his sleeve and voices his opinion. We need exactly that, we need character, we need opinions.”
Tellingly, Wolff, who sits at the very heart of Mercedes alongside Hamilton, believes this strength of character has made him the man and the driver he is.
“If you express your opinion and you are a public persona you will always polarise,” he adds. “Lewis has been at the helm of this sport for more than 10 years. When you are out there and have been abused or criticised, you cope with it much better after a while. He takes the criticism on board and learns from it, but he is not letting it anywhere close to his soul.”
Wolff has been the team principal at Mercedes since 2013, the same year Hamilton joined. In 2014 they secured their first title together and have not stopped since. At Wolff’s home the F1 constructors’ championship trophy is displayed with pride, his team’s name etched into history on its gleaming panels. This year, a seventh double would be a record in the sport. Wolff is emphatic in insisting what a team effort it has been.
The only other item that imparts a suggestion of Wolff’s day job is the helmet Hamilton had designed to honour Niki Lauda and wore at the 2019 Monaco Grand Prix. Lauda had been instrumental in bringing Hamilton to Mercedes and as non-executive chairman became one of Wolff’s closest friends. The three-times world champion died at the start of the week leading up to Monaco. It was an emotional weekend and Hamilton delivered what Lauda would have wanted for the team – a win.
Wolff clearly treasures his memories of Lauda that are, as the helmet symbolises, inextricably linked to his relationship with Hamilton. The driver and his principal share a clear emotional and personal bond. Wolff is perhaps the man best placed in F1 to offer assessment of why Hamilton is so successful on the track and so compelling a character off it.
“Lewis has become a friend, a partner, somebody I trust and vice versa,” he says. He believes the key moment came in 2016 after an acrimonious season won by Hamilton’s then Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, after which Wolff and Hamilton had to sit down and clear the air. It worked and what had been a professional relationship became personal.
“Since then we have had a brutal honesty and transparency with each other,” says Wolff. “There is nothing that is hidden, there is no agenda that is not known.” Hamilton is so close to Wolff that he has remarked his decision on whether to stay with the team could be influenced by whether Wolff remains.
“It’s been a relationship that has its own complexities but has grown so much,” Hamilton said at Silverstone. “It is just going from strength to strength. I think in relationships, in friendships, as you get to know about each other your barriers start to come down a little bit and you open up more to each other.”
Wolff in turn recognises that Hamilton has surpassed being merely the man behind the wheel. “Lewis has two really outstanding characteristics,” he says. “The talent that he has and the way he has developed that talent and himself in the car and outside the car. That makes him this great champion.”
With five of his six titles for Mercedes, Hamilton goes into this weekend’s British Grand Prix looking formidably strong in his attempt to make it seven and match Michael Schumacher’s record. He has two wins from three races this season and loves the circuit. The determination to deliver at home will be as fierce as ever.
Yet this success has not come by accident. Although Hamilton’s natural talent has served him well, F1 is littered with exceptionally gifted drivers who could not translate their touch into triumph. Wolff has closely observed Hamilton’s ability to relentlessly build on his strengths.
“One of the things that inspires me the most is his ability for personal growth,” he says. “The racing driver that adapts to every new car, adapts his driving style, is a skill that not many have. He has the same ability around his persona. He develops, he analyses his weakness and strengths. Always with the focus of improving himself.”
That Hamilton has developed as a driver is clear, but he has become a leader. He has been uncompromising and resolutely determined in speaking out against racism after the death of George Floyd and Wolff was entirely unsurprised he did so.
“If you are a child eight years old being racially abused on a go-kart track, imagine the scars that leaves,” he says. “We as middle-aged white men can never put ourselves in a situation of someone who has been racially abused. So I was always very open to his opinion and judgment. I think he realised that a peaceful, silent protest hasn’t changed anything in the last 60 years. So maybe it’s time to utilise your voice in a more polarising and confrontational way with the hope that he can trigger change. I am, with all my heart, and everybody in the team are on board with the fight against racism.”
Hamilton may indeed polarise but at Silverstone he has always been received rapturously. With six victories at the British GP, he is the most successful driver at the race; a seventh is well within his grasp. There will be no celebratory communion afterwards with the fans but they may enjoy the ride with him for some time yet.
“He is 35 now, the way he adapts I think he can race beyond his 40s,” says Wolff. “He can push the boundaries in the way Tom Brady did in American football. Who would have thought that a quarterback could win a Super Bowl beyond the age of 40? Tom Brady has shown everybody that it is possible. Maybe Lewis will do the same in F1.”