The eternal question in Formula 1 is whether the cost of competing pays off. Car manufacturers spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on racing in return for brand exposure and to help develop their road cars. If anyone knows whether it works, it’s Toto Wolff.
Mercedes bought its F1 team in 2009 for an estimated $120 million from former boss Ross Brawn and other management members. For the past two years it has raced to victory with British superstar Lewis Hamilton at the wheel and Mr Wolff at the helm. It hasn’t just dominated the standings with its own outfit, but also with all the teams that use its engines.
Williams is powered by a Mercedes and finished in third place last year; as were Force India and Lotus that finished fifth and sixth respectively. Mercedes made the most of changes to F1’s regulations in 2014 which saw 2.4-litre V8 engines switched to more-efficient 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrids. None of the teams had any experience with the V6 so it levelled the playing field and Mercedes came out on top. It didn’t just help it on track, but off it too.
Mr Wolff reveals that the development work on the new V6 at the Mercedes F1 engine shop in England has led to advancements in the road cars it manufactures in Germany.
“Many people say technology transfer is just a marketing story – I can tell you from here, it is not. The S-Class is running on a six-cylinder turbo engine, and the way we optimise our engines in terms of efficiency and power deployment translates directly into road cars. We are using some technology for cooling invented here and that technology is being used in the next generation of S-Class as well. It is all because of the development on-track absolutely,” he says.
“So that is happening. It is a reality and this is why the hybrid six-cylinder turbo engines are so important for us.”
Experience on both sides
Mr Wolff has experience on both sides of the fence. He drove in both the Austrian and German Formula Ford championships between 1992 and 1994, when he scored a class win in the Nürburgring 24 Hour. Shortly afterwards his driving career came to an abrupt halt as his sponsorship was withdrawn through no fault of his own.
Countryman Karl Wendlinger had crashed heavily at the Monaco Grand Prix and, with both Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger having lost their lives just a fortnight earlier, Mr Wolff’s sponsor Alu Kӧnig Stahl didn’t want to remain in motorsport.
Mr Wolff made his return to racing in the early-2000s when he finished sixth in the 2002 FIA GT Championship with further victories in both the Italian GT Championship and the 2006 Dubai 24 Hours.
However, the main focus throughout the second stint of his career was on management. Investing in the Williams F1 team set him on his way, until he got to Mercedes.
Engineers from Mercedes and its parent company Daimler are placed in the team to broaden their experience and vice versa. It benefits both sides in a unique way. “The benefit is getting experience in a different level. If you are a high-potential engineer in Stuttgart, you have the ability of diving for a year into the F1 world which is a much smaller organisation and is less hierarchical. It gives you a different edge,” says Mr Wolff.
Although Mercedes owns 100 per cent of its F1 engine division, it has a 60 per cent stake in the team with 30 per cent in Mr Wolff’s hands and the remainder owned by former F1 champion Niki Lauda. Its real impact is felt far beyond the team itself. Research in 2013 revealed that the Mercedes F1 team and its engine division spent $195.6 million with 1,500 UK-based suppliers, created 125 jobs during the year and had a total wage bill of $109.4 million, bringing the economic benefit to $305 million.