• Toto Wolff exclusive interview

A year at Mercedes

Chris Medland December 6, 2013
Toto Wolff: "I see us being a title contender in the next couple of years" © Getty Images

Toto Wolff seems to have something of the Midas touch. His first year working with Williams saw the team enjoy an upturn in form and score its first victory in eight years in 2012. Then at the start of this year he joined a Mercedes team which had scored just once in the final six races of the previous season.

In his new role as executive director (business), Wolff was in position to see a huge improvement from Mercedes as the team took the fight to Red Bull in the first half of the year, winning three races before the summer break and securing seven pole positions. Ultimately, the challenge faded as Sebastian Vettel cleaned up at every race after the August shutdown, but second in the constructors' championship marked a major step forward for the team.

Sitting down with ESPN to reflect on his first season at Mercedes, it's clear Wolff himself has been surprised at how close to success the team is.

"Finishing last year where we were, you couldn't have expected to be fighting for second place in the championship, so that is above expectations," he said. "That has been quite rewarding."

As rewarding as he says it is to have been a part of it, Wolff credits outgoing team principal Ross Brawn for getting the right people in place to challenge Red Bull's dominance.

"I think Ross initiated the change process a year ago, getting in some good people and changing the structure a little bit. When we came in we just added another bit; it was about getting the right resources from Daimler, keeping Ross and the other guys' bags free from politics, getting the right environment. Be it from Germany, be it around the races - the relationship with the commercial rights holder was not perfect - I think the funds weren't there that you needed to compete at the top level and these are the kind of things that I added."

Though modest when it comes to his role in Mercedes' progress - with Brawn himself often pointing to the upscaling of the wind tunnel from 50% to 60% as one of the key factors - Wolff admits being able to increase the team's budget yielded an immediate return when it comes to competitiveness.

"The impact was pretty early because if you can operate on a larger budget - and this is one of the first things I made sure of - it allows you to go at a higher development speed and it just allows you to do more things."

With Ross Brawn leaving, Toto Wolff and Paddy Lowe will run Mercedes in 2014 © Sutton Images

And after the first two races of the season Mercedes went on a run of four consecutive pole positions in a sustained challenge to Red Bull's one-lap dominance. With that form having dropped off after the summer break, Wolff attributes a large part of that early success - and similarly the later lack of it - to an external factor.

"It wasn't the case straight from the beginning if you remember Melbourne and Malaysia, but we were really good at switching those tyres on for a lap. It just kicked in, which was really good, but then we struggled a bit to make them survive.

"Then for whatever reason that has reversed in the second half of the year and we haven't scored any poles since Spa, [although] a couple of times we were near there."

Ditching Michael Schumacher at the end of 2012 was a statement of intent, and after threatening with all those pole positions Lewis Hamilton's first win for Mercedes in Hungary - in such dominant fashion - was the pinnacle of the team's season.

The low point was undoubtedly the legal wrangling that came as a result of the team's Pirelli tyre test in Barcelona using the 2013 car. Despite the uproar from rival teams and subsequent trial in front of the FIA's International Tribunal, it doesn't detract from such a strong season for Mercedes.

"Nobody talks about that anymore. I think it was a distraction at that time and probably we could have handled it a bit better in terms of managing the situation but it was not a major distraction. In the end there were no more aftershocks.

"I think also Red Bull being so dominant in the second half of the year perhaps they were a bit more quiet and not igniting fires."

2014 was always the main focus as new regulations come in to effect, so will it be the year that Mercedes really takes the fight to Red Bull and potentially wins a championship?

"No. I think when you look at the kind of sustainable performance Red Bull has shown in the last four years they will still be the benchmark.

"It's not going to be a while. We are just putting things together now and it's a matter of us ramping up performance. I see us being a title contender in the next couple of years. When? I cannot tell you; it's reading a crystal ball. We just need to put the bits and pieces together.

"This is a dynamic organisation. It's not static, you can't say 'well this is how it should be' - it's developing. Some of our ingredients are just perfect; we have two drivers who are the drivers we want to have."

It wasn't always a smooth ride this year but it's been a positive first 12 months for Wolff in new team colours. With Brawn's departure, the real test comes next year to see if that upward trend can be maintained, because Wolff will find even more praise or criticism aimed at Mercedes landing at his door.