- Toto Wolff exclusive interview
Wolff's on boardChris Medland September 17, 2012
ESPNF1 sat down with Williams executive director Toto Wolff at the Belgian Grand Prix to discuss his new role, his hopes and expectations for the team's future and the all-important 2013 driver line-up
How's the first six or so weeks in an executive role been? Has there been much difference?
A lot of work; much different to my previous life! No, not a big difference to be honest, because I've been doing this for a couple of months and even for the two years before I was involved quite a lot on a regular basis. I wasn't in the office as much as I am now but I was involved in lots of the strategic decisions already so it hasn't actually changed a lot.
So it's just like a title that's been added?
Yes, I think it was time because my job was not a supervisory job anymore or a non-executive job but it was an executive job. And I think it was just a formality to say 'this guy is now working for us and he's not a financial investor anymore'.
When you first invested in the team and became a minority shareholder back in 2009, what were your hopes and visions for how you'd get involved with the team?
I've been involved in motorsports from the commercial point of view for many years with my involvement with DTM and managing other businesses such as a rally business as well where we are collaborating with Red Bull. So I knew the commercial side, but Formula One was never something that was interesting for us. We analysed a case in 2007/2008 when Toro Rosso was for sale and at that time all of the constructions were already big OEMs - Toyota, BMW, Honda; you name them - and there was no way of entering the market without any OEM in your bag. That actually changed and the resource restriction got introduced with the Singapore agreement, and people understood that they have great investment potential; they are part of the largest sport platform in the world and if they were trying to save costs it could actually be a profitable case. So this was the microworld of motorsport, and in the macroworld we are getting limited everywhere in terms of driving cars on the street and sport brands getting more important everyday in difficult times. People enjoy watching sports at the weekend and watching motor racing and whatever sports and Formula One is the number one global platform which is competing regularly - not like the Olympic Games or the World Cup - so the macro case was this is something that we should be part of because it's going to grow; and it does.
You mention the resource restriction and the cost cap that was planned back in 2009, did it disappoint you then when the original £40m cap didn't happen?
I think the first one with the £40m was quite an ambitious project and obviously with the change in the FIA leadership it wasn't executed in that way. Whether it would have been too radical I don't know; I'm a big supporter of cost restriction - or maybe budget caps is a better word - that one was a radical one and it would have caused a lot of changes for the big teams such as Ferrari and McLaren where suddenly 300 people have to do the job which was done by 100, so it's a big change. Was I disappointed? Yes, but the mentality is there, people have started to understand that we need to reduce budgets - even the big ones - and it's going in the right direction. Obviously everybody tries to maximise or optimise his own position, that is the nature of Formula One, and now you have to kind of find the common denominator but it's going to go in that direction. The world is showing us the way, we can't continue to dream.
How do you feel progress is being made? Christian Horner has been talking about how difficult it is and saying that not a lot of progress is being made, do you feel there is light at the end of the tunnel?
Obviously Christian has a very difficult position because he is performing very well and he has a situation where his shareholder sees it as a brand exercise and he's a very committed shareholder and they have possibilities which other teams don't have, so of course they are defending their own position. I see it a bit more optimistically I guess because the majority of the paddock is facing a tough environment and is facing up to the fact that it's getting difficult with sponsors. Therefore it's going to go in that direction, and Red Bull are not fools; if they can make money from the teams apart from increasing the brand value they will do as well. So at the end of the day it's going to end up in a situation where the budgets are going to go down. Whether it happens next week or next year or the year afterwards I don't know but the directions is definitely the right one. Nobody wants to see a team collapse because it would damage the sport and it would damage Red Bull as well.
How strong a position do you feel Williams is in going forward when you've got the likes of McLaren and Ferrari who look set for years; do you feel confident that Williams can continue to operate as it has been or do you feel it has to change - as you say - as the world is changing around it?
I think that you can basically divide the teams in to three groups: The ones who are having a shareholder structure which allows them certain flexibility and it's not so tough, then you have the ones which are solid and I would say Williams is definitely part of them, and then you have the ones who are struggling. And among the struggling ones it's not only the very small teams and very new teams but there are some with a large infrastructure and you need to finance that every year. We are very solid, we are transparent, we are publicly quoted, we have been making profit for many years and we have zero debt. So all of that puts us in to a position where we are better than the mid pack, better than what we show on track now. The team has made a big step forward with the engine and with the new people coming on board - these new people have been barely there for one year - so the structure is starting to work perfectly. We're going to continue to hire aggressively and it's a matter of time to take the team forward.
Do you think Williams has got a head start on some of the other teams with the way it's moved in to the Middle East and Qatar - getting a base in there first - do you think other teams will be looking to do similar things and that's an area to be exploited?
Yes I think so. Today you have to look at different areas and different possibilities in financing your operations and increasing your network. Our step in to Qatar was well calculated and whether it's going to pay off in terms of sponsorship or not we don't know yet, but definitely our cooperation with Qatar is very close - we have an office there, we have R&D there, we have employed lots of people - so I'm optimistic that this is the right way, but whether it's going to prove to be successful we don't know yet.
That's looking to the future, but how about on the track; how happy have you been with this season so far?
This season has been completely different to what I've seen in the last years because the field is much closer. If you see Free Practice 3 now you see the so-called front runners who are in the middle of the pack and then you see the Saubers who seem to be going very well here (at Spa). So I think this season is exceptional, or is different to many seasons before. I think that we're building a solid base to be competitive in the future. I don't want to look specifically on a race-by-race basis because the short term is not always the best reflection of how it's going to be in the future. We won in Barcelona which was a surprise to everyone who's not a dreamer, so I'm happy about that. We got rid of the demon of not having won for eight years, this is the most important fact. People are expecting much more from us and the car has been very competitive in mid-season with a potential podium in Valencia as well and good performances. For us it's important to end the championship on the right foot; being competitive, fighting for sixth position and next year's going to be the next step forward and the next improvement. It's sold base-building at the moment, we shouldn't expect any miracles - but miracles happen as we've seen in Barcelona - but we are on a good path.
You referenced Valencia, does it disappoint you when there's been the opportunity for another strong result that it hasn't quite come together?
Yes, absolutely, it's very disappointing. For us it's very disappointing but I think for Pastor it's even more disappointing and the driver has to cope with such a situation. But the driver makes mistakes, the team makes mistakes and we are all there together and we have to go through that. Pastor is for me a very quick and intelligent guy and he's going to learn. He's already learning and I would rather work with somebody who comes top down and has raw speed and finds the limit than somebody who's struggling to find the pace. Therefore I like the way he's doing things. I don't like it if he crashes out a lap before the end but that's what we have to go through and it's going to make us stronger.
Are you happy with both drivers then over the season, the way they've delivered the team? Bruno's getting stronger as the year's gone on…
Yes, I like Bruno very much as a personality. His approach is totally different, he has a much more intellectual approach and is a very sensitive guy who needs to be comfortable and needs to feel secure in the team and who needs to find his limits in a completely different way to Pastor. Bruno is doing that at the moment so I'm happy about the way he's progressing and I'm happy about the way he's integrated in the team. It's going in the right direction.
You've taken a step back from having an influence on what happens to Valtteri Bottas' because of your role now, but where would you like to see him next year ideally if you could have a choice?
I think Valtteri is going to end up in Formula One, that's for sure, and I think the question is are we going to have him in one of our cars or somebody else going to sneak him up? This is a decision we have to make together in the next couple of weeks or months and decide which direction the team is going to head in; are we continuing with the current drivers or are we going to change one of them or two of them? So it's all open at this stage.
If you choose not to run Valtteri at Williams next year, do you then have an input with him where he would go elsewhere?
Yes of course, I don't have a role in his management - I leave that to others - but I have a participation, let's say a financial investment, and I would say that if Williams is not part of his future next year then because of that conflict of interest I will refrain myself from interfering and then it's up to Mika [Hakkinen] and Didier [Coton] to look what the best for Valtteri would be.
But you expect to see him in Formula One next year somewhere?
He has the talent to end up in Formula One and I expect him to end up in Formula One, whether it is next year or the year afterwards he's going to be one of the good ones for sure.
And what about for Williams next year; what are the targets for next year? If you've got a solid base this year can it be challenging for wins next year or maybe more podiums?
I think the target should be realistic. Winning races is very difficult - actually it's not, you just have to qualify in front and then it's much easier from what we've analysed! I think being a regular, consistent points-scorer between the podium and sixth place, having podiums, being recognised as one of the good teams, this would be the step forward next year. Finishing in the top five of the championship, maybe top four of the championship, would be something we would be targeting.
2014 is going to be a big change as well, is there big changes for the team in the pipeline? You were talking about aggressive recruitment, is that looking to 2014 as an opportunity?
Yes, absolutely. I think 2014 is going to be a big change in the rules and a big change in the regulations. I think we're all gearing up for 2014 to have a very competitive package and be one of the top teams.
And you think Williams can be looking at championships again from that point?
Yes, yes. That would be my personal target.
Chris Medland is assistant editor at ESPNF1