Toto Wolff reflects on his future at Mercedes

Image courtesy of Mercedes AMG F1 Team Steve Etherington.

There has been, and continues to be much speculation over the future of Mercedes-AMG F1 team principle Toto Wolff, who is perhaps infamously out of contract at the end of the 2020 season.

Toto has confirmed that he is in talks with Mercedes’ parent company, Daimler, however it doesn’t appear that any formal decision has been made as yet.

Unfortunately, the fact that the decision hasn’t been made so quickly, given Mercedes’ sheer domination with Wolff at the helm has, inevitably, set tongues waggling through the paddock and the wider F1 community.

But is this speculation valid?

There’s absolutely no denying that, under Wolff’s management, Mercedes have gone from being a team filling up the middle/back positions on the grid (circa 2011/2012, while Schumacher still had a drive), to hoovering up championship after championship for 6 years running. Other teams’ inability to match Mercedes’ pace has inspired regulation changes, and has even endangered viewing figures as fans protest the sport has become too ‘predictable’ as a result.

For Toto, it seems the team’s success is one of the reasons behind him carefully considering his future at Mercedes. Speaking before the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona, he admitted he was ‘in a moment of reflection where F1 is heading to’. Wolff continued, ‘I really enjoy the role and my plan is to continue but I never want to be in a situation where you are becoming from very good to good.’

It’s an interesting approach from Toto who, you would imagine given the vast success, would be quite happy to sign up for another few years. It is also interesting that Wolff’s decision to take time and reflect comes as we turn our attention to the Renault garage, who have famously signed Fernando Alonso for two more championship seasons.

You’re probably wondering how Alonso could have anything to do with Wolff’s decision to stay at Mercedes. The truth is it doesn’t, however, as there has been speculation about Toto’s future, there has been far more (for far longer) about whether Alonso should return to F1 or concentrate on other projects.

One could argue that it shows considerable level-headedness (essential for the role of team-principle, you’d imagine), and an absence of narcissism, to be aware that your track record doesn’t necessarily guarantee the same success going forward, and that it might even be a hindrance to those waiting in the wings to be given their opportunity to progress.

Depending on which side of the argument you’re on, it seems like Wolff is removing pride from the equation, something that doesn’t seem to have happened when Alonso signed with Renault. (Poor Hülkenberg!)

This is, of course, the first opportunity for Wolff to really consider his future in the team after the sad loss of his fellow team boss, Niki Lauda, whose absence is felt not just in the Mercedes garage, but in F1 as a whole.

Like Niki, Toto is quite the entrepreneur, with a keen eye for driver talent (he famously manages Esteban Ocon, who some of us expected would be filling Bottas’s seat last year), as well as having small stakes in Aston Martin and as of June this year, Williams F1. Perhaps he could give Dr Helmut Marko a run for his money, and turn his attention to making further investments, and manage new drivers coming up through the formulas.

Personally, I find this unlikely, however I would like to see Wolff move to another team, or even another formula that needs a little bit of development. An advisor for Williams F1 maybe? Or, working with the Mercedes-Benz EQ Formula E team, and boosting its profile even further.

Whatever he decides, I’m certain the Wolff name will remain an enormous part of F1, and if all else fails, I’m sure Sky Sports F1 will be waiting in the wings with a decent contract for him, just in case.

Book Review – Niki Lauda by Maurice Hamilton

As a motorsport fan I’ve rarely felt the level of righteous indignation I experienced in September 2013, when Heart FM egregiously used this caption under a photo of Niki Lauda and a footballer. Admittedly, that footballer was David Beckham, but who hasn’t heard of Niki Lauda?

Never fear, however, for Maurice Hamilton is here to put that injustice to rights with his biography of the great Austrian, fittingly titled Niki Lauda.

The expression GOAT is bandied about a lot these days. That’s ‘Greatest of all Time’, for those of you who like to wave at trendy acronyms as they pass you by. Reading Hamilton’s book, which is based on testimonies by journalists, peers and friends, as well as the forthright opinions of the man himself, it’s clear that Lauda would have been among the first to say that GOAT is not really applicable to him. The term implies a natural ability that is seen rarely in the history of a sport; your Ronnie O’Sullivans, Mo Farrahs and Lance Armstrongs.

Okay, maybe not that last one.

What Lauda can easily be described as is a legend of F1, with three world titles as a driver and decades of involvement in the sport out of the cockpit.

Lauda disliked the misconception that he was a walking computer, thinking in binary terms and coldly assessing risk. This was rooted in his idiosyncratic and abrupt way of speaking, and his often harsh criticism and high expectations of others. He ignored the fluff and superstition of sport, and built a legacy from his own self-belief, business acumen and intelligence. He couldn’t drive around a car’s problems, but he could communicate effectively with his team to correct issues. Everything he did was for a purpose and was done with intricate attention to detail. And if there’s one thing that is apparent in the fond comments by those interviewed by Hamilton, it’s that Lauda possessed a great sense of humour and was deeply kind; aspects of his personality perhaps less widely accepted than his immense fortitude.

Niki Lauda focuses on Lauda’s adult life and career, glossing over his youth and family except in how they affected his early ambition to go racing. Instead, the book gives engaging insight into Lauda’s thought processes and how his work ethic and experiences set him apart from his contemporaries. He had ambition, but it went beyond driving. He had passion, but it was tempered by shrewd decision-making. He was outspoken, but he never exempted himself from his blunt criticism.

Niki Lauda is not just a book for fans; it’s the story of a fascinating life, written with love.

To get the full Lauda experience, the impressive tome Niki Lauda: His Competition History by Jon Saltinstall was published in 2019. Read in conjunction with Hamilton’s biography, it beautifully illustrates Lauda’s racing career. This book doesn’t belong on a coffee table; it is a stunning testament to a career that spanned the decades when single seater motorsport was precariously balanced between appalling danger and creative innovation.

Formula 1 is an inherently photogenic sport, and the sheer beauty of the vintage images in this book are breathtaking. For true fans of both Lauda and the history of motorsport, it’s well worth the £60 asking price.

 

Niki Lauda: His Competition History is published by Evro.

https://www.evropublishing.com/products/niki-lauda-his-competition-history

Niki Lauda by Maurice Hamilton is published by Simon and Schuster.

https://www.simonandschuster.co.uk/books/Niki-Lauda/Maurice-Hamilton/9781471192012

 

 

 

 

Ferrari pay tribute to ‘fearless knight’ Lauda

Ferrari’s team principal Mattia Binotto has paid tribute to Niki Lauda, describing the late Austrian as a “fearless knight”.

Lauda won two of his three world championships and fifteen Grand Prix victories with Ferrari between 1974 and 1977, making him the second most successful driver for the team behind Michael Schumacher.

“My memories of Lauda go back to my childhood,” said Binotto. “When I was little I saw him and Regazzoni win for the Prancing Horse on race tracks all round the world. I was not yet ten and to me he seemed like a fearless knight.

“Once I came into Formula 1, my relationship with Niki was one of mutual respect. I think that thanks to his bravura and his undoubted charisma, he helped make this great sport well known and loved all over the world.

“I have fond memories of him telling me that my Swiss approach was just what was needed to bring order to the very Italian Ferrari! That was Niki all over, straight talking and direct and even if you didn’t agree with him all the time, you couldn’t help but like him.”

Ferrari Media

A further statement from Ferrari described him as “a workaholic, a computer-like brain ahead of his time, a stickler for detail who could separate emotion and rational thought and go straight to the heart of the matter”.

Lauda attracted global attention in 1976 when, just forty days after a crash at the Nurburgring that left him with serious burns, he made a remarkable return to racing at Ferrari’s home race at Monza.

He would go on to win a third world championship and a further ten Grand Prix victories with McLaren in the 1980s. Fast-forward to 2012, and Lauda was appointed Non-Executive Chairman of Mercedes Grand Prix, where he played a key role in shaping the team into the force they are today.

He underwent a lung transplant in September 2018 and was re-admitted to hospital at the start of 2019. He passed away peacefully on Monday evening at the age of 70 in Zurich, where he had been undergoing treatment for kidney problems.

 

[Featured image – Ferrari Media]

The Lauda Years

There are few stories quite like Niki Lauda’s time at Ferrari during the mid-1970s.

From title wins to fireballs to disagreements over driver selection, the four-season relationship had an array of highs and lows. Lauda had paid for his previous drives at March and then BRM before joining Ferrari on the recommendation of new Ferrari recruit Clay Regazzoni in 1974, the duo working together at BRM.

The Austrian showed his potential early on with a second place at Round One in Argentina before taking Ferrari’s first victory in two years at the Spanish Grand Prix three races later. He would remain a challenger through the year on his way to fourth place in standings and picking up another win in Holland before the season was out. Lauda also gained a reputation during his first year at Ferrari for being studious of engineering and car setup and would work tirelessly to improve the car during his time in Maranello.

1975 would start slowly as the first four races would yield finishes no higher than fifth, but Ferrari’s updates put him back on track. He would win four of the next five races to put himself clear at the top of the title standings. Further points finishes in Germany and Austria would give him a chance to clinch a World Drivers’ Championship for Ferrari on their home soil. Third place gave him his first career World Championship and Ferrari’s first Constructors’ win since 1964 as teammate Regazzoni won the race at Monza.

Author: Lothar Spurzem

Lauda started 1976 in dominant fashion and swept all before him in the first six races – his worst finish being second twice during that period. Title rival James Hunt had shown flashes of brilliance in the early part of the year, but his McLaren was often unpredictable and also struggled with reliability during the early part of the season.

Round ten was the now infamous German Grand Prix. Lauda lobbied with other drivers to boycott the rain-soaked Grand Prix but was outnumbered. In a tragic irony he then crashed, and his Ferrari ignited. He was pulled eventually from the burning wreckage but extensive damage was done. He had suffered burns to his face and arms including losing most of his right ear, lost his eyelids and damaged his tear ducts which would affect him in further races and lost his scalp. That was supposed to be that. For his championship, for his career and possibly for his life.

Lauda didn’t follow the script and unexpected to almost everyone in the paddock, he returned – bandages and all – at the Italian Grand Prix just four races later. He took fourth, unable to blink with his skin-grafted eyelids and in obvious pain while Hunt had reduced his arrears during Lauda’s lay-off.

The Canadian Grand Prix went Hunt’s way as the maverick Briton won while Lauda finished out of the points in eighth, while in the USA Hunt won again but was joined his friend and rival. The 1976 Japanese Grand Prix was a race as wet as the fateful German Grand Prix and Lauda, still affected by his injuries, withdrew on safety grounds. That left Hunt needing third place to snatch the title away from Lauda, and after pitting from the lead he eventually worked his way back up to take the World Drivers’ Championship by a point. His decision to retire from that race didn’t sit well with Ferrari and his relationship with the team became more strained going into what would turn out to be his last year with the team. 

Despite taking just three wins in 1977 Lauda’s consistency against his rivals made his third title straightforward, but he announced his decision to join Brabham anyway. The Austrian was irked by his team’s decision to replace Regazzoni with Carlos Reutemann, with whom he did not enjoy a friendship as with Regazzoni. But he didn’t even make the end of the season. Upset with the team fielding a third car with then-unknown Gilles Villeneuve, Lauda walked out at the Canadian Grand Prix two races from the end of the season.

Lauda won 15 races and two World Drivers’ Championships at Ferrari, but his time there will be remembered for so much more than just his accolades. It will also be remembered for his sheer bravery and battle to return against the odds.