Toto Wolff, the executive director of Williams F1, is leaving the team to become the head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport. The 41-year-old Austrian will replace Norbert Haug. It is not yet clear how he will work with Niki Lauda, the non-executive chairman of the Mercedes F1 team, as he reports directly to the board of Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart. Wolff is a shareholder in the Williams team and will no doubt be selling those shares at some point in the not-too-distant future.
Wolff bought 10 percent of the company in the autumn of 2009 after it was agreed that the team would float on the stock exchange. When the team was floated he upped his shareholding to 16.3 percent. When the team’s chairman Adam Parr quit Formula 1, Wolff was named Executive Director of Williams F1, acting as the team principal when Sir Frank Williams was not at races.
Born into a family with links to Poland, Wolff was christened with the Norwegian name of Torger. As he grew up in Vienna, this was shortened to “Toto”. The family did not huge amounts of money and so motor racing did not exist in his world until a Viennese friend Philipp Peter invited him to watch a race at the Nürburgring. He enrolled in the Walter Lechner Racing School at the Osterreichring and then started racing a Seat Ibiza. In 1991 he raised enough money to race in Formula Ford and managed his first full season in 1992 with Lechner, racing in Austria, Germany and in New Zealand. In the course of the next three years he did 70 races for the team and was planning a move into Formula 3 in 1994 when his sponsor decided to quit racing, after another of its drivers – Karl Wendlinger – was hurt in an accident at Monaco. Wolff had no money and knew that he was too old and not fast enough for a topline career and so quit the sport and became a salesman in the steel business. After a couple of years he set up his won business selling steel in eastern Europe. By then the Internet was beginning to take off and there were huge IPOs in that sector so Wolff began looking around Austria and talking to Internet start-ups about IPOs. This led to a deal which gave him a share in one of the companies when it floated and so he was able to start investing in other businesses and his company soon became known for its IPO experience. Shortly before the Internet crashed he sold all his shareholdings and took a sabbatical, going back to racing with GTs and touring cars. This led to him helping out some drivers and this led to him becoming involved with HWA, which was managing the Mercedes Benz Junior budget. He got on well with the owner Hans-Werner Aufrecht and in the end he agreed to sell Wolff and some other investors 49 percent of the business, on the basis that the company would then float a percentage of its shares. The company took a look at buying Scuderia Toro Rosso and turning it into an AMG F1 team, the plan being to use McLaren-Mercedes chassis, but they did not have the budget to do the job properly. Colin Kolles suggested to him that he might take a look at Williams and that led to his involvement with the team.
“I was a racer,” he said in a recent interview. “I am a failed racer really, and maybe that is something that is still in the back of my mind. Probably going to see a shrink would be cheaper and less work than investing in an F1 team, but…”
The word is that Wolff may be buying into the Mercedes F1 Team as it has recently bought shares back from Aabar. Wolff may not have the money to pay for a large percentage on his own, but in the past he has worked with silent partners and he may be doing the same again.
It remains to be seen what Williams will do. The loss of Parr and Wolff within a few months will be a blow, but the team has solid management with CEO Alex Burns, although he tends to keep an eye on the industrial side of the operation more than the racing team. The real power in the team remains Sir Frank Williams and in it is entirely possible that he will buy Wolff’s shares off him, in order to ensure continuity.