As with every Zoom call, there’s an awkward moment as the video connects without the audio. Faces briefly loom large in the windows on my screen as the participants, in this case two journalists and five PR people, race to “unmute”. Meanwhile, the Wolffs, now on their third or fourth interview of the day, sit relaxed in their home ready to take another round of questions on life in lockdown.
The pitch from Mercedes-Benz U.S.A. was too good to turn down: A lifestyle interview with motorsport’s power couple about running their racing teams from home. Two team bosses under the same roof, both missing the sport they love but with a rare opportunity to find some respite from a life otherwise spent on the road. I’m told questions about Lewis Hamilton’s future and F1 politics are off limits, but later in the interview Toto still offers some forthright views on recent developments.
In a normal year, the Wolff family would be split across different timezones at different race tracks around the world. Susie, a former DTM and F1 test driver, is the team principal of the Venturi Formula E team, while Toto is the boss of Mercedes’ motorsport programme and one of the biggest names in the F1 paddock.
The couple have a three-year-old son, Jack, and for a large part of the year live in Oxford, not far from Mercedes’ F1 factory in Brackley. But with the coronavirus pandemic resulting in a mandatory shutdown for teams in both Formula One and Formula E, the Wolff family has decided to spend its time at their second home in Toto’s native Austria.
“We’ve had a lot of quality time together and it’s been really nice to recharge the batteries and actually find a bit of calmness in our lives because we were on such a hectic schedule before of traveling and packing cases all the time and always being on the go,” Susie says.
“This has certainly been a little bit of hitting the pause button and in some aspects also hitting the reset button, putting things back into perspective and getting a bit more of a work-life balance in place because it was certainly heading in a direction which I don’t think was sustainable in the longer term.”
Adding his thoughts on life in lockdown, Toto says: “We never annoy each other and we don’t fight … I am sometimes told off, but I guess that’s normal!
“We are trying to have a new and different routine and it’s important to be disciplined with that and not just hang around. We still have our work via videoconferences or on the phone, but we try to do a lot of sports in the free spaces in between.
“We love to go out on the racing bikes, we do work outs and yoga and pilates for Susie. So we are trying to add that into our daily routine. The nice side effect is that we always eat together, which we normally wouldn’t be able to do when travelling. We are really together a lot.”
Even in the super-disciplined Wolff household there is still occasionally time for TV. You might think that having two team principals under one roof would create arguments over who controls the remote, but Susie has a distinct advantage.
“My good luck is that he’s so bad with technology he can’t even open Netflix,” Susie says as Toto walks to the back of the room and gazes out a large sash window. “I always say, ‘oh, look what I found. Shall we watch this’?”
At this point Toto returns to his chair and chimes in.
“I’m starting to get good with technology. You know, I just stood up — my watch told me that I should stand up for a minute!
The lockdown has undoubtedly increased everybody’s reliance on technology. In order to communicate with their drivers, both Susie and Toto have had to rely on video calls and messaging software. Toto reveals Valtteri Bottas’ preferred method of communication is Whatsapp, but Hamilton is regularly on the other end of a video call.
“We talked often and have stayed in contact closely,” Toto says. “I think at the beginning, like for all of us it was unusual to get used to this new situation. But I firmly believe that the ones that adapt the best to a difficult situation are also the ones who become more resilient and most resilient.
“And Lewis has been, as you say, enjoying his different sides of life. I think it did make him appreciate the racing a lot and the good sides, but on the other side being away from all the microphones that are being put in your face, this is something that maybe he enjoyed, too. It slowed us all down and in our crazy frantic traveling circus, that’s maybe not a bad thing.”
But for once, it’s not Hamilton’s future that has been generating headlines in F1. Our interview takes place at the end of a long week of driver market news, kicked off by Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari announcing they will split at the end of 2020. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear the pieces were already in place for Carlos Sainz to replace Vettel at Ferrari and Daniel Ricciardo to switch from Renault to McLaren, but did any of it catch the Wolffs by surprise?
“We have a friendly relationship [with Vettel],” Toto says. “I am not so surprised about his decision; I think you could see some cracks. He’s a great personality, has been one of the personalities of the last 10 years in Formula One, winning four titles and starting this hugely successful spell at Red Bull.
“It’s disappointing for him to see that this dream at Ferrari is being discontinued but it is what it is. How the events panned out was fast and different because one must not forget there is still a full season to race. And you would rarely take decisions so early in the season because be it for Daniel at Renault, or Carlos at McLaren, or Sebastian at Ferrari, these guys will race the new kit, will see all the innovation, will need to be involved in the development of the vehicle and need to play their team part also in some of the competitions.
“So, yes, these decisions came about quicker than I would have done but it’s interesting to watch, maybe there’s something to learn.”
It’s one of the reasons Mercedes is not planning to take a decision on its driver line-up until the summer at the earliest. As things stand, the team’s two drivers are out of contract at the end of the year and, while there is little doubt that Hamilton will continue at the team on another long-term deal, it is not yet clear if Bottas will remain alongside him.
So with the door left slightly ajar over the second seat at Mercedes, has Toto’s phone been ringing more than usual this last week?
“Toto’s phone always rings all the time, so that hasn’t changed much this last week,” Susie adds. “And certainly when people really can’t get through to Toto they start calling me asking ‘where is Toto?’ So I say: ‘Hey, he’s going to pick up when he can, so there’s not point trying to call me get through to him!'”
Toto interjects with a smile on his face: “It’s my phone, it’s not someone else’s phone, so I can decide when I pick up!”
But it’s not just drivers Wolff has been communicating with in recent weeks. Aside from putting the 2020 season on hold until July at the earliest, the coronavirus pandemic has stripped Formula One of its main revenue streams and left it in a fragile state.
Smaller teams have warned they might collapse if the inequalities of the sport are not addressed when racing resumes, while larger teams have signaled that draconian cost-saving measures would result in significant redundancies. The middle ground has been the reduction in F1’s incoming budget cap from $175 million to $145 million and the delay of new regulations until 2022 as well as certain aspects of development being frozen for at least one year.
Some teams have been more vocal than others about F1 politics during the lockdown, but Mercedes has remained remarkably quiet throughout the period. But in breaking his silence, it’s clear Toto has been harbouring some grudges.
“I’ve been in the sport since 2009 with Williams and I’ve never seen so much opportunism and manipulation,” he says. “There are sides of the sport that I question and, at times, the sport itself became background music and not the main act anymore.
“I’ve learned a lot about various people and, as much as I know that this is a highly political environment and everybody tries to gain a benefit, I would say that these past six months were the most political times in Formula One that I have been part of.”
Is that a result of a new economic reality or is it a trait of human nature that siloing leads to growing levels of self-interest?
“First of all, in a sense it was good because I didn’t need to interact with certain people,” he adds. “On the other side, you could clearly see that there were people that felt the need to communicate over the media.
“But at the end, you know, all that is irrelevant. Why we love the sport is because it all comes down to performance. Once the flag drops, the bullshit stops. And the bullshit is going to stop soon and then all these interviews and all these opinions become irrelevant.”
As things stand, the flag is due to drop on a new F1 season on July 5 at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. Toto says the start of the season is “a moving target”, but adds “Austria is looking good, Austria is probably one of the most advanced countries in terms of opening up”. But thinking longer term, has this period without racing helped the Wolffs make decisions on their own future in motorsport and what it might look like?
“I think in the hamster wheel, it’s very difficult to jump out and reflect,” he says. “But I certainly enjoy the time on my long-haul flights to think and reflect. And here we go with corona, suddenly we were limited to the same place for a few weeks, and it gave us a lot of time to discuss with each other.
“We had many, many hikes and walks and bicycle rides together and certainly, analyzed the good things and the bad things of our careers and also how we want this to pan out in the future. And certainly, we’ve come to clearer conclusions and opinions because of this time off.”
Could it involve Susie and Toto working together?
“I would love to,” Susie says. “I know I am hugely proud of what Toto has achieved and I have learned a lot from him. I wanted to do something on my own to prove also that I could forge my own career and do my own work. But I would love to work closer with Toto one day. It would be definitely high up on my wish list and let’s see if that becomes possible in the future.”
With a smile on his face, Toto adds: “I would love to work for her.”