Since his arrival at Mercedes, Toto Wolff has been something of a divisive character within the paddock. His fierce rivalry with Christian Horner is now legendary as is the famous slamming down of the headphones when race director Michael Massi informed him there would be a last lap shootout following the late safety car at the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Toto arrived at the Mercedes team in 2013 following a three year period since the German brand had acquired Brawn and the team had been building towards an assault on the world championship as the new V6 hybrid power units were being introduced.
Wolff’s takeover at Mercedes
Many F1 observers would argue Ross Brawn and the likes of Norbert Haug (Mercedes motorsport director) had delivered the Mercedes AMG F1 transformation programme and recruited Lewis Hamilton prior to the takeover by Wolff.
Toto’s modus operandi saw Ross Brawn decide it was time to leave the team because he was uncomfortable with how Lauda and Wolff were making decisions.
“What happened at Mercedes is that people were imposed on me who I couldn’t trust. I never really knew what they were trying to do. I mean Niki would tell me one thing, then I would hear he was saying something else,” Brawn revealed some years later.
“I was beginning to deal with people who I didn’t feel I could ultimately trust; people within the team, who had let me down already in terms of their approach.
Toto considered leaving previously
“Then in early 2013, I discovered [the technical director] Paddy Lowe had been contracted to join the team and it had been signed off in Stuttgart. When I challenged Toto and Niki, they blamed each other. I met them to have it out with them. And they both pointed to each other …”
Brawn’s departure left Wolff as the de facto team principal, a role he has held to this day.
Yet Wolff is in reality a money man, unlike many of his peers who have climbed the ladder to F1 through the blood sweat and tears of junior formula racing. At some point he and his fellow investors will decide they have maximised the return on their money and pull out.
During the early part of the 2020 season, Motorsport-Total reported that Toyota Wolff was considering stepping back from his role at Mercedes. Although he confirmed he would remain for the foreseeable future the Austrian publicly did concede:
The Hamilton ‘contract’ problem
“But I may decide spontaneously that somebody else can carry the baton better, be quicker, more agile, refreshed than me, but not yet.”
Times are tough at Mercedes with Red Bull looking as though they will dominate the sport until the new regulations in 2026. Further, Lewis Hamilton has refused to sign a contract beyond this season despite Wolff claiming in January it would take a “matter of hours” before we see “the white smoke.”
James Vowles who left this year to become Williams team principal appeared to hit Wolff hard. He gave another interview where he suggested he would in a heartbeat promote anyone to his role if he felt they could do a better job.
James Vowles was Toto’s natural sucessor
Vowles was considered a natural successor to Toto but clearly felt the glass ceiling he hit at Mercedes needed to be broken.
Toto has tried to deliver succession plans as evidenced by his appointment of Mike Elliot to replace the teams successful technical director James Allison.
Elliot oversaw the new car under the big FIA regulation changes for 2022 but failed to deliver a consistent front running challenger in either the W13 or the W14.
The decision was then taken to switch Allison and Elliot around in an attempt to get the team’s technical direction back on track.
Mercedes management succession plan fails
However, it will be at least 2024 before the evidence of this management shuffle has been successful or not.
Now Toto again is hinting at his possible retirement from the role of Mercedes’ team principal. He now announces before F1 resumes after the summer break that former F1 driver Jérome D’Ambrosio, who joined Mercedes in March, will be the one to replace him if he can’t attend a grand prix this season.
Having competed in Formula E for several seasons, D’Ambrosio was recruited in March this year as Mercedes’ new driver development director.
Clearly Jerome has impressed since joining the former world champions as Toto now reveals he will become his right hand man in effect replacing the departed Vowles.
Wolff announces his new No.2
“When I am absent on a race weekend, Jérome will replace me,” the Austrian told Auto Hebdo. “It is true that in 11 years it has only happened three times, but it is a situation that we have to anticipate.
Toto’s next comment suggests the number two role and part time team principal job may well grow much bigger in the near future. He praised the work D’Ambrosio delivered last season with Venturi in Formula E
“Jérôme did a very good job last year with his role at Venturi. A small structure, which obviously has nothing to do with ours, which still has 2,500 people.
“Now, he has to gain credibility within the team and in the paddock, he still has time, but in case I can’t be there, he will be in my place.”
D’Ambrosio already at Wolff’s level
Wolff injured himself during the summer break though at this moment there is no suggestion D’Ambrisio will deputise for him at the up coming Dutch Grand Prix.
But there is significantly more than a glimmer that Wolff sees Jerome as his successor whilst joking, “However, he is involved and I must even say that half of his interventions during the grands prix are sensible.
“I assure you that this is already a remarkable score, James Allison often told me that I said 50 percent intelligent things, and 50 percent nonsense.
“More seriously, you have to give him time, but I have the impression that he has the right profile to take on this role.”
A great loss to Hamilton
This may be a shock to the out of contract Hamilton who during his contract renewal negotiations has repeatedly staked his claim with the team so long as Toto is in charge.
Were Wolff to decide to cash in his chips and move on, Hamilton would be left without his staunchest ally and may believe the end is nigh on his glittering career with the silver arrows.
— Formula 1 (@F1) August 19, 2023