‘It was dirty’: Toto Wolff opens up on joining Mercedes

Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse followed Toto Wolff and Mercedes throughout 2021.

Toto Wolff is perhaps one of the greatest team principals Formula 1 has ever seen, with the Austrian taking an approach not usually seen in the paddock – one of a businessman.

Wolff joined the Silver Arrows in 2013, following a role at Williams as their executive director and as a minority shareholder.

Since joining Mercedes, the meticulous boss hasn’t looked back, only forwards.

The Austrian has become something close to a relentless winner, with Mercedes having claimed 15 of the 16 available World Championships from 2014-2021.

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It’s safe to say, though, that whilst perfection prior to 2022 was met on the circuit, it took a lot of time to get the Brackley-based side’s garages and base up to the 50-year-old’s impeccable standards.

Wolff’s initial thoughts were revealed to Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse, who followed the Germans throughout 2021.

Elberse conducted interviews and observations from behind the scenes at the reigning Constructors’ Champions, to see what made the dominant side click.

Her work was converted into a case study which she has since taught at Harvard Business School, where Wolff joined as a guest lecturer.

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The study produced analyses Wolff’s six lessons for running a company, that any leader can use to their benefit.

Elberse’s study is truly a fascinating read, with some incredible insight into what life was like before Wolff joined the Germans and, most importantly, why they became such relentless winners.

Wolff told Elberse his initial thoughts when he visited the Germans Brackley home for the first time, where he revealed his shock at the apparent lack of care in the facility.

“On the table were a crumpled Daily Mail newspaper from the week before and two old paper coffee cups,” Wolff recalled to Elberse.

“I went up to the office to meet him [Ross Brawn], and at the end of our conversation I said, ‘I look forward to working together. But just one thing—that reception area doesn’t say “F1,” and that’s where it needs to start if we want to win.’ He said, ‘It’s the engineering that makes us win,’ and I replied, ‘No, it’s the attitude. It all starts with an attention to detail.’”

That “attention to detail” was in shock when he went to use the toilets in the team’s hospitality areas for the first ever time, where he couldn’t quite grasp what he had seen.

“It was dirty,” he said, “and I thought, ‘That cannot be. This is our home on a race weekend and where our sponsors come with their families.’”

As a result, Wolff staggeringly brought into the team a full-time hygiene manager, Miguel Guerreiro, who has remained with the team ever since.

Wolff went on to reveal the very hands-on approach he gave Guerreiro, which included, showing him how to “wipe the floor”.

“I physically showed him how I wanted him to clean the toilet, how to put the brush back, how to wipe the floor, how to put the soap bottles with the front facing forward, how to sanitize the handles, and so on,” revealed Wolff.

“And I walked him through what I wanted his schedule for the week to be, and how on Sundays, when it is busy, I want him to park himself right next to the bathroom and make sure it is spotless after every guest.”

The approach Wolff took might seem slightly over-the-top to some; however, it has had a dramatic effect on the team’s presentation and self-care.

We are forever told to take care of our personal belongings and the same can be said for Mercedes’ garage.

Wolff has installed a mentality into the team that makes them seemingly aware of every little detail, whether that be a development on the car, or a tyre mark on the floor.

“When I walked into the garage 10 years ago, it was messy,” he continued to tell Elberse.

“Now we’re cleaning the floor every time the car has been in there. You’ll see no tyre marks, no tool out of place. Everything is spotless and organised. I think that affects how we look after the cars too. We’re meticulous.”

Times have certainly changed for the Silver Arrows in 2022, as they’ve taken a momentary pause from being consistent winners.

Mercedes have failed to design a car suitable for the new aerodynamic regulations, with the Germans having effectively been too smart in the W13’s sidepod design.

Wolff has admitted that his side made a mistake with the philosophy of this season’s car, but that they now know how to fix this for 2023.

It has resulted in some difficult races this season, where Wolff has needed to “protect my tribe” from the media.

The Mercedes boss gave an insight into how he deals with errors, after ensuring that his side have a no-blame culture.

Unlike some other sides who will openly say if a jackman made a mistake, for example, Wolff is virtually never heard talking negatively or singling out an employee of the side.

Wolff revealed that he’ll always “fight back” to support his side, in order for his team to have the confidence to step-forward in-house to admit they made a mistake, with the focus being on working forward to improve, rather than dwelling on an error.

“I’m there to protect my tribe, and I will fight back with all I have. I want my people to be able to say ‘I made a mistake’ and for us to move on from that,” added Wolff.

The Austrian actually gave an example of when he had to deal with a “heartbroken” mechanic, for what was dubbed the longest pit-stop in the “history books”.

Some fans might remember the 2021 Monaco Grand Prix where at a stop, one of Valtteri Bottas’ tyres was stuck onto his W12, much to the mechanics dismay.

Astonishingly, the wheel was stuck to the point where the entire car had to be returned to Brackley, where the tyre was cut off.

Wolff explained how he dealt with the matter, to protect the mechanic from hovering journalists.

“That had never happened in F1. The mechanic was heartbroken,” Wolff said.

“I stood up then and said, ‘Yes, you are going into the history books with the longest pit stop ever for a tire change—36 hours.’ But I also made sure to show him and everyone else in the garage and at the factory that I had his back when, after the race, a journalist tried to blame the mechanic.

“I was sending a message that I am protecting the team.”

Mistakes are certainly something that happen in all ways of life, with Formula 1 being absolutely no exception.

Wolff has installed a mantra into the Germans to ensure that they “don’t need to lie” after making an error, with the focus being on fixing it, rather than repeating it.

“When they make a mistake, I want our people to know they don’t need to lie in order to retain their jobs,” Wolff said.

“I want the organisation to be one in which people feel safe speaking up. We live by the mantra See it, say it, fix it.”

READ: ‘That would be foolish’: Toto Wolff makes Mercedes admission

Lewis Hamilton is a fan of Wolff’s approach to protecting the team, after informing Elberse that he has “been” in garages where the “blame” does get pinned onto a single person.

“I’ve been in other environments where one person got the blame for something,” he said.

“But we have to do things together. Even at the racetrack, when you know something has gone wrong and it is down to one person, we don’t single out that person and make them feel bad—we all bear the brunt of it.”