Williams F1 team has been left in a tricky position by a decision by one of its shareholders and senior managers, Toto Wolff, to take up the role of executive director with Mercedes F1.
Wolff will become a 30% shareholder of Mercedes Grand Prix, Niki Lauda will hold 10%, however in a rather awkward conflict, Wolff will retain his 15% shareholding in the Williams team, for the time being at least.
It was important that Wolff’s retained shareholding was part of the message from the point of view of the financial picture at Williams and with regards to share price, as Williams is listed on the Frankfurt exchange. According to Bloomberg, shares in Williams Grand Prix, “fell 2 percent to 24.20 euros at 1:10 p.m.”
The Austrian, who had steadily increased his influence with the Grove team in recent years, will to some extent replace Norbert Haug, who left Mercedes just before Christmas after the disappointing results of the F1 team, although there are subtle differences in their roles.
“Williams Grand Prix Holdings PLC today announced that Toto Wolff, one of its Executive Directors, will be leaving the Company with immediate effect to take up a new role with Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd,” said a Williams statement.
“Toto will be relinquishing his seat on the Company’s Board of Directors but will retain his shareholding.”
Sir Frank Williams said in a statement that Wolff will retain his shareholding, whilst managing a rival team and noted that, “we will fight him hard on the racetrack!”
Williams will rely on his management board to steer the team through this departure, but Wolff was an important figure in the team’s relationship with the FIA and with Bernie Ecclestone in particular. He replaced Adam Parr, who did not see eye to eye with the 82 year old billionaire F1 boss.
With Williams, 70, not as strong or energetic as he used to be, Wolff provided vitality to the team and worked well alongside the team’s very capable CEO Alex Burns, who runs the team behind the scenes. Wolff will need to be replaced to maintain that energy and direction. Williams also lost Prof Mark Gillan over the winter. He was responsible for all track operations.
A statement from Mercedes said, “Toto Wolff is to become both a shareholder and executive director of Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd. and will take over the complete coordination of all Mercedes-Benz motorsport activities.”
Like Haug, he will be in charge of all Mercedes motorsport, including DTM and F3, although it will be more of an overseer role, with F1 his primary operational function.
Wolff has a strong history on the DTM side of the business through his investment in HWA, the partner of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport in DTM racing.
The Mercedes F1 team previously had Ross Brawn as team principal, Nick Fry as CEO and Niki Lauda as no-exec chairman. The Mercedes statement said that “Together with Ross Brawn, Lauda and Wolff will complete the management of the Mercedes-Benz Formula 1 racing team.”
There was no mention of Fry in the new landscape and Mercedes sources say that “there are still details that are under discussion.”
Wolff’s role is clearly going to be from the Mercedes corporate side, representing their interests. He lives in Switzerland currently, but will be based at Mercedes HQ in Brackley. He will report to the Daimler board on non-F1 matters, but on F1 matters will report via the Mercedes GP team board through Lauda to the Daimler board, as does Brawn.
Lauda remains the main conduit back to the Daimler board for the F1 team.
Although today’s development is a positive one for Mercedes and strengthens their talent pool greatly, it also means that Mercedes’ F1 team will have an “Austrian arm” (with shareholdings) and a “British arm” (without shareholdings) to its management. It’s clear where the power lies.
Knowing how F1 politics work, it is going to be very interesting to see how this plays out.
* If you want to know more about Toto Wolff and hear how he thinks about F1, you can check out the interview I did with him on the JA on F1/UBS podcast, from last October here. JA on F1 podcast Wolff segment starts at 15m 14s.