News Toto Wolff has signed a new three-year deal as Mercedes team principal, revealed in an interview with the UK’s Daily Telegraph, might come as a surprise to those who feel its slide from competitiveness should trigger regime change.
Potentially, the reverse is actually true - as the challenge of getting the team back on top may invigorate Wolff even more than were he still overseeing domination.
Wolff, who before this extension had often been rumoured as seeking an off-ramp to his full-time F1 involvement, is atypical of modern team bosses. He’s one of three equally-weighted owners of the team, the others being Daimler and Jim Ratcliffe’s INEOS, therefore is not a ‘hired gun’ team principal and is woven into the structure of a team he has been at the helm of since joining, initially as executive director, at the start of 2013.
A keen student of management, primarily as a result of his growing roles in F1 teams since first becoming involved with Williams as a minority shareholder in late 2009, he is confident he’s the right person to lead the team. His Mercedes history supports the contention.
He stresses one of the main factors that would lead to him stepping back would be becoming bored rather than exhausted by the job. You could argue that, perversely, the team’s slide from the top and the challenge presented in recovering makes him not only the best-qualified candidate but also one fully motivated to continue.
“I’m part of this team in various functions,” Wolff told The Daily Telegraph. “I’m a co-shareholder. I’m on the board. These are things which will not change whatever executive, or non-executive, role I have.
"But I feel good. The risk for me is always more bore-out than burnout.
"And that’s why I embrace the challenges we have today, even though they sometimes feel very, very difficult to manage.”
Motivation can be a complex beast and Wolff will doubtless relish the idea of taking a team back to the top.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner – from Wolff’s perspective surely his primary antagonist in F1 – has in the past described his opposite number at Mercedes as having “inherited” the team. The implication is that when Wolff joined, Mercedes was on the brink of success anyway.
Doubtless, Wolff would enjoy proving that one wrong by taking Mercedes back to the top. After all, everyone has an ego - even if that won't be a primary motivation.
Wolff insists there are no performance clauses in his contract. From that you could also conclude his willingness to commit for three years means he’s in it for the long-haul.
That’s despite there being question marks over whether the Mercedes W15, which he characterises as a car for which “literally every component has been changed”, will be a big enough step forward.
For him, it’s now about ensuring that this is only a downturn in a run of success rather than the start of a long decline. And if that does prove to be the picture, a few seasons finishing second or third will appear far less catastrophic in the long-term perspective than they must seem while in the midst of them.
“We have a board in our factory that shows all the constructors’ championship titles since 1958, and the table goes until 2050,” said Wolff at the end of last season.
“You have the badges for [the winner] of each of the years and there are 27 open, empty badges. I would like to look back in 20 years and see many more Mercedes cars.
“I hate retrospective views, but when we look back in 20 years and we consider that big decade - it was, second, first, first, first, first, first, first, first, first, third, second. And when you look at it from that perspective you say, ‘that was OK’.
"Now from a micro-view view, there was one guy that won 19 races [last year], so that is of course not good enough.”
It would be a mistake to blame Wolff exclusively for the failings of the past two years, just as it would be foolish to credit him entirely for the success of the eight seasons that came before.
But he was a key part of the glory years and is now tasked with helping prove the team is able to conquer a challenge he always knew was coming when Mercedes was inevitably knocked off its perch.
You could conclude it's failed this test, but with the lead times of F1 it’s fair to allow a little longer for the recovery - even if it has ultimately been Mercedes’ own design shortcomings that have resulted in it winning just one grand prix across the past two seasons.
The bottom line is Wolff, and his Mercedes co-owners, are confident that he is the right person for the job. And that at least proves Wolff is, for all the visible signs of frustration in recent times, still driven to take on this all-consuming job despite having plenty of other options that would be easier, and lucrative, away from F1.
“The most important thing between the three of us [Wolff, Ratcliffe and Mercedes CEO Kallenius] is that we trust each other,” Wolff told The Daily Telegraph.
“At the end of the day, as a shareholder myself, I want the best return on investment. And the best return on investment is winning.
"I’m not going to try to hang on to a position that I think somebody is going to do better than me. I make sure that I have people around who can tell me otherwise.
“In the end the three of us decided: ‘Let’s do it again’.”
'Doing it again' could simply refer to three more years, but knowing Wolff it can also be taken to mean the desire to get back to winning ways. Mercedes has everything it needs in terms of resources, meaning that winning again is perfectly achievable - even if title glory in 2024 is unlikely.
But in the years beyond that, there’s no question Mercedes has what it needs to emerge as a challenger to Red Bull. Having stability of leadership can only be seen as a positive for the team's hopes of realising that potential.