Minutes before the start of the Dutch Grand Prix, which took place under scorching sun last month at Zandvoort, a seaside circuit within driving distance of Amsterdam, Toto Wolff, the director of the Formula 1 team Mercedes-AMG Petronas, came out on the starting grid. A Grand Prix begins when a row of five red lights above the start line go out, one by one, but, for a brief moment before, the track is a twenty thousand horsepower crowd scene.
Each of the supernatural long-nosed machines is assisted by a mobile intensive care unit consisting of generators, steel carts, laptops, tire covers, and uniformed mechanics wearing hard hats and explosion-proof gear. Umbrellas wrap around the pilots’ cockpits. Billionaires stalk the grid. Race marshals hold clipboards in red gloves. The noise is unbelievable: helicopter blades, high-speed cannons, desperate screams from cars, massive fumes from the waiting crowd.
In Zandvoort, loudspeakers swept the sky with dance music. The afternoon was wet; the air was saturated. Wolff was at home. He is tall, dark and Austrian. He could pass for a Sacha Baron Cohen character or someone walking past you at the airport, smelling good, wearing loafers and no socks. He worked on the grid in a white shirt emblazoned with the Mercedes star and the logos of twelve other corporate sponsors, black trousers, team-issued Puma trainers, a sweet smile. He kissed people’s cheeks, touched elbows, gave impromptu TV interviews and shouted last-minute thoughts at his drivers. Somewhere in the fumes was death. Two Formula 1 drivers were killed in the space of three years at Zandvoort in the 70s. At one point I found myself near pit lane when three cars came out of it, red lights flashing. The speed was like a whip.
Wolff, who is fifty years old, is the best team leader in recent history of the fastest motorsport in the world. Formula 1’s “formula” refers to a set of rules, first enshrined after World War II, to bring order to the urge to race dangerous cars on the asphalt of foreign cities. While Nascar is all about left-hand turns, cars that look like cars and spectator-friendly oval tracks, Formula 1 has a purer, purer heart: the oldest courses date back a century. Races last about ninety minutes. They twist, sweep and roll down hills, sometimes into existing streets. Cars, which began as death traps for daredevils, are now specimens of extreme technology, flying algorithms battling for advantages of a hundredth of a second – the distance of a meter on a track of three thousand. Sport is esoteric, but overall it is. Last year, the Mexican Grand Prix attracted three hundred and seventy thousand spectators. The Singapore Race runs through the city at night. (Drivers can lose six pounds in stress and sweat.) The average television audience for a Formula 1 race is around seventy million people, four times that of a typical NFL game, and top drivers earn star football salaries and lasting fame. When Ayrton Senna, three-time world champion, was killed during a race in 1994, the Brazilian government decreed three days of mourning. A million people waited in the heat to pay their respects, and many spoke of their saudade– an inexpressible state of nostalgia for something that is gone.
Between 2014, when Wolff took charge of Mercedes, and 2021, the team has won the world championship eight years in a row, an unprecedented feat. (In Formula 1, there is a constructors’ championship, for the most successful team, and a drivers’ championship, awarded after around twenty races.) Each team has two drivers. Mercedes’ star is Lewis Hamilton, who earned around sixty-five million dollars last season. During the team’s winning streak, Hamilton has won six individual world titles, bringing his career tally to seven. No one has ever won eight. “I couldn’t think of a better friend. I couldn’t think of a better boss,” Hamilton told me, of Wolff.
Formula 1 is currently gaining popularity, particularly in the United States, in part because of a Netflix series, “Drive to Survive”, which embroidered the nerdery of the sport with clever camera work and bitchy insight into the life of its protagonists. Wolff, who speaks five languages and whose wife, Susie, is a former racing driver, is one of the show’s natural stars. Of the sport’s ten team managers, only Wolff and his rival, Christian Horner, a Briton who leads the Red Bull team, have ever won a world championship. But, unlike Horner and the rest of his peers, Wolff also co-owns his team. His one-third stake in Mercedes is conservatively valued at around five hundred million dollars. He sees himself as both a competitor and someone shaping the future of a multi-billion dollar company. “Other team leaders, and I don’t say this arrogantly, are only incentivized by performance,” Wolff said. His adversaries see it. “He’s playing a game and he’s always one step ahead,” one told me.
But this season, Wolff and Mercedes have not won any races. The Dutch Grand Prix was the fifteenth of the season, and Mercedes’ best results so far were a few second places. (In 2020 the team won thirteen out of seventeen.) Hamilton, who joined Formula 1 as a rookie in 2007, has never gone a season without winning at least one race. Before the United States Grand Prix in Austin on October 23, the team languished in third place, behind Red Bull and Ferrari – its worst position in a decade. Watching Wolff and Mercedes lose their way was as disconcerting as it was refreshing, like watching Roger Federer sink his serve, the Yankees miss the playoffs, Simone Biles miss the beam. It’s understandable, up to a point. “We didn’t go from being an eight-time world champion team to not being able to build cars,” Hamilton said. “We come . . . it’s wrong this year.
The apparent reason was a change in the rules. Every few years, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, which has overseen Grand Prix racing since 1906, forces teams to redesign their cars. Normally the official logic has to do with safety, or making it easier to overtake cars, but there’s almost always an unspoken motive: upsetting the order of things and preventing a team from gaining a permanent advantage.
In the past, Mercedes have taken advantage of these changes, adapting faster than their rivals. But the 2022 reset was unusual in scope. One of the aims of the new rules was to reconfigure the downforce generated by the cars, reduce the amount of “dirty air” left in their wake and allow closer racing. During a pre-season test in Bahrain in March, Mercedes’ new car, the W13, seemed to embody the most daring interpretation of this idea. It was slimmer and more futuristic than the rest. “People were watching this thought, Wow. Mercedes are going to blow the field away,” George Russell, the team’s other driver, told me. “Within reason, we thought that too.”
But the W13 turned out to be capricious. Data collected in the wind tunnel or by computer modeling did not end up on the track. At high speeds, the car would bounce, an effect known as porpoising. “My back is killing me!” Hamilton screamed on a long straight in Baku in June, where the floor of the car repeatedly hit the asphalt at more than two hundred miles an hour. Attempts to fix the problem only uncovered other issues. “We tried, tried and failed. And tried and tried and failed,” Hamilton said. Andrew Shovlin, Mercedes Ground Engineering Manager, Ph.D. in the dynamics of military logistics vehicles, compared attaching the W13 to peeling an onion. “Even aerodynamic rebound manifests itself in about three different mechanisms,” he said.
The other reason for Mercedes’ poor performance was a sense of injustice and misfortune. In 2021, with five laps to go in the final race of the season, Hamilton led the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix en route to an eighth individual world title and solo greatness. Hamilton had won the previous three races; he had the car on a string. “He was unbeatable and we were unbeatable,” Wolff said.
On lap 53 in Abu Dhabi, the race was interrupted by a crash, then a safety car took over. (In Formula 1, when there is danger on the track, a sports car with flashing lights leads a stately, disorderly procession of cars, until the danger is cleared.) Under normal circumstances, the Grand Prix would have ended behind the Safety Car, with race order intact. But the race director, an FIA official named Michael Masi, made the decision to divert a group of cars to allow a final lap of the race between Hamilton and second-place driver Max Verstappen of Red Bull. The drivers were tied on points in the world championship standings. Verstappen was on new tyres; he passed Hamilton and won the title. The FIA later concluded that Masi had committed “human error” and he quit his job. But the result remained.