- Toto Wolff has led the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team to eight Constructor Championship wins.
- Despite his success, in 2020 Wolff experienced severe burnout.
- By talking about his journey, Wolff hopes he can help end the stigma around mental illness.
Toto Wolff, the principal and CEO of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team, was so burned out in 2020 that he seriously thought about selling his stake in the $1 billion team.
In an interview with Insider, Wolff — one of the most successful principals in motorsport history, with eight Constructor Championships to his name — said that in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic he considered leaving F1 and returning to his former career in finance.
“Although I was functioning, I wasn’t able to deliver 100% of what I used to before I burned out,” Wolff told Insider.
Wolff and Mercedes were in the midst of one of the most dominant runs in sports history, having just won their sixth consecutive team championship and sixth consecutive driver’s title — five with Lewis Hamilton, one from Nico Roseberg. Every year the Constructor Championship title is awarded to the most successful F1 car designer, and the driver’s title is awarded to the most successful driver.
Wolff had also become one of the most recognizable faces in sports thanks to the popularity of the Netflix docuseries “Drive to Survive.”
Wolff said he spent much of 2020 at home reflecting on whether he wanted to continue to run the team. He said he informed Mercedes leadership that he needed time away and space to think. “I gave it all my energy, and at the moment I can’t give it,” he recalls telling them. “And I believe that if I’m too actively involved, people are going to feel that I’m not the Toto that I was before.”
Burnout, which has been declared an occupational syndrome by the World Health Organization, has risen steeply over the past two years. The condition, characterized by feelings of energy depletion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of cynicism related to one’s job, hurts productivity and can have devastating effects on mental and physical health. The sports-psychology literature suggests that perfectionism is a major risk factor for athlete burnout in particular.
But while the condition is particularly prevalent today, burnout remains a taboo subject. Wolff — who told Insider he’d been “affected by mental-health issues” since he was 18 — said he hoped his honesty along with the candor of athletes like the gymnast Simone Biles, tennis player Naomi Osaka, and F1 driver Lando Norris would help other people be more open to discuss their own struggles.
“I think we can make our organizations so much better by destigmatizing that topic and making our life so much happier,” he said.
The year 2020 should have been a year of celebration for the Austrian-born Wolff. One might have guessed he’d be relishing in Mercedes’ and Hamilton’s triumphant return to the track.
But he says he was in a dark place that year, while much of the world was in the grips of a COVID-19 lockdown. “My wife said: ‘I could see it coming. You hardened, you didn’t have any bandwidth, you didn’t have any room anymore for mistakes,'” he said, referring to his partner of 11 years, Susie Wolff, the CEO of Venturi Racing.
He told his fellow executives that he needed some downtime. His technical director, James Allison, was supportive, as were his colleagues. “If you have a team around you where you can be open and transparent, then that’s a wonderful thing,” he said.
During the year, Wolff talked to a therapist every day, journaled, exercised, meditated, and tried cognitive-behavioral therapy. “It’s in my character to bombard the problem and try to find out what helps,” he said. “Literally, you’re trying to gain land a centimeter a day by applying these things.”
Since escaping what Wolff called “mental Siberia,” the CEO said he no longer relied on daily therapy or meditation . Instead he finds comfort in knowing that if he’s ever in that place again, he’d know where to turn. “I think if you are not in pain, you are not necessarily in need of all those things,” he said. “But that resource is there. I know it’s there to protect me if it were to happen again.”
Looking out for others
The international travel, million-dollar cars, and celebrity fan following associated with Formula One create a glamorous perception of a sport that is, in reality, hard and grueling. Crew members are tasked with moving the team around the world during an eight-month schedule that sees F1 travel to 22 races in 20 countries on five continents, often with only one week between races.
According to Wolff, those working behind the scenes in the paddocks — the people who build the garages, take apart the cars, change engines, and quickly swap out tires during races — are most at risk for burnout.
Those employees don’t stay in the fanciest hotels or fly first class as management does, Wolff told Insider.
“These are the people we need to protect and consider in the calendar,” he said. “We want people to be happy to work in a Formula One and not bail out because they simply can’t do it anymore physically and mentally.”
As a manager, Wolff believes it is his responsibility to care about his employees’ mental state as he would any threat to their physical health, and he said managers who hadn’t encountered mental illness might find it hard to grasp the seriousness of their workers’ needs.
“If you break a leg and you need to stay at home for three weeks or you have cancer, say, something terrible, people accept that you’re out for six months,” he said. “But here, if you say I’m really feeling depressed or anxious or badly down, there is still so much stigma on it.”
Wolff also extends this management style to the highest-profile members of his team: the drivers.
In the past, Wolff has been criticized for allowing Hamilton to leave the team between races to focus on other passions, whether it is walking the catwalk for a new fashion line with Tommy Hilfiger in Shanghai or recording music in Japan. Wolff says Hamilton is mentally stronger on the weekend if he has a chance to detach during the week.
“I don’t like to put people in boxes, ‘This is how you should be,'” Wolf said. “In the past, it was the case that racing drivers should have to train a lot, have the right nutrition, sleep enough, and work a lot with nothing else around. Lewis is very different. He’s actually able to reenergize when taking his mind into other things.”