One is a pillar of the F1 establishment, the other is an entrepreneur-racer parachuted into one of the sport's hottest seats. Together, Ross Brawn and Toto Wolff have been charged with upholding the honour of Mercedes-Benz. And as they tell F1 Racing in this exclusive double interview, they know that where the Silver Arrows are concerned, failure is not an option...
They make an imposing pair, Ross 'n' Toto. Big guys, both comfortably north of six feet tall and broad-shouldered. They have... presence and they do a good job of filling a crushed velvet sofa in the tea-room lobby corner of the Bahrain Sofitel, where they've agreed to chat with F1 Racing about matters at Mercedes. Ross arrives first, dressed Euro-casual with a cashmere sweater around his shoulders - a style legacy, surely, of his years at Ferrari. A minute or two later comes Toto, bare of ankle and youthful - all smiles and puppyish enthusiasm. He carries a lightness of manner unusual in one charged with co-running an F1 team. Ross, though warm and drily humorous himself, is the more world-weary, battle-hardened campaigner. That large frame has absorbed some hefty blows over the decades - while delivering plenty, too, of course.
Wolff, at 41 almost 20 years Brawn's junior, is yet to be ground through the F1 mangle, although it would be a foolish man who took him for an ingenue. A multi-millionaire through tech and IT investments, he's a highly competent racer (a class winner at the 1994 Nuerburgring 24 Hours) and co-owner of the HWA race team, as well as a 16 per cent shareholder in Williams - an organisation he has helped run for the past two seasons.
It's nonetheless more apt than he might imagine when he asks: "Where is my place?" on arriving to find Brawn at one end of the lounger on which he must also get comfy. There could hardly be a better point at which to start questioning what roles these two gentlemen will fulfill to steer the Silver Arrows, in the wake of the departures of ex-motorsport director Norbert Haug and former CEO Nick Fry. Ross kicks off: "Team principals take lots of different forms," he muses. "I'm probably at one end of the scale in terms of someone who's very engineering-orientated and very deeply involved with the organisation and running of the team. I can get involved in the politics and that side of things when, by necessity, I've had to. But it's not really what I want to do. I enjoy much more the hands-on car stuff."
The political and 'strictly business' sides of the game are, he reckons, better left to an individual with entrepreneurial zeal, one who can - put bluntly - talk cash with Bernie. This was in part the role fulfilled by Fry and, more recently, by Mercedes F1's non-executive chairman Niki Lauda, who was appointed last September with a specific brief to negotiate with Ecclestone on Mercedes' behalf, a commercial agreement to keep the team in the sport. That much he did, with the result that Mercedes-Benz's main board has committed to an F1 future at least until 2020. Having done so, however, doubts remained in Stuttgart as to the efficacy of the F1 team's structure, and given their patchy record since the full 'works' return in 2010, it's not surprising that the board of a brand predicated on excellence were less than thrilled with their championship scorecard. For the record it reads: 2010 - fourth (214 points); 2011 - fourth (165 points); 2012 - fifth (142 points). There have been peaks, such as Nico Rosberg's dominant pole and victory at the 2011 Chinese GP and Michael Schumacher's pole position time at Monaco. But Silver-Arrows-worthy success? Evidently not.
"The reality was that the results in the second half of last year were pretty poor," Brawn admits. "And I think the board got very anxious about the situation. Niki was on board and Niki is... reactionary... and there was concern as to whether we would make the step forward that I was promising."
One outcome of board agitation was an approach to McLaren technical director Paddy Lowe, which, when its existence became known to the media, grew into the biggest story of the 2013 pre-season. But more of that anon, because before Lowe came Wolff, and had Toto not been approached by Mercedes it's possible that he and Lowe would now be working together at Williams, as Wolff relates: "Niki felt something had to be done and there are not thousands of credible, intelligent guys in F1 with a proven track record.
So it was obvious that they would be looking at somebody like Paddy. That happened at the same time I was looking for Paddy at Williams, but those discussions came to an end.
So the approach to Paddy [from Mercedes] was completely detached from the approach to me - although it was a bizarre situation. I knew that I had been asked to join Mercedes and
I knew that Mercedes had spoken to Paddy also. And I wanted Paddy for Williams, but I couldn't discuss my discussions." And you thought F1 tyre strategies were complicated...
Less problematic was Mercedes' approach to Wolff, which came in late 2012 - a time when most commentators were viewing him as the medium-term future of Williams.
"Sometimes life takes funny turns," Wolff reflects. "I was asked by the Mercedes board about my opinion of the DTM and a week later they called me and asked if it would be possible for me to be a shareholder and run motorsport for them. I was..." Here he's helped by Mercedes' multi-lingual press attache: "I think you mean 'gobsmacked,' Toto." "Yes! Gobsmacked! And flattered."
Wolff took the Christmas break to chew over what he admits was a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity", weighing the appeal of winning with Mercedes against a lifetime of being his own boss and existing loyalty to Williams. Two conversations fixed his thinking: the first with Lauda, who convinced Wolff that by working together and building on their relationship, the scope of achievement for the Mercedes F1 project would increase greatly. [Lauda also talked himself into a ten per cent stake in the team's new management-ownership structure.]
The second conversation was with Sir Frank Williams.
"He told me 'you must do it,'" says Wolff. "I had his blessing, which was important for me." Wolff, now 30 per cent shareholder of the Mercedes F1 operation, still retains his Williams stake, but has committed to selling it after coming under considerable media pressure in Germany over what was perceived to be a conflict of interest in part-owning two rival F1 squads. A tic of irritation is perceptible beneath the sunny demeanour when he notes: "I am a bit annoyed that stories of potential conflict go on and on, but if this [selling] is the way to stop them, then this is what needs to be done."
For a man used to dealing freely, using business instinct as his guide, such strictures must seem anathema. He laughs when questioned as to whether he is now an 'employee' and admits trying to "resist" that description. But running Merc's motorsport operation is a full-time job - "100 hours a week", Wolff reckons - and one in which success or failure will be judged by the haul of GP silverware: "My main job is being involved in the management of the F1 team; this is what I will be measured by. Everything else can be super-successful, but if F1 is not successful, winning DTM is not going to be... how do you say that in English...? It won't matter."
Safe to say, then, that Wolff's eyes are wide open as to the scale of the challenge he has undertaken, although being a German-speaker and extremely familiar, through his previous racing activities, with the mindset and expectations of the Mercedes board, can only be an advantage. "Austrians and Germans are closer in terms of how to manage business relationships and how to manage a company," he says. "If you compare it to the English way, it's brutally direct, which doesn't function at all in the UK." He turns to Ross for an opinion on this potentially sensitive point, and there's no disagreement. "One of Toto's key roles," he says, "is to manage the involvement with the enthusiastic and interested board of directors, who naturally need time... and we need to spend time with them to make them understand what we are trying to do."
Pushed on what Austro-Germanic 'directness' might mean at Brackley HQ, Wolff offers: "Ross would never say to me, although often he thinks it: 'That is complete rubbish, forget it. We are not going to do that.' He would rather say: 'I wouldn't disagree with what you say but let's be careful and consider both options.'" Brawn is nodding in agreement about his "British reserve", before elaborating on how this quality was noted during his time at Ferrari: "My tendency was rarely to confront an issue head-on unless I was pushed too far," he says. "My normal dealings in conversation were always to steer it away from where I didn't like to be rather than say: 'No, you're wrong, you don't want to do that.' Once people get used to it, it's okay."
This notion of 'getting used to it' will be fundamental to a harmonious working relationship between Brawn and Wolff, as it will, in a broader sense, to that between Brackley and Stuttgart. Talk of an 'enthusiastic' board is all very well, but the lessons of F1 history tell that whenever motor manufacturers become too involved in the daily dealings of their racing divisions, disaster awaits [see our feature on page 60]. This corporate sleight of hand is the one that Wolff must perform without a fumble, for after three years of high-budget, low-return racing, patience in Germany must be wearing somewhat thin. Brawn tells of his confidence in Wolff's abilities so to do, while nonetheless holding a realistic view of what F1 means to a major motor manufacturer: "This is about our image and the image of Mercedes and when we're not competitive, the image suffers," he says. "But our board haven't said 'We're better doing this in Stuttgart,' so Toto's involvement is a pretty smart move. He's working for Daimler, but he hasn't come from a Daimler corporate position. It's an intermediary position that we need to have."
Wolff's view is even more pragmatic: "We are car salesmen," he says. "We are here to promote the Mercedes brand and, at the end of the day, it's all about selling cars. Okay, that's a bit sarcastic. I don't really like to see myself as a car salesman. But the main aim is about shaping the image. Being successful in F1 is all about shaping the image."
Any such shaping will be dictated, inevitably, by the performance of Merc's silver racers on track. A quarter of the way into F1 2013 edition, the F1 W04 has shown considerable promise, taking back-to-back podiums in Malaysia and China, then a pole double in China and Bahrain. Still, though, the bedeviling bugbear of critical rear tyre wear, a technical weakness that has hampered the W01 through to the W04 and which, at time of writing, remains unresolved. It begs the question: is there a philosophical weakness undermining the team's technical approach? That leads to the further, less comfortable thought that a new direction may be needed.
It's in this context that Mercedes' wooing of Paddy Lowe should be viewed. When the courtship was at its most ardent, McLaren's 2012 MP4-27 - a Lowe car - was at its most fleet. And while it failed to win either championship, the chassis posted seven wins (four for Hamilton, three for Button) and proved as fast at the end of the season as it was at the start.
A Lowe-directed technical future, then, for Mercedes F1? Brawn is coy as to the precise timing of Lowe's arrival, but talks of "succession" and reveals that, approaching 60, his own life goals may be in need of a reappraisal. "Perhaps the perspective is a bit different now because obviously the car is performing better, but there's another element, which is how long I want to continue doing what I am doing, because I am nearer the end of my career than I am to the beginning. So there needs to be a succession plan and that's where Paddy fits in. He's a bright guy, very experienced, very intelligent and he would be an asset to any organisation in the right role. When I stop I do not want to leave the team stranded, and I feel I have a responsibility to ensure the team continues well."
That's as close as Ross is likely to admit, on the record, that Paddy Lowe will be Mercedes' team principal for 2014. But interpret his words as you will. What's clear is that the medium-to-long-term future of this team - one he has been with through its incarnations as Honda, Brawn GP and latterly Mercedes AMG Petronas - is of concern to Brawn and he's unwilling to see it wither through lack of correct structure or clear direction. Wolff, too, craves success in silver, and pulls no punches when speaking of his true ambition for a team whose roll call of talent reads like an F1 Harlem Globetrotters (Hamilton, Rosberg, Lauda, Brawn, Aldo Costa, Geoff Willis, Bob Bell...): "My personal aim is to be part of something that is sustainably successful," he admits. "I would love to look back on a period like Ross had at Ferrari, where you can see that this team was dominant over a couple of years. That would mean you were successful in building a sustainable, functioning team. This would be my goal."
And, lest anyone doubt he's serious: "There can be no more excuses any more."