In an exclusive interview with ESPN, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff rewinds the clock to April 15, 2009, and the day he nearly killed himself attempting a new lap record at the Nurburgring’s legendary Nordschleife…
The Porsche 911 RSR was doing 189mph when the right rear tyre exploded and spat the car into the steel guardrail at the Fuchsröhre compression.
Toto Wolff had eased off the throttle at that point of the circuit earlier in the day, but for this lap — the hot lap to end all hot laps — he had made a pact with his right foot not to lift.
Similar acts of bravery would be necessary at a number of points around the Nurburgring’s 12.9-mile Nordschleife layout in order to achieve a sub seven-minute lap time, but Fuchsröhre was always going to be one of the most testing corners for both car and driver.
“In today’s GT3 cars it would be easy flat, but back then, in that car, it was not easy flat,” the Austrian tells ESPN over a Zoom call 11 years later.
“You really have to put your balls on the dashboard … is that how they say it in English?
“You had to squeeze your arse cheeks and commit.”
But when the tyre let go, there was no level of bravery or skill that could save Wolff.
In less than a second, the car spun through 180 degrees, smashed into the steel barriers lining the circuit and recorded an impact of 27G.
Inside the cockpit, all but one of the screws holding the driver’s seat in place were ripped from their fixings and the forces involved scrambled the onboard cameras that had been filming the record attempt.
Following the initial hit, the car ricocheted back across the track, turned on its roof and scraped along the opposing guardrail.
Had it breached the barriers and launched into the trees beyond, Toto Wolff’s name would have gone no further than the obituary pages of the next day’s Wiener Zeitung, but fortunately the car corrected itself and slid back across the track.
Such were the forces involved, that it continued to ping-pong from barrier to barrier for a distance of 250 metres on an uphill section of track before finally coming to a rest near the next chicane.
With no marshals at that part of the circuit, the first news of the mangled Porsche came when the only other car on track, an Audi R8 GT3, radioed to report a stretch of debris and mud littering the track for 100 metres after the Fuchsröhre.
Wolff has no memory of what happened next but when the sole-surviving onboard camera flickered back into life, it recorded him turning off the engine, unclipping his belts, removing the steering wheel and clambering out of the car. He briefly stood by the Porsche’s open door and removed his gloves before hauling himself over a nearby crash barrier and collapsing unconscious.
The paramedics were initially confused when they arrived at the scene of the accident and found no driver in the wreckage. It was only when they thought to look on the other side of the barriers that they discovered Wolff lying there with his helmet and HANS device still on.
As the 37-year-old regained consciousness it immediately became clear that he needed to go to hospital. One of his eyes was pointing inward while the other gazed forward and he was displaying multiple symptoms of a heavy concussion.
But to really understand how Wolff — at that time a successful businessman on the brink of making his name in Formula One — found himself in the back of an ambulance questioning whether he could still feel his legs, you have to travel back a further 20 years to 1989.
That was when Wolff’s love affair with the Nurburgring began, and when one of the most successful team principals in F1 history first experienced motorsport.
“The drivers looked like gladiators to me”
In 1989, a 17-year-old Toto Wolff made a stop at the Nurburgring as he drove home from Amsterdam with a couple of school friends. He had no real interest in motorsport, but another friend was racing in Formula 3 and the German circuit made for a useful overnight stop on the way back to Vienna.
“I had no idea about motor racing, to be honest,” Wolff says 31 years and six F1 world championships later. “I only knew that a friend of mine, who lived in Switzerland but was an Austrian guy, was doing really well in the junior formulas.
“So on the way back from Amsterdam with a couple of friends we decided to stop at the Nurburgring for one night and watch his race. It was a Saturday when we arrived, but then going into the paddock on Sunday changed my life.
“It was just fantastic to see the atmosphere, the adrenaline — those drivers in German Formula 3 looked like gladiators to me.
“From then on, it didn’t let me go.”
Not long after his trip, Wolff saved up two birthday and Christmas presents to pay for a place at the Walter Lechner Racing School at the Osterreichring (now the Red Bull Ring). Showing a decent level of talent and with his foot in the door, he ended up working for the school and living in a nearby farmhouse.
Although his dream of becoming a professional racing driver was never realised, his career behind the wheel still spanned a couple of decades and is best understood by splitting it into two sections.
The first section — between 1992 and 1994 — was characterised by lots of ambition but very little money, and saw him compete for three years in Formula Ford at a national level. He showed glimpses of talent throughout, but in mid-1994 his main sponsor pulled the plug on his career after witnessing the worldwide shock caused by a series of nasty accidents in Formula One, including the on-track deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger.
With the dream of a racing career over, Wolff went to work for a bank in Vienna and used that experience to build up his own investment firm, Marchfifteen. By the early 2000s, his success in the world of finance allowed him to return to the track as an amateur racer, mainly in GT cars, which forms the second section of his racing career.
One of the main links connecting Wolff’s two racing careers was the Nurburgring 24 Hours, an annual endurance race that takes place on the Nordschleife layout, that he first entered in 1994. He didn’t know it at the time, but it was at that 1994 event that the seed was sown for his record attempt in 2009, or as he now calls it “the stupidest thing I’ve ever done”.
“It’s the last warzone for racing cars”
Prior to the 1994 edition of the Nurburging 24 Hours, Wolff had no practical knowledge of the Nordschleife. With no budget to go testing, he decided to arrive several days early at the circuit and join the chaos of a public track day — or “touristenfahrten” — when the Nordschleife essentially operates as a toll road.
“The car was an Opel Calibra and I rented it from Hertz at Frankfurt Airport,” he recalls. “I drove up there and in the build up to the race I must have done 50 laps in the Opel Calibra when the circuit was open to the public.
“There were some scary moments when you overtake motorbikes or they overtake you and then they get out of the throttle and suddenly you are about to hit them. Then you would come over a crest fast and there would be a tourist bus in the middle of the circuit! I think this is the most dangerous part of Nordschleife.
“Hertz wasn’t happy because when I gave the car back it had four bald tyres.”
Wolff had an accident in official practice for the 24 Hours, but his shared car still went on to win its class during the race — one of the crowing achievements of his early racing career.
What’s more, the Nordschleife had cast its spell on Wolff. Its crests and corners now occupied a significant part of his mind and would refuse to budge until he returned.
It was unlike any other circuit Wolff had raced on; a rare track where skill counted for nothing if it wasn’t matched by an equal dose of bravery. For a racing driver who didn’t quite make the grade, it’s easy to see the appeal…
“It’s the last warzone for racing cars,” Wolff says. “I remember people saying that only someone from the Eifel was able to go fast there.
“That’s because it was a totally different level of performance and many people who would go fast on the Nordschleife wouldn’t be particularly fast on normal tracks and the opposite way round.
“There were many great drivers who were caught out there and there were many who were several seconds off the pace compared to the specialists.
“Obviously my racing career ended and I went into finance and stayed there, but after eight years a friend of mine invited me to a touring car race and that went pretty well, so I started racing as a hobby again.
“Eventually the Nordschleife came back into my mind and there was still something open between me and the Nordschleife. So I started planning to do the 24-hour race in a top car in 2009.
“And in the preparation for that, someone had the funny idea of trying to break the lap record for GT cars there. And I thought, that’s a fun idea, I like a challenge.”
“No one is interested in the lap record of the Nordschleife”
At the start of 2009, the record for GT cars at the Nordschleife was held by Nuburgring legend Sabine Schmitz and stood at 7:07. There were only two records that were faster at the time; the ultimate record of 6:11, held by Stefan Bellof in a Porsche 956 during qualifying for the 1983 Nurburgring 1000km, and Niki Lauda’s Formula One record of 6:58 set during qualifying for the 1975 German Grand Prix (albeit on a longer layout).
Wolff knew he wouldn’t get close to Bellof, but a sub seven-minute time was a genuine target.
Lauda, who had nearly lost his life at the circuit in a fiery accident in 1976, was the cousin of Wolff’s ex-wife, and naturally the aspiring record holder asked the three-time world champion what he thought of the daring attempt.
“Why would you do that?” Lauda responded. “No one is interested in the lap record of the Nordschleife.”
Wolff tried to explain that there was this inextricable bond — “this open thing” — between him and the circuit.
Lauda: “Well do what you like, but I think it’s idiotic.”
“I think I thought he was boring!” Wolff says when he is now asked why he ignored Lauda’s advice. “I thought: he’s not up for any fun anymore!”
Regardless of Lauda’s warning, Wolff was set on the idea of becoming a Nordschleife record holder and on a sunny day in April 2009 he arrived at the circuit ready to put his name in the history books.
“We had a fantastic car — one of those GT3 Porsches on steroids — and we went there and straight away from the get go I just loved to drive this crazy fast car around the Nordschleife,” Wolff recalls.
“There’s a bump called Schwedenkreuz and I had wheelspin over the bump at 285km/h because the car was lifting off over the crest.
“And on the back straight — the Döttinger Höhe — where now they do 260 or 265km/h [in a modern GT3 car], there is a kink under the bridge, which is usually easily flat, but it was different when you arrived there at 315km/h!
“Suddenly the kink becomes a little bit more than a kink, but it was still easily flat in that car.”
As Wolff refamiliarised himself with the circuit, the lap times started to come down. But while the track conditions were as good as he could have hoped for, it felt like there was something wrong at the rear of the car.
“When we started to do more spicy laps, I felt that the car was not stable in the rear. We tried to work it out because it felt like I had a problem with the rear suspension and it felt like the car was driving too much with the rear. Not oversteer, but it felt like the car wasn’t driving straight.
“We checked everything and couldn’t find anything. Then we did one test lap before turning the car fully up and attempting the record, and the test lap was a 7:03.”
The 7:03 was a new lap record for a GT car and just five seconds off Lauda’s F1 record. With the fastest laps yet to come, Wolff was clearly capable of dipping under seven minutes, although the car’s handling still wasn’t right.
“Again, it felt awkward like there was something wrong with the car. But there was only one run left and I had got used to driving with it, and we just said, let’s do it!
“So off I went and already at the beginning of the lap, if you look at the onboard in one of the first corners, I have a massive snap at the rear. I thought, that feels strange but I kept pushing.
“About a minute into the lap, I could see on my dash that I was already five seconds quicker than my last lap, so the time was on target to be a 6:40 — massively fast!
“So I was driving through what was, back in the day, one of the toughest sections, one of the scariest corners, which is Fuchsröhre, into the compression.
“In today’s car with the restricters and with the downforce and the grip level they have, it’s flat at about 260km/h, no doubt. But back then it wasn’t flat because my car was doing 290km/h down there!
“I didn’t do it flat in the test laps, but I was absolutely flat and committed on this lap and from the onboard you can see that I was not lifting.
“But when I was in the compression, the rear right just went.
“It all happened so fast, but I remember exactly that my first impact into the guard rail was at 289km/h, which is an incredible speed to hit the guardrail. I just remember thinking, ‘what is that?’
“Then I didn’t think about anything anymore, I just hoped to stay on the track and not go over the barrier.
“It took ages until the car came to standstill. I didn’t know whether I was upside down or on my wheels, but there was a bit of a moment of relief when I came to a halt.
“And then on the video you can see I unplugged myself, but I don’t remember any of that, or jumping over the barrier. Zero.
“Only the people who found me on the other side of the barrier told me what they found — all the cameras capturing the onboard video were destroyed from the first impact.”
“This is when I realised I should probably stop”
Wolff was taken to the same hospital in Adenau where Lauda had been given the last rites in 1976, and while he rode in the ambulance he had something of an epiphany.
“This is when I realised I should probably stop doing these things, because I was struggling to feel my legs a little bit and I had a massive concussion.
“They put me into an MRI at Adenau and I asked them, ‘is the spine fine?’ The nurse said, ‘I’m not authorised to tell you’, so that was the worst 15 minutes I can remember as I waited for the doctor to arrive and tell me my spine was fine.”
The doctors at Adenau wanted to transfer Wolff to a neurological clinic in Frankfurt, but his personal doctor suggested a better course of action would be to return to Vienna and see the specialists there. An air ambulance was arranged and, due to concerns about his intracranial pressure, it was ordered to fly below 10,000 feet all the way to Austria to protect his brain.
He was diagnosed with heavy concussion and lost his sense of taste and smell for six months while his torn olfactory nerves reconnected. He also struggled lying down for a period of time — “it felt like I was drunk and the world started to spin round” — so had to sleep sitting up in bed for nearly a month.
Wolff eventually made a full recovery and, perhaps most importantly for his long-term health, was cured of his obsession with the Nurburgring.
“I was fine but I decided not to return to the Nordschleife anymore,” he said. “I love this track and I don’t regret a thing, but then I met Niki again — who before had said that the record attempt was idiotic — and when I came back and we had dinner again, he simply said ‘I told you so’.
“So that was my experience of the Nordschleife.”
“I found my peace”
But while one love slipped out of Wolff’s life with the accident, another entered.
At the time of the record attempt, Wolff owned 49 percent of HWA, which ran Mercedes’ DTM programme, and news of his condition soon reached the team while it was testing in Spain. On hearing the news, the DTM drivers felt they should get in touch with their boss to wish him well and it fell to Wolff’s future wife, Susie Stoddart, to pick up the phone and check he was OK.
“Paul di Resta, Gary Paffett and the whole gang were there, and when they heard I’d had a pretty bad accident on the Nordschleife they decided Susie should call me,” Wolff says. “So Susie called me and said, ‘are you all right? Have you had an accident?’ And that was the start of our romance.”
Just over two years later, Susie and Toto were married, seemingly ruling out any chance of a competitive return to the Nordschleife.
“Susie holds the veto and she says she won’t allow this,” Wolff says with a grin creeping across his face. “She’s not driven the circuit because she knows what’s sensible … but maybe one day secretly I will go back there.”
It’s hard to tell if he’s joking …
“I found my peace with the Nordschleife, somehow,” he adds.
“This is a story I like to talk about, but my wife doesn’t allow me to say I love the Nordschleife. When I say that she says, ‘no, you love me and you like the Nordschleife’.
“But, to be honest with you, I still love the Nordschleife.”