On an overcast day in Italy in late 2008, Franz Tost was sitting in his stationary car, engine running, listening intently to the instructions coming down the phone.
Then, as now, Tost was a proud F1 team principal who had just presided over a dream maiden victory for his small Italian-based Formula 1 team in the pouring rain at Monza, against all the odds.
Nevertheless, he was a team boss having his ear bent. Because on the other end of the phone was Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz, and he had questions. A lot of them.
“Dietrich was an exceptional person you will find only once in your life,” says Tost, now 67, from his office in Faenza, Italy, from where he is set to retire as Alpha Tauri team principal at the end of 2023.
“He was warm and friendly, but he was always demanding because otherwise he would not achieve all these successes – if something didn’t go in the right direction he wanted to know everything, he wanted to know details and he called many times if he wanted to know something.”
The call that day went on for some time. But the details of Tost’s tenure at Red Bull’s ‘other team’ contains many successes, chief among them nurturing some of the sport’s greatest champions, including newly crowned three-time F1 champion Max Verstappen and four-time title winner Sebastian Vettel.
Austrian former domestic Formula 3 driver Tost found his way into F1 with Michael Schumacher’s then manager Willi Weber and the seven-time champion’s brother Ralf at Williams, before assuming the position that would define him as one of the most approachable and easy-going figures heading one of the most approachable and easy-going teams in a pitlane often consumed by the stress of high-level automotive politicking.
Mateschitz died in 2022 but left a unique legacy in F1 with Red Bull’s success since entering the sport as a team-owning brand in 2005.
Tost is convinced he “would not sit in this position now” without the often reclusive Mateschitz’s support.
From Vettel to Verstappen: Tost’s endless talent stream
The support, and very hard work, began in 2006 when Toro Rosso – as the team was then known – came into the Red Bull stable after Mateschitz bought out the much-loved backmarker Minardi team. Within two years they had won a race with, at the time, the youngest ever victor in 21-year-old Vettel, on fewer resources than most.
Alpha Tauri – as the team became known in 2020, with another renaming to come in 2024 – was never intended to win races. The two it did – both curiously at Monza, for Vettel in 2008 and Pierre Gasly in 2020 – came as just reward for a team set up to bring through young drivers from Red Bull’s substantial talent pool, the best progressing to the senior Red Bull team with the intention to win world championships.
The last count of Red Bull talent programme F1 drivers’ titles stands at seven – four for Vettel and three for Verstappen. Not to mention championships in other top-level motorsports around the world.
“I remember Max at the Norisring [circuit in Germany] at 16 years old. It was wet and he was one and a half to two seconds faster than anyone else. I said all other drivers should give back their licences, the only driver in this field is Max Verstappen.
“During his first test I was really impressed how fast he adapted to the speed and brakes… normally drivers need 100-150km to get used to the enormous power which an F1 car has under accelerating and under braking. But from the first lap onwards he was familiar with everything.
“We decided he would do FP1 in Suzuka [at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix] and journalists said: ‘You are totally crazy… Suzuka is one of the most dangerous tracks; how can you start him in FP1? He has to be prepared.’
“I said: ‘Don’t talk so much, let’s discuss in five years, then we will see who was right – you or me?’ It didn’t take five years – immediately, from the first year.
“And it was the same with Vettel – both of them had similar approaches, similar attitudes. It was fantastic to work together with these drivers… [Daniel] Ricciardo, [Carlos] Sainz and [Pierre] Gasly – all are high-class drivers with a lot of potential in them.”
A friendly, family team
Part of what makes Alpha Tauri such a breeding ground for young talent is the tone and feel of the team in the garage, and back in Faenza.
A small, unassuming factory next to a brewery in northern Italy near Bologna, storks stand atop every lamppost lining the street of the estate. The founder of the original team, Giancarlo Minardi, still lives there.
The team often go for lunch together at a local restaurant, many of the staff have been at the team longer than Tost.
“This was our philosophy… I always said to people: ‘Be friendly to our guests.’ I had some discussions at the beginning after I was coming from English teams like Jordan and Williams, and how sometimes they treated guests. I said to bosses: ‘This is unbelievable – you can’t do this and that’s not what brings success.’
“With guests and with sponsors, they didn’t take so seriously, and I said to myself: ‘If you are once in position you can decide, to make it clear that sponsors and guests have to be treated in a friendly way.
“I remember at our first test, I said: ‘OK, we need an area where guests can come into garage.’ They said: ‘We don’t have space.’ And I said: ‘Sorry, did I hear something wrong? If we don’t have space then you can go home – these guests pay your salary.’
“Immediately we had space for guests and this is how it started – step by step, I convinced people we have to be friendly, and this is what we really celebrated over the years.”
The future for Alpha Tauri looks good: new team principal Laurent Mekies and CEO Peter Bayer will help usher in a rebranding before engine specification changes in 2026.
Tost believes the changes will bring an innovation which could see the team win more races.
Tost himself isn’t sure what his next move will be, but it won’t be an “old life crisis” behind the wheel of a racing car again. He is, however, looking forward to doing the things he “hasn’t been able to do for 40 years, such as skiing”.
He was on the phone just before this interview, once again having his ear bent – but this time by a friend reminding him he can now hit the slopes.
“I said: ‘I’m sitting in my office with a lot of work to do… look at [all the work on] the table. I don’t have time.
“But in future I can say: ‘OK, today is a nice day, today is powder snow, today you go skiing. I’m looking forward to that day.”