Qatar wasn’t exactly a classic, but Formula 1 has been quite brilliant from a sporting perspective for much of this season, and it has been just as entertaining off the track too.
In fact, as Christian Horner (top image, right) put it when sat alongside Toto Wolff (top image, left) during Friday’s press conference at Losail: “It’s by far the most intense, political title fight we’ve been involved in in our time in the sport.”
And it is only getting more and more intense.
Every week there seems to be something that the top two teams are caught up in, a new controversy that makes headlines. And what we are regularly seeing evidence of is two bosses who are the ones that put themselves in the firing line to try and protect their respective teams.
“I’m very passionate about it and I protect my tribe and my driver and when things are going against me you will see the emotions,” Wolff said. “You need to be authentic about it.
“The fight happens on all levels — political, sporting, technical. That’s clear. I think that whoever wins this championship at the end of the year, drivers’ and constructors’, merits the win, because it was on a very high level.”
Over the Mexico and Brazil weekends, the fight was only getting tougher as we approached the end of the season, with each point seeming like it is worth more than the ones that went before. And while Horner was continuing his war of words with Wolff, it started taking on an added edge at Interlagos.
In Brazil, Red Bull started increasing the accusations that Mercedes has been crossing the line with parts of its car design, particularly the rear wing and how it reacts at high speed. It’s not that we hadn’t heard such insinuations before — Turkey springs to mind — but this was when the whole team was starting to openly question the car’s legality.
That was especially noticeable when it came to Lewis Hamilton’s exclusion from qualifying for failing a DRS test, with Horner clearly enjoying the misfortune for Mercedes and gladly pointing out that all of the Red Bull rear wing changes have come without the team failing scrutineering.
He could afford to be mischievous at the point given the pressure on Mercedes. so I wouldn’t put it past Horner that Red Bull’s decision to replace the very parts that Mercedes got in trouble for ahead of the race in Interlagos was intentional, just to wind Wolff up.
And that’s what it appears to have become, a personal fight between the two team bosses. In Qatar, that trend continued and was made an even bigger talking point by the FIA putting the pair together in that Friday press conference.
That allowed an opportunity to ask both about the relationship between the two teams, and Wolff went first, starting by saying he would “open a diplomatic speech,” but Horner was not interested in being diplomatic.
“There is no relationship,” Horner said. “There is a competition and I think it was interesting to hear Toto’s views after the sprint race last week and I think that on his team radio. Look, we are going to push to the maximum. We worked hard to get into this position. It’s the first time they have been challenged. It’s interesting to see how people react when they are under pressure, when they are challenged.”
While Horner has come in for criticism for the way he complains about certain incidents and can sometimes appear to contradict himself, there’s no doubting the fact that he says what he thinks. When asked if there is respect between the two teams as the Qatar weekend got underway, he stuck to his guns.
“I think relationship and respect are two different things,” he added. “Of course there is respect for everything that Mercedes have done and everything that Lewis Hamilton has done, but I don’t need to go to dinner with Toto. I don’t need to kiss his a** or anything like that.”
It was telling that Horner never named Wolff in the first part of that response. He clearly didn’t want to admit respect for his fellow team principal, whether it’s there or not.
But over the past few weekends this has started feeling like a fight that is threatening to run away from the two leaders. Such was their desire to protect their teams and be the focal point of controversy themselves, so little outbursts have started to push the boundaries of what is acceptable.
We’d seen the flashes from Wolff in Brazil that Horner referenced, where he told Hamilton “F*** them all” over team radio after the Sprint, and then passionately gestured at the cameras when his driver finally cleared Max Verstappen in the main race.
Horner had noted Wolff’s comments and was looking to one-up his rival’s attempts to create an ‘us against the world’ environment in Qatar, especially with the Mercedes suddenly looking the stronger car. But he pushed it a step too far when he criticized “a rogue marshal” for displaying double waved yellow flags in qualifying to alert drivers to Pierre Gasly stopping on the pit straight.
The only error there was on Verstappen not seeing the flags, although it obviously wasn’t an intentional mistake, with Valtteri Bottas doing similar. But Horner’s comments resulted in him being summoned to the stewards after the race, and at that point he had to admit the pressure was getting to him. At least, he said that to the FIA.
“He explained that his reaction was one that was made under the pressure of competition following the penalty imposed on the driver of Car 33,” the stewards’ decision read.
But when the notion of pressure was put to him soon afterwards, and he was asked if he has any regrets about the way he conducted himself, Horner replied: “No, not at all.
“I believe in my team. I’m a straight-talker. I’ve always conducted myself in that manner. I’m not an overly-emotional person, I don’t rant at cameras. I think the way I’ve conducted myself. I’ve got no issues with it, I’d do exactly the same.
“The only issue was regarding any marshal, if there was any personal offense taken for referencing a rogue yellow flag, it was not intended at any individual or marshal. I don’t know whether you heard the interview I gave, I didn’t feel it was unreasonable.”
It’s no surprise Horner stood by his comments, because to do anything else would be a sign of weakness to Wolff and Mercedes. Instead he kept himself as the main point of focus, and deflected criticism away from anyone else within Red Bull.
And that ability to be mischievous I mentioned earlier? It was suddenly in Wolff’s court.
“I don’t even want to comment on him because we are all responsible on what we say and what we do and for our own pressures,” Wolff said of Horner’s comments that earned him the trip to the stewards. “That’s certainly very high. I haven’t even heard or read what he said, only that he was naughty…”
As the season reaches its climax and the momentum swings from one team to the other, the tension continues to grow. But for all of Wolff and Horner’s insistences that they’re very different characters, they’re actually one and the same, trying to put themselves at the center of controversy and leave their drivers to do their talking on track.