LUSAIL, Qatar — Formula One’s title battle spilled off the track and into the news conference room on Friday at the Qatar Grand Prix, as rival team principals Toto Wolff (Mercedes) and Christian Horner (Red Bull) were pitched against each other in a war of words ahead of this weekend’s race.
The two team bosses covered a number of topics, from Mercedes’ failed request for a review of the incident between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton in Brazil to the strained personal relationship between the two.
We have compiled the best bits from the 30-minute session, as well as analysing what some of it might mean for the final three races.
On the Brazilian GP
As Wolff and Horner were speaking to the media, the FIA released the stewards’ decision not to review the incident between Verstappen and Hamilton on Lap 48 of the Sao Paulo Grand Prix.
Mercedes believed footage from Verstappen’s onboard camera, which was not available to the stewards at the time, warranted a full investigation. But after the relevant parties put their cases forward in a videoconference on Thursday, the stewards decided the footage did not meet the criteria necessary to open a full review of the incident.
Before the decision was announced, Wolff said his team did not expect the stewards to follow through and issue a retrospective penalty to Verstappen, but instead wanted clarity on what was allowed in terms of wheel-to-wheel racing.
“We don’t expect to gain anything from the right of review, to be honest,” Wolff said. “It’s more about the principle and the philosophy, because if it stays that way, it means overtaking from the outside is pretty much not possible anymore because it means the inside controls the corner completely.
“Now, that is anyway the case, but as it was before when a car is next to you, you need to leave a space, and now that’s not the case.
“So we just want to take it to the end, have a judgement on that and then adapt for the last few races if necessary, and some of the drivers have actually expressed that same opinion, so that is why we are making the stewards take another look at it.”
Horner responded with a pointed, if slightly forced, comparison of Verstappen’s move around the outside of both Mercedes drivers in Mexico.
“I think, just referring to Toto’s comments about overtaking on the outside and saying it isn’t possible, I think Max demonstrated clearly that it is possible in Mexico into the first turn,” he said.
When the stewards’ decision was announced during the news conference, Horner said it was the right move for the sport.
“I think it’s obviously the right decision because it would open Pandora’s box regarding a whole host of other incidents that happened at that race,” he said. “I think the most important thing now is to focus on this grand prix, it’s great to be here in Qatar, I think it’s going to be a good circuit and we want a good, clean, fair fight not just here but in Jeddah and Abu Dhabi.”
Wolff added: “[The stewards’ decision was] completely expected. I think we wanted to trigger discussion around it because probably it will be a theme in the next few races, and I think that objective is achieved. We didn’t really think it would go any further.”
On future protests
Based on comments from the news conference, Friday’s stewards’ decision might not be the end of the off-track warring between Mercedes and Red Bull this year.
Another theme that has run through the past few races is Red Bull’s suspicions over the flexibility of the Mercedes rear wing. Horner has pointed to his rival’s impressive straight-line speed as proof of something abnormal on the car and revealed that his team’s senior engineers, Adrian Newey and Paul Monaghan, have been asking the FIA questions about what would and would not be considered legal to build a case.
“Would I protest? Yeah, absolutely,” Horner said. “If we believe the [Mercedes] car is not in compliance, we will protest, because the straight-line speeds we’ve seen in Mexico and Brazil — I think everyone could see in Brazil was not a normal situation.
“And yes, a new engine we know with a Mercedes comes with an increased performance, but when you have sort of a 27 km/h advantage and you witness marks on rear wing endplates that have been marking up from wings that have been flexing, it’s very clear to us what has been going on.
“Of course, that’s why it’s down to the FIA to make sure that the cars are in compliance. If they’re not, you protest if you believe that a competitor isn’t complying with the rules.”
Wolff responded by saying he was convinced his team’s car was entirely legal.
“I think that nobody would show up at the track with an illegal engine or illegal rear wing; the world is too transparent for that, and you would be made to take decisions in a team with such high visibility that are illegal, 100%,” he said.
Horner added that his team would continue to monitor the Mercedes’ rear wing as it weighs up the possibility of a protest at one of the final three races.
“We’ll follow the situation, and it will depend really on what happens this weekend, what we see and the analysis that we’ve conducted,” he said. “So it really depends what we see, and it’s not just applied to here because I think it’s in many respects even more pertinent to the two circuits that are coming up.
“But as a competitor, as I’m sure Mercedes know, we have paid a huge amount of attention to our car throughout the season and we’re obviously doing the same. Obviously it’s high stakes, there’s an awful lot to play for, and we just want to make sure it’s an equal playing field.”
By the end of the news conference, Wolff appeared to invite a protest from his rival.
“If you’re led by scepticism because someone told you something and you expect that to be the root cause, you should go for it [and protest],” he said.
“We’ve said that we’ve been controlled 14 times on this very particular rear wing, the FIA has all drawings about it and there is no such thing as Red Bull expects there to be.
“So we are happy to send it, cut it — I can send you one to [Red Bull’s factory in] Milton Keynes…”
At which point Horner butted in to say: “So how do you explain the score marks on the rear wing endplate?”
Wolff responded: “I think it’s within what is allowed and therefore that’s OK.”
Expect increased scrutiny of Mercedes’ rear wing in Qatar — both how much it is flexing and any “score” or stress marks that appear on different parts of it. Also, although Losail is a fast circuit, straight-line speed will be more of a factor at the new street circuit in Jeddah, meaning Red Bull might wait until Saudi Arabia to act.
On their relationship
The animosity between the two team bosses extends beyond the latest battles in the stewards’ room to a much deeper rivalry stretching back several years.
Asked where the ill-feeling stemmed from, Wolff said: “I think the competition is just too high. You cannot expect that you’re going to dinner with your rival or with a rival team or your enemy in that sporting competition, irrespective of the personalities and the characters.
“Everything else would be not normal. That’s as simple as it is. No negative emotion, no positive emotion, the emotions are pretty neutral.”
To the same question, Horner said: “Look, Toto and I are very different characters. We operate in different ways, and, I think, am I going to be spending Christmas with Toto? Probably not, unless you’re in pantomime this year? I might take the kids.
“But I think that from my perspective it’s a tough competition, that’s Formula One. You don’t have to be best mates with your opponents — how can you be? I think that would be dishonest in many respects to fake a facade when you’re competing against each other. So that’s what I would say.”
Horner clarified that Red Bull has respect for Mercedes but said it did not mean the team bosses had to be nice to one another.
“I think relationship and respect are two different things,” he said. “Of course there’s respect for everything Mercedes has done and there’s respect for everything Lewis Hamilton has done, but I don’t need to go to dinner with Toto or kiss his arse or anything like that. There’s a few other team principals that might, but from my perspective it’s a competition.
“I think it’s great that we’re in this position and fighting for the world championships, and it’s a first time in seven years they’ve been challenged, so that intensifies it, and I think the sport is a big winner out of this. I just hope we have a hard and fair fight between now and the end of the season.”
Wolff added: “As for the punches between the teams, there is many great people working in Red Bull and obviously many great people working at Mercedes. It is a hell of a fight.
“There is a respect for the capability Red Bull has, definitely, and it’s clear that this is tough. It’s the world championship of the highest category in motor racing, and what started as Olympic boxing went to pro boxing and is now MMA, but that’s OK.
“We are in the fight there trying to do the best job possible, elbows out now because the rules say so, and gloves are off, and nothing else is to be expected.”