LOSAIL – The most dramatic Formula One title fight in at least a decade further intensified Friday when Christian Horner and Toto Wolff traded barbs at the same time the FIA denied Mercedes' right to appeal last week's non-penalty on championship leader Max Verstappen.
Wolff, the head of Mercedes, and Red Bull principal Horner sat side-by-side during a tense 30-minute media briefing that displayed the full animosity between the two teams.
“It's the world championship of the highest category in motor racing,” Wolff said, “and what started as Olympic boxing went to pro boxing and is now MMA. Elbows are allowed now because the rules say so, and the gloves are off. Nothing else is to be expected.”
F1 moved this week to Losail for the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix with the results of last week's race still hanging over the championship fight. Lewis Hamilton earned his 101st victory at the Brazilian GP to cut his deficit to Verstappen to only 14 points with three races remaining.
Mercedes protested the decision not to penalize Verstappen in Sao Paulo when the Red Bull driver ran Hamilton wide off course as the seven-time champion attempted a pass for the lead. The FIA heard the appeal on Thursday and then denied the Mercedes request as Horner and Wolff were in the middle of Friday's briefing.
Horner shrugged off Wolff, declaring “there is no relationship” between the two. He also suggested the Mercedes team might be cracking as Red Bull attempts to end its reign at the top of the series.
“I think it's the first time they've been challenged. It's interesting to see how people react under pressure, how they react when they are challenged,” Horner said. “It's by far the most intense political title fight we've been involved in in this sport."
No relationship is one thing. But respect?
Horner said he appreciates what Mercedes has accomplished. Same for Hamilton, who can pass Michael Schumacher with a record eight championships if he can catch Verstappen over the next three races.
“But I don't need to go to dinner with Toto. I don't need to kiss his (butt) or anything like that. There's a few other team principals that might,” Horner said. “Toto and I are very different characters and we operate in very different ways. Am I going to be spending Christmas with Toto? Probably not.”
Is there any chance at all for peace between the warring teams? Wolff thinks not.
“I think the competition is just too high," Wolff said. “You cannot expect that you're going to dinner with your rival or with a rival team or your enemy in sporting competition, irrespective of personalities and the characters.”
On the track, meanwhile, Verstappen topped the first practice session and seemed quite comfortable on the on the 5.4-kilometer (3.5-mile) circuit. Mercedes driver Valterri Bottas was fastest in second practice.
Hamilton was fourth in both sessions.
Verstappen has won a career-high nine races this season to put Hamilton on the ropes for the first time since 2016, when then-teammate Nico Rosberg edged him by five points to win the title. Hamilton has won four consecutive championships since losing to Rosberg.
Mercedes and Red Bull have been sparring all season — a collision between the drivers on the first lap of the British Grand Prix sent Verstappen to the hospital, and a crash between the two at Monza led to Verstappen’s car landing on top of Hamilton’s head.
But it reached another level in Brazil. Mercedes was found to have an illegal wing on Hamilton's car, and Verstappen was caught on video taken from the grandstands illegally touching the part after practice.
The drama built all weekend and when Verstappen wasn't penalized for running Hamilton wide, Mercedes erupted. Even though Hamilton won the race, Mercedes protested the no-call in hopes that Verstappen would be retroactively penalized. If the protest had been successful, Verstappen would have been given a time penalty that would have dropped him from second to third at the Brazilian GP and further tightened the title race.
Wolff said the ruling was “completely expected."
“We wanted to trigger discussion around it because it probably will be a theme,” Wolff said. “We didn't think it would go any further.”
Horner called it the right decision.
“Otherwise, it would have opened a Pandora’s box regarding a whole bunch of other incidents that happened in that race," Horner said. “I think the most important thing now is to focus on this Grand Prix. We want a good, clean, fair fight.”
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