Control Freak vs The Street Fighter: Battle between Wolff and Horner

Control Freak vs The Street Fighter: Never mind Lewis Hamilton’s F1 world title battle with fierce rival Max Verstappen… the relationship between Mercedes boss Toto Wolff and Red Bull chief Christian Horner is just as spiky – SPECIAL REPORT

  • Mercedes and Red Bull are in a huge battle for both F1 world championships
  • Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen separated by two points in drivers’ title
  • But their team bosses are also at war with constructors’ title also on the line
  • Like their drivers, Toto Wolff and Christian Horner is a clash of personalities

It was called the Piranha Club, and a book was written about it. The predators circling were F1’s sharp-toothed bosses Bernie Ecclestone, Luca Montezemolo, Ron Dennis, Max Mosley, Frank Williams and Eddie Jordan.

One of them is dead (Mosley), the rest sidelined in the battle royale that is unfolding before our eyes this season. On the face of it, the fight is between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, two drivers at opposite points of their careers vying for the biggest prize in their sport.

Hamilton, 36, and Verstappen, newly 24, have crashed twice, the intensity of the struggle for supremacy clear. 

Mercedes chief Toto Wolff (left) and Red Bull boss Christian Horner are engaged in a fierce battle over the Formula One world titles on the line this season

The team bosses are hoping to land the drivers’ and constructors’ championships in 2021

But — and this is where we get back to the piranhas — the animosity is just as fierce between their bosses, men cut from contrasting cloths: the taut Austrian Toto Wolff in Hamilton’s Mercedes corner and the more devil-may-care Christian Horner of Red Bull scrapping for Verstappen.

Ecclestone, as big a fish as ever swam in motor racing’s freshwater, told me: ‘The thing with Toto is he wants to control everything. And he wants to be liked by everyone. Christian is closest to how it was in the old days.’ 

It should be noted that Ecclestone, who turns 91 this month, is a friend of Horner and no fan of Wolff. Despite their 43-year age difference, Ecclestone and Horner were best man at each other’s weddings.

But the point the old ringmaster makes is pertinent. Horner, who is more free-wheeling in his comments, a happier jouster, is the last link with the fierce competitiveness of the past that saw Dennis, of McLaren, and Jean Todt, of Ferrari, despise each other.

The final act of the Dennis-Todt antipathy was played out in the Spygate saga of 2007, in which technical details of Ferrari were imported into the McLaren factory and resulted in a record $100m fine that nearly wiped the British team off the map.

Relationships between team bosses have often been fierce, including between McLaren’s Ron Dennis (left) and Ferrari’s Jean Todt (right) – both pictured before the 2003 Australian Grand Prix along with Gerard Berger (top left), Eddie Jordan (centre) and Paul Stoddart

Ex-F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone (left) and FIA president Max Mosley (right) were also key players

As Ecclestone was rumoured to have said: ‘It was $5m for the crime and $95m for Ron being a c***.’ Another factor was the subtext that Mosley, then president of the FIA, detested Dennis. He sought to humiliate Dennis and so effectively smear him that he would be denied the honour he most craved: a knighthood.

‘Do you think,’ Dennis once asked me in his first-floor lair at McLaren’s HQ in Woking, a futuristic Norman Foster-designed building sometimes known locally as SMERSH, ‘that Max is only a sado-masochist in his private life? It’s not possible.’

So the bar is indeed set high in terms of seething animosity to which Wolff and Horner can aspire. I put to a couple of observers my exaggerated view that the equally articulate pair hate each other. ‘I wouldn’t say that,’ was the gist of the responses. ‘They irritate each other.’ Yes, that about nails it.

Wolff, seemingly the more sensitive of the two, sees Horner as unduly relishing the rough-and-tumble of competition, delighting in lighting the blue touchpaper and watching the nitre go off. Horner considers Wolff a control freak, his fingers in every pie, and a self-righteous individual at that.

The two emerged from similar backgrounds, yet very divergent ones. Each enjoyed embryonic driving careers. Horner was born into motoring. His father Garry owned an automotive components firm and he learned basic mechanics from a young age. He begged his parents for a kart, bought in Leamington Spa, and fell in love with racing aged 11.

Horner, now 47 and married to Spice Girl Geri, was a good performer, winning a Renault scholarship aged 17, but not quite talented enough, as he learned following Juan Pablo Montoya, the Colombian who won the fabled Indianapolis 500 and drove for McLaren and Williams in F1.

Horner’s (pictured on Tuesday at the world premiere of the new James Bond film with wife Geri) Red Bull team have taken the fight to Mercedes this term

‘I watched Juan Pablo and realised he was in a different league,’ said Horner, who was privately educated at Warwick School. ‘So I decided to start a team.’

With three consecutive Formula 3000 championships as a team owner, Horner wanted to break into F1, the chance he was handed by Red Bull’s Dietrich Mateschitz at the end of 2004. He was 31.

‘I was the youngest team principal in the room, with people like Ron and Flavio (Briatore) and Frank sitting there,’ he told me. ‘Now I am the longest-serving, the old boy in some ways. Those big characters aren’t there.’

Torger Christian Wolff, born in Vienna nearly two years before Horner, is 49 and one half of the sport’s ‘power couple’ with wife Susie, team principal of Formula E’s Venturi Racing.

With Lewis Hamilton (left) at the helm, Wolff’s Mercedes have dominated F1 since 2014

But Horner and Max Verstappen (right) have led a highly credible title charge this season

His father, whom he lost in adolescence, was Romanian; his mother Polish. It was not a rich family but he nevertheless attended a French-speaking school and raced with some success before his funding dried up.

Wolff arrived in F1 as a Williams shareholder in 2009, already wealthy through his business acumen. He now owns a third of the Mercedes team.

So Wolff is steeped in motor racing? Horner is not entirely convinced of that, especially after his counterpart was overlooked for the job of F1 chief executive, saying: ‘We are very different people and how we go about our work shows this. I sit on the pit wall, immersed in the race with the key players in our team. Toto sits in the garage, away from the fray, with his press guy.’

That guy is Bradley Lord, an Oxford-educated linguist and sometimes prompt to his master Toto as he reaches for the correct translation from German into his anyway excellent English. (Wolff also speaks French, German, Italian and Polish. He is a cosmopolitan; Horner an unabashed Brexiteer.)

‘I am there next to Toto to help me do my job better than the other way around,’ said Lord. ‘It has just evolved this way.’

On the track, Verstappen and Hamilton have battled just as fiercely as their team bosses

Roaming more broadly, Lord adds: ‘Formula One is not the be-all and end-all for Toto. He has a wider perspective. He can step back from it. It doesn’t colour everything he thinks and says.

‘He is not on the pit wall because he lets people get on with their jobs, be they strategists or the sporting director. It is important to him to empower his team — that’s representative of his thoughtful management style.

‘Toto and Christian’s approaches differ. For example, Christian does in-race commentary updates for Sky; Toto doesn’t do that.’

Red Bull observers noted at the last race, in Russia, that Wolff, 6ft 4in and always super-trim, looked tired, as if the grind of the first heated championship battle of his life was telling. ‘He refused to look Christian in the eye,’ said a witness at their shared FIA-mandated press conference.

Lord added: ‘Honesty and authenticity are important values to Toto.’ That is honourable in Mercedes’ eyes, but elicits sniggering from the Red Bull camp. It is the sort of perceived sanctimony Horner snorts at.

At Silverstone in July they collided with Verstappen crashing out as Hamilton went on to win

The duo then came together at the Italian Grand Prix last month – putting both out of the race

Only the other day Horner, winner of four constructors’ and four drivers’ titles between 2010 and 2013, against Wolff’s seven and seven, said: ‘When we competed against McLaren for the championship and Lewis was driving for them, and when we were competing against Ferrari with Fernando Alonso and Stefano Domenicali as team principal, it was a very different atmosphere from this one.

‘This has felt a lot more political with lots more going on behind the scenes.

‘The size of the inbox from Toto to the FIA! They are going to need a major clear-out at the end of the year.

‘Toto has never been in a position where he has been challenged. This is the first time he has had this kind of pressure, and people react to pressure in different ways.’ Ouch.

Back to the track, if we must: Hamilton leads Verstappen by two points after 15 races. There are seven rounds remaining, the next in Istanbul on Sunday.

In the ring and in the corner, the gloves are off. 

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