I don’t have to tell you that the championship battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen is the most captivating one Formula 1 has had in ages. The drama on track has fed political drama off it that’s reached a fever pitch in these closing races. It’s been almost as exciting to watch as the wheel-to-wheel stuff, which brings us to today’s press conference with Toto Wolff and Christian Horner ahead of this weekend’s Qatar Grand Prix.
The team principals sat side by side for 30 minutes and took questions from F1's Tom Clarkson, as well as the media on Friday morning. Their demeanors were civil but firm as ever, something that won’t surprise you if you’ve ever observed either of them in front of a camera.
Nevertheless, if you’re excited to see how this story ends, I highly recommend you watch it if you haven’t already. You can catch it on F1 TV if you subscribe to that service, or via one of the many uploads currently circulating on YouTube right now. My jaw hurts from all the clenched-teeth grinning I was doing throughout the duration of the interview.
Yeah, some of the questions induce eye-rolling — particularly the one about Wolff “struggling with the pressure of the title fight” because the cameras caught him very happy that his driver took the lead from the dude who’d run him off the road earlier. His driver who started the weekend 20th, in case anyone’s forgotten.
But there’s lots of gold here. I reckon these were the standout moments, ordered by which had me howling least-to-most:
Horner: “It’s the first time they’ve been challenged. It’s interesting to see how people react under pressure.”
The word “interesting” is my favorite in the entire English language when it comes out of Christian Horner’s mouth.
Wolff: “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 entering there, trying to do the best job possible. Elbows are allowed now because the rules say so, and the gloves are off. Nothing else is to be expected.”
Oh, what I’d pay to see these guys settle this on the octagon.
Also, there’s absolutely going to be a crash at the front this weekend, isn’t there?
Wolff: “I think that nobody would show up at the track with an illegal engine or an illegal rear wing. The world is too transparent for that and you would be mad if you take decisions in a team with such a high visibility that are illegal. 100 percent.”
Wolff’s tone is so incredibly stern as he says this — particularly the word “mad” — that it flips around on being serious and genuine and comes across as sarcastic and suggestive. I’d rather die than provoke this man’s wrath, I’m sure of it.
Horner: “What was the second part of that question?”
Wolff: “Why are you protesting us?”
Horner: “Why am I—? ... You’re protesting us at the moment. Would I protest? Yes.”
I like this one because it highlights Wolff’s mastery of verbal mind games. A journalist had asked Horner if Red Bull would protest if it suspected Mercedes was using an illegal engine or rear wing, and Wolff seized the opportunity to turn the tables on him and invent a scenario that never happened. That, my friends, is exactly the sort of 4D chess that wins seven constructors’ titles.
For context, the announcement that the FIA rejected Mercedes’ appeal regarding the lap 48 incident between Verstappen and Hamilton occurred in the middle of this press conference. When Clarkson informed both men of the news toward the end of the half-hour, Wolff said the FIA’s decision was “completely expected.”
Horner: “I don’t need to go to dinner with Toto. I don’t need to kiss his ass or anything like that. There’s a few other team principles that might.”
This one earns extra points for Wolff’s response with a perfectly-timed raised eyebrow. The comedic chemistry of these two is off the charts. Also, later on, Horner related another abstract scenario about “spending Christmas with Toto,” which merely says to me that the Red Bull boss spends a lot of time imagining nice, wholesome or romantic plans with his rival.
Can you tell I’m pumped for these last three (maybe two) races?