Formula One is on holiday and all is quiet. Yet there are two big upcoming events that will reignite the paddock ‘in fighting’ as the annual tussle for power and money once again raises its head. It is fair to describe Toto Wolff and Christian Horner as the best of enemies given the many fraught and at times vicious exchanges they have publicly engaged in.
Wolff is a formidable adversary as the bodies in his wake side joining Formula One can attest to. Yet the Mercedes boss is seen by many as a ‘Johnny come lately’ who lucked in to becoming the team principal of a team already set to smash records and win multiple F1 titles.
Toto’s latest taunt of Horner is the latest in a long line of jibes whose list is simply quite spectacular.
Wolff takes over by ‘stealth’
Wolff lit the touch paper by telling Horner to “get your f**king head down,” in the first of what was to be many fractious exchanges between the two.
Toto in fact first experienced F1 when a private equity consortium led by him bought a share of the Williams F1 team in 2009 and three years later he joined the board as executive director in time to see the family run outfit win its latest race with Pastor Maldonado at the Spanish Grand Prix.
In January 2013 Wolff resigned his role at Williams to become an executive director at Mercedes AMG F1 with his business partner Rene Berger becoming a non-executive director. The Wolff led investors acquired 30% of Mercedes Grand Prix Ltd with 10% going to Niki Lauda and the parent company retaining 60%.
The first casualty was Norbert Haug who since joining Mercedes in 1990 had been their head of motorsports. The German auto brand together with their association with McLaren forged a name in formula One for themselves as a world championship engine supplier.
Mercedes retires long standing F1 chief
Then in 2009, Haug announced Mercedes were acquiring the Brawn GP team and their relationship with McLaren was downgraded from the full works team status to merely becoming a customer.
Haug oversaw the years of research and development and alleged $1bn put into the hybrid Mercedes power unit which was set to debut as the FIA regulated in 2014.
Wolff having killed of Haug, assumed his duties and was even appointed the head of motorsport for Mercedes. The Austrian now the head of the German global racing brand began his assault on dominating the world of Formula One.
Red Bull Racing had won four consecutive double F1 world championships with Sebastian Vettel from 2010-13 but were to be blown away by the might of the newly developed German hybrid power unit.
F1 Resource Restriction Agreement
Dependent on Renault for their engine supply, Red Bull quickly realised the game was up for the foreseeable future. Renault had become politicised and their power unit was light years behind Mercedes and this forced Adrian Newey to consider retiring from the sport.
During the penultimate season of Red Bull’s dominance there was a move in the paddock to restrict spending in Formula One and the Resource Restriction Agreement (RRA) was born.
The RRA was a non-enforceable agreement between the teams which set out to cur spending in certain areas. Ten of the twelve teams at the time wrote to the FIA encouraging them to step in and regulate the agreement, however Red Bull who were on course to win their third drivers’ and constructor titles refused to play ball.
As Williams’ executive director, Toto Wolff was heavily critical of Red Bull and in particular Christian Horner’s attitude.
Toto criticises RBR ‘bought’ advantage
“Red Bull spends about 250 million per season,” Wolff informed assembled media.
“If he [Horner] accepted the RRA, Mr Mateschitz would save a hundred million euros. Though without their unlimited spending model they would not have the same advantage.”
A prickly Horner replied, “I feel very comfortable with our position.
“We have been very consistent regarding resource constraints, and if that disturbs others, then that’s their problem, not ours.”
Horner backed into a corner
As the director of the lowly Williams team destined to finish eighth in 2012, Toto Wolff was not really on Christian Horner’s radar. But that was to change quickly.
Having been blown away by Mercedes in 2014 who easily won both the drivers and constructor championships, Christian Horner set about getting the power unit regulations changed. F1 had become a power unit dominated affair a state of affairs not seen for over a decade.
At this time a number of teams including, Marussia, Caterham, Sauber, Force India and Lotus were either already bankrupt or on the brink of going out of business and the cost of the new highly complex F1 power units had become a huge part of the customer teams’ budgets.
Mercedes suggested freezing the development of the power units to eliminate research and development costs together with ongoing testing.
Mercedes set to control F1 future
Realising his team would be doomed to failure, Horner argued for unlimited changes to be allowed until 2016 in the hope that Renault could catch up the gap to Mercedes.
Now Wolff had the upper hand on the topic of resource restriction and played the politics well stating:
“Nobody can really be in favour of an all-out engine war from 2016,” Wolff said.
“No serious company would allow that to happen and none of the current engine suppliers could allow that to happen because costs would escalate totally out of control.
Red Bull lose power unit battle
“We will certainly be very vocal if it ever comes down to a situation that somebody opts for gloves off.
“We would make it very clear how irresponsible that would be for the sport in an environment where we have just lost two teams, where we are talking about financial hardship for some of the other teams.”
Much to Horner’s dismay, Wolff won out and the power units pretty much remained the same while Mercedes racked up seven driver titles and eight consecutive constructor championships.
Toto was now top dog amongst the F1 team principals. He had ruthlessly seen off Haug and Ross Brawn – who had built the team ready for the new power unit and assisted Niki Lauda in the recruitment of Lewis Hamilton.
Wolff to Horner: “Get your f**king head down”
Realising his team’s impending fate, Christian Horner switched tack over the power unit freeze and began a media blintz in 2015 suggesting the very good of Formula One was at stake should the FIA refuse to curb Mercedes’ advantage.
Toto was swift to respond.
“I think ‘just get your f***ing head down, work hard and try to sort it out’,” Wolff said angrily. “I didn’t mean the F-word in relation to him [Horner].
“If you come into Formula 1, try to beat each other and perform at the highest level and then you need equalisation after the first race – you cry out after the first race – that’s not how we’ve done things in the past.”
Red Bull painted as ‘whinging’
The came the infamous phrase which lit the fuse between Horner and Wolff as the Austrian mocked:
“There is this wall in Jerusalem that you can stand in front and complain, maybe the guys should go there.”
The structure to which Toto refers to is called “the wailing wall.”
Back in 2015 Formula One was suffering a decreasing popularity much of which was due to Mercedes dominant grip on the sport. The Red Bull drinks company had seen a drop by 40% in the advance tickets purchased for the circuit the owned in Austria and Horner decided to appeal to the self interest of Bernie Ecclestone, the commercial rights holder at the time.
Ecclestone conceded for diminishing F1 popularity
Ecclestone obliged and began suggesting ways to sport could become more exciting and having referred to an impending crisis, Wolff again was swift to respond.
“There is no crisis,” he scoffed. “Children think you should be going backwards through the chequered flag like they do in The Fast and The Furious because that is spectacular.
“It is clear that the existence of phones and iPads means you will lose audience. But in some major markets like the UK and Germany we are one of the very few sports who have maintained or increased the market share.”
A more level headed Horner countered claiming, “Toto has got his blinkers on. He’s got to be careful because he’s got to have someone to race. And an entertaining race at that.
“Forget our issues as a team, the show is not where it needs to be.”
Wolff attempts to intimidate Verstappen
With his tail up, Toto could now focus on attacking Red Bull Racing over another matter.
Red Bull Racing had in 2016 promoted young gun Max Verstappen from their junior team to race alongside Daniel Ricciardo. Verstappen’s talent was clearly evident as he challenged the more established Aussie driver almost immediately.
Following an opening lap crash with his driver Nico Rosberg, Wolff called Verstappen’s father to suggest he change his aggressive driving style. Horner saw this as intimidation.
“It’s totally wrong,” Horner explained to Autosport. “They’ve got their own business. To be meddling in other teams’… maybe he does that with Ferrari, but he shouldn’t do it.
Red Bull boss: “Toto… naivety”
“He’s got no right to tell Max how he should drive and conduct himself.
“Max is doing a great job in Formula 1 and he’s employed by us to do the best he can in the races.
“That’s not to wave a Mercedes through or not race it.
“I think Toto showed a certain naivety or arrogance to be calling a competitor team’s driver’s father.”
Mercedes leak fake complaint imminent
Whilst the war of words continued between the two over the intervening years then came the 2021 season where Horner sensed as early as pre-season testing Red Bull finally had a chance to take the fight to Wolff and his team.
The first spat came over leaks from Mercedes and Wolff they were about to protest the Red Bull alleged “flexi” front wing at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.
The F1 teams know where their competitors are getting close to the line and Horner replied at length to the accusations emanating from the Mercedes boss.
“I think if I was Toto with the front wing he’s got on his car, I’d keep my mouth shut,” he told Sky Sport F1.
“Christian is a bit of a windbag” – Wolff
“You’ve got some very bright technicians designing components to comply with the rules.
“That’s their job, that’s what we pay them for, that’s what Formula 1 is all about, that engineering ingenuity. If we want standard cars, then we’d be Formula 2.”
Horner then explained at length about how “pushing the boundaries” may lead to sailing close to the wind, but in Formula One this is all part of the competition.
Wolff mocked Horner’s explanation handing out a personal insult:“Christian is a bit of a windbag who wants to be on camera.”
Toto yells: “f**k them all!!!”
This non-event suggested that Horner and his team had Toto worried and as the pressure built upon the Austrian over the latter part of the season this became more and more evident.
Having lost out to Verstappen in Mexico, Hamilton needed to win the remaining four rounds to guarantee his record breaking eight title and next time out in Brazil the enormous pressure on Wolff finally exploded over team radio.
As Lewis crossed the line to win the Sprint in Sau Paulo, Toto couldn’t contain himself and raged for everyone to hear, “f**k them all!!!”
F1 realised the drama unfolding and paired the two at a press conference at the next round held in Qatar. Sensing his arch rival was close to breaking point, Horner informed the reporters their relationship was non-existent.
Horner laughs ‘not kissing his arse’
“There is no relationship,” he said revealing there was no chance of them having dinner or of the Red Bull boss “kissing his arse.”
Horner did remind the assembled media of Wolff’s dubious behaviour the previous time out concluding, “there is a competition and I think it was interesting to hear Toto’s views after the sprint race last week on his team radio.
Ahead of the penultimate round in Qatar and just a few feet away from him, Horner commented that when it came to Wolff he does not need to “kiss his arse” and that he would not be going to dinner with him anytime soon.
It all came down to the final lap of the final race in Au Dhabi when all the name calling had to stop. Reed Bull cleverly covered Mercedes by fitting fresh rubber to Verstappen under a late safety car, while the world champions preferred to retain track position.
Headphone slammed into Mercedes desk
Verstappen breezed past Hamilton in a one lap shoot and Wolff was captured on TV slamming his headphones in rage into the desk.
But now the tide had turned.
The big regulation change in F1 car design saw Red Bull come out on top in 2022 and Mercedes were all over the place. The team’s car was bouncing viciously as the engineers struggled to understand how best to set up their radical W13 car.
Netflix were later to reveal Horner’s first opportunity to repay Toto after the years of complaining and coming off second best.
Toto threatens other teams
At a meeting of the team principals in Canada, the Netflix cameras recorded the following.
Calling for a regulation change to help them solve Mercedes problems, Toto was met with resistance from the rest of the teams.
“I can tell you that all of you are playing a dangerous game,” Wolff snorted angrily.
“If a car ends in the wall because it’s too stiff or it’s bottoming out, you are [all] in the s**t and I’m going to come after you.”
Red Bull boss throwback quip to Wolff emotional “f**k!!!”
Horner ironically responded in what appeared to be a throw back to Wolff’s “get your fucking head down” snarl from years earlier.
“Well change your car. You’ve got a problem. Change your f***ing car!”
One thing is certain in life and sport, all empires come to an end and given Mercedes dominance was the longest in F1 history, the bitter pill of being soundly beaten by his arch rival makes it all the more difficult for Toto to get back on the front foot.
His snipes at Red Bull and Horner are now more muted and his latest taunt follows one made by his star driver Lewis Hamilton.
Lewis and Toto snigger at Perez
At the last Grand Prix Lewis mocked the efforts of Red Bull’s Perez predicting if he was driving the Mexican’s car, “things would be very different for Max.”
Toto Wolff has echoed this sentiment now by suggesting, “I don’t know whether our dominance was similar or less [to Red Bull’s now] as I think we had years where we did it in the same way, but at least we had two cars that were fighting each other.
“So that caused a little bit of entertainment for everyone, and that’s not the case at the moment.”
‘Hate-hate’ rivalry in abeyance
The difference between Mercedes’ dominant years and the present is Formula One is booming with a number of circuits selling out quickly a year in advance. Silverstone which hosted around 140,000 on a good race day will next season see around 500,000 spectators over the three day weekend.
As the realisation sets in at the factory in Brackley, that given the stable nature of the current regulations, Red Bull is likely to be winning until at least 2026 when the next generation of power unit are unveiled.
And so for now one of the greatest and most spectacular off track ‘hate-hate’ rivalries in F1 history is muted as Toto Wolff licks his wounds and hopes for better times ahead.
— TotoWolffBot (@TotoWolffCrying) July 27, 2023