Any hope of this season’s Formula One world championship playing the Queensberry game have surely now disappeared in the rancorous conflict of the title run-in. Both Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull have been boxing hard but it seems this has now turned into a cage fight.
On Friday Mercedes lost their request for a review of Hamilton and Verstappen’s clash at the Brazilian Grand Prix but that was only one salvo in an exchange of broadsides thundering across the desert before this weekend’s Qatar Grand Prix.
From Verstappen’s perspective, the stewards rejecting the review questioning the Dutchman’s driving in pushing Hamilton wide in Brazil will be welcomed. He could have lost points or grid places had it gone against him. Instead at the Losail circuit in Doha he maintains his 14-point lead over Hamilton with three races remaining. The two drivers remain civil but their team principals are in a furious scrap.
They sat barely four feet apart at their press conference in Qatar but the distance was a chasm as Mercedes’ Toto Wolff and Red Bull’s Christian Horner staked their claims while resolutely avoiding eye contact. Was there any respect, any relationship left between the two teams after a campaign that has been fiercely fought for 19 rounds and included accusations of wrongdoing across both sides, on and off track?
“There is no relationship, there’s a competition,” Horner replied bluntly. “It’s interesting to see how people react under pressure, how they react when they’re challenged.
“It’s by far the most intense political title fight we’ve been involved in in our time in this sport. Relationships and respect are different things. I don’t need to go to dinner with Toto or anything like that.”
Wolff, who said he had expected the review to be rejected but wanted to put Verstappen’s driving under the spotlight so that in the remaining races it stood as a precedent, was unequivocal in how he now viewed the contest.
“What started as Olympic boxing went to pro boxing, and it’s now MMA,” he said. “We are in the ring there, trying to do the best job possible. Elbows are out now because the rules say so and gloves are off. Nothing else is to be expected.”
Both said they respected their competitor’s team members while pointedly not offering the same approbation to their direct opposite number. Nor was this merely verbal sparring. Both teams have made it clear that this is, as Horner noted, a “political” fight as much as it is one between Hamilton and Verstappen on track.
Horner was explicit that he would protest against the Mercedes rear wing used in Mexico and Brazil he believes is flexing illegally and delivering a significant straightline speed advantage, if Mercedes employ it again. “If we see [the wing] on the car here, it will be protested,” he said.
That is unlikely in Qatar given the nature of the track but almost certain at the final two rounds in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, where the wing could make a major difference. Wolff was robust in his conviction it was completely legal.
These are tense times and they are personal. So much so that having averted their gazes for so long, in an almost unheard of moment of confrontation in front of the media, Horner turned directly to Wolff and demanded he explain the “score marks” Red Bull had apparently observed on the rear wing endplate. Wolff dismissed it as perfectly legal but the stewards may be as busy as the drivers in these final three races.
On track for the first F1 race in Qatar, Verstappen was quickest in first practice with Hamilton in fourth. However, in the more representative night running of FP2, Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas was on top, with Verstappen in third and Hamilton in fourth.