Fireworks in the paddock: the growing cult of the F1 team principal

Formerly behind-the-scenes figures, team principals are increasingly stepping into the limelight of the F1 soap opera

Posing for selfies, signing autographs and manoeuvring through eager fans it seems is no longer the sole prerogative of Formula One’s glamour drivers. Max Verstappen might have cantered to the title this year but over the past two seasons the fascination with those pulling the strings has been a remarkable draw for the sport. Welcome to the show within a show, the cult of the F1 team principal.

While drivers traded licks on track so have their bosses’ increasingly public and competitive egos battled for attention. Mercedes’ Toto Wolff and Red Bull’s Christian Horner have been centre stage of this soap opera, enthusiastically documented by the Netflix series Drive to Survive.

Neither has been shy of stepping up and in 2021, as Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen scrapped in a fraught title fight, the pair’s verbal jousting was riveting. Horner called Wolff a “control freak”, to which Wolff responded, labelling Horner a “windbag who always wants to be on camera”. That there was an element of performance was made clear when Horner declared: “The more Toto gets wound up, the more fun it becomes”.

It sold the sport’s dramatic narrative and all the team principals are aware now of their stature as part of broader F1 appeal. Indeed before Christmas the sport’s biggest story was a swathe of principals swapping teams, with the changes at Ferrari, McLaren and Sauber drawing huge attention.

And it is not just the protagonists at the sharp end of the grid who are riding this wave. The Haas team principal, Guenther Steiner, is an unlikely poster boy but one who demonstrates how F1’s surge in popularity has changed the sport.

“We have all seen it. Before, us team principals were hardly recognised, now everybody knows all the team principals,” he said. “You can see it, they have even made a video game out of us 10 clowns. Now I will get abuse from colleagues for calling ourselves clowns …”

It is a typically humorous and self-deprecating line but based very much in the reality of a sport often aptly compared to a travelling circus. The game he refers to is F1 Manager 2022, released earlier this year and the first F1 management simulator made for 22 years. “The characters were always there but not out in the open, they were more just in the paddock,” he said. “Now the cast has been exposed because people wanted to see them and the Netflix series has done a lot to give us popularity because they showed not only drivers fighting but also us.”

Some of F1’s greatest characters, Frank Williams, Ken Tyrrell and Ron Dennis were, even at the height of their powers, far from household names. Of course the antagonism, the egos, the personal animosity and rivalry were there but they generally eschewed the limelight for behind-the-scenes politicking and doing their talking on track.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner takes a selfie with fans at the Australian Grand Prix in April 2022
The Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, takes a selfie with fans at the Australian Grand Prix in April 2022. Photograph: Simon Baker/EPA

Now no race is complete without leading principals putting their case – pleasure in victory, disappointment in defeat, anger at a contentious move, aggrieved outrage at a decision – the full cast is here, mugging into a camera.

Despite his team being toward the back of the grid Steiner, with his outspoken attitude, became a star of Drive to Survive and a larger than life character fans have taken to. This year the team released a very popular line of T-shirts adorned with the Steiner visage. He has a book coming out next year telling the story of this season – as head of a team that finished eighth in the championship.

He downplays the role his own personality has in this attention but offers the interpretation that the interest in team principals reflects the increased sense of connection fans want. “People still just want to get more involved, to feel what we are doing,” he said of the video game.

So has he played it himself, has Guenther played at being Guenther? Well no, the day job is enough to satisfy him but he was once, perhaps unsurprisingly for such a fascinating character, a demon on the Game Boy.

“Sometimes I play Super Mario with my daughter but I lose like a world champion,” he explains. “I refuse now to play with her because she just takes the piss out of how useless I am. In the good old days when I played Super Mario I was the king on the Game Boy. But she doesn’t believe me.”

The games in F1 are a serious business of clashing egos, however. Recently Wolff noted there would never be a place at Mercedes for the former Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto after their clashes. Yet for Steiner all the tension, verbal tit for tat and sparring is now simply part and parcel of the modern team principal’s role.

Guenther Steiner looks on in the Team Principals Press Conference prior to final practice ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on 2 July, 2022
Guenther Steiner believes clashes with other team principals are now part and parcel of the role. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

“I do my job, people make comments, I make comments but it is never in a bad way,” he said. “There is not an issue, someone makes a stupid comment you say: ‘Thanks for your stupid comment’. That’s it, you move on.”

Haas are hopeful of progressing further next season. They have recently concluded a three-year title sponsorship deal with MoneyGram International, bringing in strong financial backing and are expectant of a real step forward in combination with what is anticipated to be a very competitive Ferrari engine.

Steiner’s role may become even more high-profile. Yet tellingly he has still not watched the Netflix series and has no interest in how his persona plays out in public.

“I don’t want to watch it to then judge myself and maybe try to be different because then everybody at the team would be uncomfortable,” he said. “It could change me and I don’t want to. I don’t care what people think about me as long as I am OK with myself. I try to be who I am, I don’t need to be anybody else.”


Giles Richards

The GuardianTramp

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