Horner, left, believes that Wolff, right, and Mercedes are struggling to adapt to their position as challengers rather than dominant force
Credit: Christian Horner interview: 'Toto Wolff is a control freak — but he can't control us'
With his team the talk of the paddock, heading into Sunday’s British Grand Prix as the would-be usurpers of the reigning seven-times world champions, Christian Horner senses that this is his moment to turn the screw. In a battle this intense, any psychological advantage must be seized. As such, in the latest ratcheting-up of tensions at the top of Formula One, the Red Bull team principal describes Toto Wolff, his opposite number at Mercedes, as a “control freak”.
After months of needling between the pair, Horner, whose team arrive at Silverstone on the back of five consecutive victories – a record against Mercedes in the turbo-hybrid era – expresses satisfaction that he is finally unsettling his arch-rival. “It’s a competitive business, and Toto’s a little bit of a control freak, as we can see,” Horner says. “And the one thing he can’t control is Red Bull. I’m probably the only one to have no conflicts of interests with Toto. I can speak my mind and tell him what I think. He maybe finds that slightly uncomfortable.”
Horner’s remarks reveal the heat of the fight between two pre-eminent teams, as Red Bull seek to end the crushing dominance Mercedes have enjoyed for the past seven seasons. Already they have built a 44-point lead in the constructors’ championship after nine races, while Max Verstappen stands 32 clear of Lewis Hamilton in his quest for a maiden world title.
The two principals have been drawn into a growing antagonism of their own, with Horner advising Wolff to keep his mouth shut about Red Bull’s controversial bendy rear wing, and the Austrian calling his adversary a “windbag who wants to be on camera”. This is one accusation that Horner shoots down with a flourish. “Coming from the chap who is in front of the camera more than anybody else, I thought that was quite amusing,” he smiles. “I’m sure Toto will try to throw shade wherever he can. But sometimes, when you point the finger, there are three pointing back at you.”
In every department, the pair form a compelling study in contrasts: Wolff is the earnest Viennese venture capitalist, Horner the quintessentially English mischief-maker whose wry jokes are sometimes lost in translation over at Mercedes. A memory endures from Brazil in 2016, when Wolff was trying to justify why he had called Jos Verstappen, Max’s father, to try to stop his son interfering in that year’s title duel between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. As if on cue, Horner appeared at the window of the Mercedes motorhome, making a mock dialling gesture. The object of his ribbing did not look too richly amused.
Horner, left, and Wolff, right, pictured in 2018, when Mercedes were well ahead of Red Bull
The fierce determination at Red Bull to end the Silver Arrows dynasty, coupled with the language used by the leading men against each other, is becoming reminiscent of Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous vow to knock Liverpool “right off their f—— perch.”
“Those sentiments I can relate to quite closely,” says Horner, who has led his team for 16 years. “Alex Ferguson’s a big hero of mine. I’ve had a huge respect for his achievements. His was a phenomenal career across several generations, and we have moved through generations with this team.”
If the energy between Horner and Wolff is so stormy, then it arises not just from their personality clash, but from their starkly different management styles. Where Wolff is immaculately corporate, albeit far from afraid to speak his own mind, Horner has, since becoming F1’s youngest ever team principal at 31 in 2005, turned Red Bull into the team who party hardest, dress loosest, play their music loudest.
“If you work in a design office and you want to come in in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, that’s fine,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that we’re any less serious, it just means that we’re different. We’re not afraid to enjoy ourselves. And if people enjoy themselves, they just operate that much better.”
Throughout the Red Bull factory in Milton Keynes, Horner detects a boisterous spirit that comes from knowing that Mercedes, the sport’s standard-setters, are fallible at last. If the champions did not know the full scale of the threat they face, they surely do now, with Verstappen now delivering the type of lights-to-flag masterclasses that were once Hamilton’s trademark. Such is his relish at this changing of the guard, Horner cannot resist one more jab in the ribs of his sparring partner Wolff.
“It’s a dynamic that Toto has probably never experienced before, because when he joined the team, it was already established. It had signed Hamilton. By 2014, the engine was in place. The foundations were all there. This is the first time for many in that team that they have actually been in this position.”
At the heart of Red Bull’s resurgence, of course, are the mesmeric performances of one extraordinary young Dutchman. Everybody understood how talented Verstappen was when he won his first grand prix aged 18, but his hot-headedness still inclined him to make elementary errors, such as binning his car into a barrier during Monaco practice. Such mistakes would be unthinkable today: in the eight races he has finished in 2021, he has yet to finish worse than second. On the one occasion he did not, in Baku last month, he was the unwitting victim of a tyre blow-out at 200mph.
Verstappen's form has given Lewis Hamilton huge problems this season
Horner attributes his driver’s transformation to a new-found maturity, a steady girlfriend – Verstappen is in a relationship with Kelly Piquet, the daughter of three-time world champion Nelson – and to the carefully-chosen inner circle around him, from his father to his unflappable race engineer, Gianpiero Lambiase. “Max has a very strong team, and he’s in a healthy relationship. The people who surround him in the team, they know each other inside out. Max is very straightforward to work with: you know you’re going to get 100 per cent, and he expects the same in return. With experience, he has become more rounded.”
While once Verstappen Snr could be a disconcerting figure in boy’s corner, once giving Max the silent treatment for a week after he had failed to win a karting race, Horner insists that tempers have mellowed. The paternal presence can be suffocating for an F1 driver, as Hamilton’s famous fall-out with father Anthony showed, and there is a determination to strike the right balance. “Jos has very much taken a step back,” Horner says. “He comes only to a handful of races now. He is a good barometer for Max, and there is a great respect between them.”
The imperative this weekend is for Verstappen to dethrone Hamilton in his own Silverstone kingdom, in front of 140,000 fans. To beat the man who has ruled the British Grand Prix like no other, with seven wins, would be the most vivid demonstration yet of the Red Bull ascendancy. Horner’s restlessness for his team to drive home their advantage is palpable.
With a wholesale transformation of F1’s regulations due next year, he acknowledges: “We’re desperate to make sure we get the job done this year. Sport goes in cycles, and every cycle comes to an end. Mercedes have broken pretty much every record in the book, but our focus is on trying to take the fight to them all the way. They’ve got to be beaten at some point – why not this year?”
The foundations for Red Bull to cement this shift are already being laid, with the team recently announcing a project to develop their own powertrains, after Honda’s departure as engine supplier at the end of this year. “We’ll be the only team other than Ferrari to have the engine and the chassis created all within one campus,” Horner says. “It’s a phenomenal commitment.”
No greater challenge in F1 exists, though, than supplanting Mercedes at the summit. While Horner is wary of seeming too cocksure, with more than half the season still to run, one certainty remains. “It would,” he says firmly, “be our biggest achievement.”