Christian Horner, Toto Wolff continue Red Bull-Mercedes feud as F1 at Qatar begins

F1 Horner Wolff feud
Dan Istitene/Getty Images
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LOSAIL, Qatar — The most dramatic Formula One title feud in at least a decade further intensified Friday when Christian Horner and Toto Wolff traded barbs at the same time the FIA denied Mercedes’ right to appeal last week’s non-penalty on F1 championship leader Max Verstappen.

Wolff, the head of Mercedes, and Red Bull principal Horner sat side-by-side during a tense 30-minute media briefing that displayed the full animosity between the two teams.

“It’s the world championship of the highest category in motor racing,” Wolff said, “and what started as Olympic boxing went to pro boxing and is now MMA. Elbows are allowed now because the rules say so, and the gloves are off. Nothing else is to be expected.”

F1 moved this week to Losail for the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix with the results of last week’s race still hanging over the championship fight. Lewis Hamilton earned his 101st victory at the Brazilian GP to cut his deficit to Verstappen to only 14 points with three races remaining.

Mercedes protested the decision not to penalize Verstappen in Sao Paulo when the Red Bull driver ran Hamilton wide off course as the seven-time champion attempted a pass for the lead. The FIA heard the appeal Thursday and then denied the Mercedes request as Horner and Wolff were in the middle of Friday’s briefing.

Horner shrugged off Wolff, declaring “there is no relationship” between the two. He also suggested the Mercedes team might be cracking as Red Bull attempts to end its reign at the top of the series.

“I think it’s the first time they’ve been challenged. It’s interesting to see how people react under pressure, how they react when they are challenged,” Horner said. “It’s by far the most intense political title fight we’ve been involved in in this sport.”

No relationship is one thing. But respect?

Horner said he appreciates what Mercedes has accomplished. Same for Hamilton, who can pass Michael Schumacher with a record eight championships if he can catch Verstappen over the next three races.

“But I don’t need to go to dinner with Toto. I don’t need to kiss his (butt) or anything like that. There’s a few other team principals that might,” Horner said. “Toto and I are very different characters and we operate in very different ways. Am I going to be spending Christmas with Toto? Probably not.”

Is there any chance at all for peace between the warring teams? Wolff thinks not.

“I think the competition is just too high,” Wolff said. “You cannot expect that you’re going to dinner with your rival or with a rival team or your enemy in sporting competition, irrespective of personalities and the characters.”

On the track, meanwhile, Verstappen topped the first practice session and seemed quite comfortable on the  5.4-kilometer (3.5-mile) circuit. Mercedes driver Valterri Bottas was fastest in second practice.

Hamilton was fourth in both sessions.

Verstappen has won a career-high nine races this season to put Hamilton on the ropes for the first time since 2016, when then-teammate Nico Rosberg edged him by five points to win the title. Hamilton has won four consecutive championships since losing to Rosberg.

Mercedes and Red Bull have been sparring all season – a collision between the drivers on the first lap of the British Grand Prix sent Verstappen to the hospital, and a crash between the two at Monza led to Verstappen’s car landing on top of Hamilton’s head.

But it reached another level in Brazil. Mercedes was found to have an illegal wing on Hamilton’s car, and Verstappen was caught on video taken from the grandstands illegally touching the part after practice.

The drama built all weekend and when Verstappen wasn’t penalized for running Hamilton wide, Mercedes erupted. Even though Hamilton won the race, Mercedes protested the no-call in hopes that Verstappen would be retroactively penalized. If the protest had been successful, Verstappen would have been given a time penalty that would have dropped him from second to third at the Brazilian GP and further tightened the title race.

Wolff said the ruling was “completely expected.”

“We wanted to trigger discussion around it because it probably will be a theme,” Wolff said. “We didn’t think it would go any further.”

Horner called it the right decision.

“Otherwise, it would have opened a Pandora’s box regarding a whole bunch of other incidents that happened in that race,” Horner said. “I think the most important thing now is to focus on this Grand Prix. We want a good, clean, fair fight.”

Cadillac confirms WEC driver lineup with Chip Ganassi Racing that will race Le Mans in 2023

Cadillac Ganassi Le Mans
Cadillac Racing
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Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing announced their driver lineup for a 2023 entry in the FIA World Endurance Championship, the sports car series that includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The Cadillac V-LMDh entry will be driven by Earl Bamber and Alex Lynn, who were teamed on the No. 02 Cadillac that competed in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship DPi class this season and won the Twelve Hours of Sebring. The third driver will be Richard Westbrook, who will return to Ganassi after helping the team to a GT class win at Le Mans in 2018.

The team also will compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the rebranded Grand Touring Prototype premier category, which is designed for crossover between the top prototypes in IMSA and WEC. Ganassi will field a second entry at Daytona with its No. 01 Cadillac that will compete full time in IMSA with Sebastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande.

A Ganassi spokesman said the team hopes to run its second entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans but only its WEC team is confirmed (an AOC invitation would be required for the IMSA team). The team also is exploring options but currently plans to have the WEC’s team base of operations in Indianapolis.

Ganassi is the first American-based prototype team to confirm its entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s expected that Team Penske, which raced this year’s Le Mans with a full-time WEC entry in LMP2, also will race Le Mans with Porsche’s new LMDh car that is set for IMSA, but the manufacturer has yet to confirm its driver and team lineup.

Next year will mark the return of Cadillac to Le Mans for the first time since 2002.

Before joining Ganassi last year, Lynn made 28 WEC starts since 2016, winning the LMGTE Pro class at Le Mans in 2020.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to continue with Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing,” Lynn said in a release. “It’s a huge honor to drive for Chip in any capacity but certainly on a full factory sports car program, it’s seriously cool. Cadillac has so much heritage as a luxury North American sports car brand, so to be able to represent them is a huge privilege. I’ve had a lot of fun in my first year doing it and to continue that onto the World Endurance Championship stage is fantastic.

“For me, returning to WEC is sort of what I’ve always known and it’s a bit like going into my wheelhouse. This year in IMSA was a bit different with getting to know all-new circuits and a new style of racing so 2023 will be filled with a bit more of what I’m used to with more of a European focus. I think what’s significant about WEC is without a doubt Le Mans. As a sports car race, Le Mans is the crown jewel and everything that we want to win. To be able to take Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac back to Le Mans to fight for overall honors is a huge honor and that’s something that I’m going to work tirelessly to make sure we achieve.”

Bamber won the Le Mans overall in 2015 and ’17 with Porsche teams and also was a 2019 GTLM champion in IMSA.

“I am really happy to continue at Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac,” Bamber said in a release. “I’ve loved my first season in DPi and now to continue over into the LMDh era and WEC is super exciting. Looking forward to fighting for a world championship and another Le Mans victory.

“The World Endurance Championships gives us the opportunity to race at the world’s biggest race, which is Le Mans, the crown jewel of sports car racing. I’ve been lucky enough to win it before and it’s obviously a huge goal for Cadillac and everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing. To have that goal in sight is really exciting. It’s been great to have Alex as a teammate in 2022. We’ve been able to learn and grow together in the DPi, and we have a really good partnership going into WEC. We know each other really well and believe adding Richard will be a seamless transition.”

Said Westbrook: “After four really good years at Chip Ganassi Racing, I’ve got so many friends there and I’ve always dreamt to come back one day. It just worked so well between 2016 and 2019, and I’m delighted we found a route to come together again. I can’t wait, it’s an exciting era in sports car racing right now.

“I feel like I know Alex and Earl really well. I did Le Mans with Alex in 2020 and I’ve known him for years. It feels like I’m going back with an ex-teammate and exactly the same with Earl. Although I’ve never shared a car with Earl, we’ve always done the same sort of racing be it in WEC or in IMSA. We’ve had lots of battles, including this year in our dueling Cadillacs. We’ve always gotten along quite well, and I can say we’re going to have a great year together.”

The seven-race WEC season, which also includes a stop at Spa, will begin March 17 with the 1,000 Miles of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway in Florida.