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

F1 Horner Wolff feud
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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, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds