Mercedes’ Toto Wolff, Red Bull’s Christian Horner respectfully address controversies

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Toto Wolff and Christian Horner barely looked at each other when they sat side-by-side three weeks ago discussing the F1 championship.

Their frosty relationship briefly thawed Friday ahead of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen are tied in the points standings heading into the title-deciding race for Formula One.

Verstappen and Hamilton each led a practice session Friday with qualifying scheduled for Saturday.

“Good luck. May the best man and the best team win,” said Mercedes head Wolff, who reached across the constructers championship trophy to shake Red Bull rival Horner’s hand when asked what the two team principals had to say to each other.

“Exactly,” replied Horner, who accepted the handshake.

It was dramatically different from Nov. 19 at the Qatar Grand Prix, where the tension was evident in their rigid body language and open disdain for one another.

“I don’t need to go to dinner with Toto. I don’t need to kiss his (butt) or anything like that,” Horner said that day.

And from Wolff, “What started as Olympic boxing went to pro boxing and is now MMA. The gloves are off.”

But Verstappen had a 14-point lead in the standings at the time of that encounter, held two days before Hamilton earned the second of three consecutive wins – a streak that has evened the championship ahead of Sunday’s finale. It’s the first time since 1974 the contenders have been tied going into the final race.

Hamilton, winner of four straight titles, has used the last three races to pull within reach of breaking a tie with Michael Schumacher with a record eighth F1 championship. Verstappen, winner of a series-best nine races this season, is seeking to become the first Dutch world champion.

“You know, who would have thought we’d be here this season with an outside shot of going for this trophy? To be tied with Lewis has been amazing journey, an amazing championship,” Horner said. “Nobody has come close to challenging (Mercedes) in the last eight years. It’s been intense, it’s been frustrating on occasions, we’ve pushed the limits, we’ve pushed each other, we’ve pushed our competitors, and here we are at the final race for the showdown. It almost feels a bit like ‘Squid Games.’ ”

Fitting for Horner to reference a popular Netflix series. The streaming giant has made the highly quotable Horner a star through its F1 docuseries “Drive To Survive.” The Netflix program has been described by F1 insiders as the best thing to happen to the globetrotting racing series in decades because of the show’s behind-the-scenes access to F1 drivers and teams.

Although F1 is considered the most popular form of motorsports in the world, it has had difficulty gaining solid footing in North America. Its popularity in that region has now exploded because of Netflix.

This season of racing won’t air until 2022, but the championship fight is the closest and most dramatic since perhaps 1976 when James Hunt beat Niki Lauda – a battle chronicled in the 2013 Ron Howard blockbuster “Rush.”

Hamilton has been in tight battles before, including a 2008 showdown with Felipe Massa, who won the season finale in his home country of Brazil and believed he had won the title when he crossed the finish line. His team erupted in celebration with Hamilton nearly 40 seconds behind.

But with a pass for a fifth-place finish made on the final lap, Hamilton clinched his first championship by a single point.

It’s shaping up to be another stellar finish in Abu Dhabi, where Verstappen was fastest in Friday’s first practice and Hamilton paced the second practice.

“The only chance we have to win this championship is to beat Lewis, and we want to do that on the track,” Horner said Friday.

F1 race director Michael Massi in his regular event notes sent to all competitors reminded teams of rules relating to sporting conduct and the penalties that could follow. It was thought to be a direct message to Red Bull and Verstappen, who has drawn criticism this season for aggressive driving and was accused by Hamilton last week in Saudi Arabia of being over the line.

Verstappen in Abu Dhabi has maintained he has been targeted by the stewards and is treated harsher than his fellow competitors. Both Wolff and Horner were asked by The Associated Press on Friday if Verstappen has been targeted, and Horner removed his mask to answer.

“On occasion I think he has been treated harshly, and I think he has come under scrutiny that we haven’t seen applied consistently,” said Horner, Verstappen’s boss. “He’s competing against a seven-time world champion, and I think allegations about his driving, about his driving style, about his driving standards, there’s been a narrative pushed to put pressure on him.

“Max drives in a manner that ignites passion, has brought new fans into the sport this year, and we do not want him to change. We want him to drive in exactly the manner he has that has put him on the precipice of competing with us for the world championship.”

Wolff declined to speak specifically about “incidents or the driving itself” but suggested Verstappen’s stance is his own perception.

“And that will influence how you think and how you see the world,” Wolff said. “We also have an influence in having the most clear view of things and that obviously differs from Red Bull, but that’s OK. You just have to acknowledge that they see it through their glasses and have an opinion and we see it through our glasses and the stewards have a very difficult job to stay neutral and come up with decisions.”

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”