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How tensions cooled between Wolff and Horner ahead of F1’s ‘Squid Game’ finale

One week after tensions flared between their Formula 1 drivers on-track, Toto Wolff and Christian Horner’s final FIA press conference of the season proved to be a respectful affair.

Toto Wolff, Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes AMG, Christian Horner, Team Principal, Red Bull Racing, shake hands

FIA Pool

While their respective teams and drivers have gone wheel-to-wheel, Wolff and Horner have fired shots at each other throughout the season. Amid flexi-wing sagas, rights to review, accident reconstructions and threats to protest, it has fuelled what Horner called in the tense Qatar press conference “by far the most intense political title fight we've been involved in”.

But two days out from the championship decider, and with the constructors’ championship trophy sat between them, Horner and Wolff’s war of words seemed to have cooled. Declarations that “diplomacy has ended” (Wolff in Brazil) and there was “no relationship” between the teams (Horner in Qatar) made way for not one, but two handshakes.

“Good luck,” said Wolff, reaching towards Horner with his right hand after both were asked what they would say to one another. “May the best man and the best team win.” They would later shake hands a second time off-camera when leaving the press conference.

Both team principals have recently expressed their surprise that they arrive in Abu Dhabi even with a chance at the championship at all. “Who’d have thought at the beginning of the season we’d be here with an outside shot of going for this trophy?” Horner said, the outside shot reference meaning the constructors’ standings where Mercedes needs 17 points to secure the title.

“Nobody has come close to challenging this team in the last eight years. Here we are at the final race, in with a shot, a long shot in the constructors’, and equal opportunity on the drivers. So I think there’s a real feeling of excitement.”

Horner added: “It almost feels like a bit like Squid Game, that we’ve finished up here on equal points. I think it’s going to make compelling viewing on Sunday.”

Squid Game, for those not familiar, has been the Netflix phenomenon of 2021. This is your warning for gentle spoilers to come.

The premise of the Korean series is that hundreds of people take part in a brutal series of children’s games (such as ‘Red Light, Green Light’) where losers are eliminated and killed, but the last man or woman standing has a chance to win a life-changing amount of money.

The final game of the series is 'Squid Game', where childhood friends Gi-hun and Sang-woo fight against each other in a brutal fight to the death. But just as one appears to be about to win, Gi-hun calls for a truce that would end the game and allow both to leave with their lives.

Mercedes and Red Bull have clashed on and off the track throughout a highly charged 2021 season

Mercedes and Red Bull have clashed on and off the track throughout a highly charged 2021 season

Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images

To go with Horner’s Squid Game theme, similar to how that moment acts as a cooling at the most intense moment of the series, today’s press conference felt like a point where so much of the pent-up tension that made their time with the media so enthralling (and, at times, gruelling) in Qatar, had given way for a mutual respect and acceptance between Wolff and Horner: no, we don’t need to pretend to be friends. Because if we did, our hearts wouldn’t be in it enough.

It reasons their fierce defences of their teams, their drivers, and the hundreds of men and women working towards the same goal of winning the championship. “I will defend my team, I will defend my drivers, to the hilt - because that’s what you do, that’s who you represent, that’s who you look to protect,” said Horner.

“It would be for me, a very artificial to sit here or throughout the season and be all smiles with your biggest competitor. For me, I can’t do that, because that wouldn’t be being true. It wouldn’t be being honest.

“Of course, emotions boil over. We’re in a competitive sport. And I think that’s Formula 1. It shows the intensity of the competition, the intensity between the teams. It’s given you guys something to write about.

“I think it’s just been honest more than anything, and for me it would be totally fake to sit here and say how much we love each other and are going to go on holiday after this weekend - because I’m not going on holiday with you after this race!”

Wolff agreed: “There’s mutual respect for the job that the other team has done. They wouldn’t be where they are competing for this championships all along. But it is just too intense.

“I stand for the team and in the interests of the team, and that can be fierce at times, because it’s not only the drivers battling on-track. It’s a fight for the advantage in the regulations, and obviously we have also certain bias that comes from different perspectives and different perceptions.”

Wolff also acknowledged when that passion of the fight can lead to an emotional reaction, perhaps best evidenced by his reaction to the camera in Brazil when Hamilton finally overtook Verstappen.

"I can get quite emotional in the moment,” Wolff said. “And Christian has his own way of dealing with it, as he said, very different personalities. But it is just the fight for this trophy, one of the most important prizes in sport. It’s a world championship.

“That’s why you cannot expect a lot of schmoozing between drivers, team principals and all the team.”

Toto Wolff and Christian faced off at Friday's FIA press conference

Toto Wolff and Christian faced off at Friday's FIA press conference

Photo by: FIA Pool

And it is true. In such a high-intensity sport filled with so many characters and personalities, for everyone to get on would be not only surprising, but also disappointing. Fans have thrived off the dynamics between the team principals in recent years, particularly through another Netflix series, Drive to Survive.

But there does need to be a level of respect. Amid toxicity online and a polarisation between fanbases nearing the title battle’s endgame - something alluded to by Carlos Sainz Jr on Thursday - it is good to have seen Wolff and Horner appear to cool things.

Horner talked up Verstappen’s maturity and how he was handling the pressure of his first title fight, feeling the narrative had been written against him - something he later expanded on as being partly down to Hamilton and the “Mercedes media machine”. He also stressed the need for consistency from the stewards following Michael Masi’s event notes warning of points deductions for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“Nobody wants to see this championship end up in front of the stewards or in a gravel trap,” Horner added. “You want to see these two titan of drivers that have gone wheel-to-wheel so often this year go at it again this weekend.”

As fractured as the title fight and relations between F1’s top two teams have been at times, the message going into the rest of the weekend seems clear: let’s settle this on-track.

It would be a fitting ending to what has been a championship battle for the ages; a thriller with twists and turns to keep us as captivated as any episode of Squid Game.

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