A miracle happened at the F1 2023 season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last month as Toto Wolff and Christian Horner were pictured smiling together.
The team principals of Mercedes and Red Bull have been the best of enemies since the 2021 title battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, with Wolff recently commenting that the two bosses have not shaken hands since the build-up to the final race of that season.
But where do Wolff and Horner feature on our ranking of the F1 team principals based on their individual (not team) performances across the 2023 season? It’s time to find out…
10: Otmar Szafnauer/Bruno Famin, Alpine
Only the names have been changed at Alpine, because the team itself never really does.
It finally hit home in 2023 that Team Enstone as we knew it through the Benetton and Renault years is now a thing of the past.
The treatment of Szafnauer and long-serving sporting director Alan Permane, both publicly sacked during the Belgian Grand Prix weekend in July, was an uneasy reminder that sport is a people’s business that often treats people ruthlessly.
That his successor Bruno Famin, to remain in place for 2024, had no discernible impact shows a big task lay ahead next year.
9: Guenther Steiner, Haas
Steiner got what he wanted for 2023, ending up with the F1 equivalent of Dad’s Army as Nico Hulkenberg joined Kevin Magnussen at Haas.
Yet the team, as so often these days, did not fulfil their side of the bargain – providing the grizzled old pros with a fundamentally flawed car reminiscent of the badly born, tyre-burning 2019 design.
Steiner’s frustrations were as entertaining as ever though – see how he became increasingly irate on the pit wall after Hulkenberg and Magnussen wrote off new front wings in consecutive days at Zandvoort – and no doubt good for business.
8: Alessandro Alunni Bravi, Alfa Romeo
There is a sense that Sauber are simply killing time until Audi’s 2026 arrival comes into view and Alunni Bravi – decent, competent, harmless – is the embodiment of that.
Largely anonymous, in much the same way as his team, his passionate response in Singapore to the controversy surrounding Helmut Marko’s comments about Sergio Perez earns him some bonus points here.
7: Franz Tost, AlphaTauri
Tost was just one of many at Red Bull – including, as Helmut Marko revealed, Horner – to see the Nyck de Vries disaster coming.
The AlphaTauri team boss admitted during 2023 that Mick Schumacher would have been his choice to replace Pierre Gasly and – regardless of how Mick would have performed this year – is therefore absolved of blame for one of the shorter F1 careers in recent memory.
Yet the true mark of Tost’s 2023 was found in the rise of Yuki Tsunoda, who finally blossomed into the driver he had occasionally dared to become.
Tost had been robust of his defence of Tsunoda during his erratic early days, insisting young drivers require three full seasons in F1 before they begin to realise their true potential.
Right on cue, in Year Three Tsunoda emerged as one of the underrated stars of the season – seeing off De Vries before outpacing the returning Daniel Ricciardo.
Yuki will miss Franz now he’s gone.
6: Toto Wolff, Mercedes
Listen to Christian Horner talk about Wolff for any length of time and it soon becomes clear how the Red Bull team principal perceives his opposite number at Mercedes.
Horner’s view? Toto got lucky. Achieved his success on the back of Ross Brawn’s hard work. Never had to build anything.
As Mercedes kept chasing their tails over the course of a season in which the W14 car morphed into a patchwork of 2022/23/24 ideas, the thought occurred for the first time to some that Horner may have had a point all along.
Mercedes were fully committed to retaining the zero-pod design for 2023… right until they weren’t, Wolff publicly abandoning it after the first qualifying session of the season in a shocking admission that the team had wasted their winter pursuing the wrong concept.
On one side of the coin, you can be critical of Mercedes for keeping the faith with the zero-pod concept. On the other? You can praise Wolff and Co for taking swift, decisive action and tearing up this chapter in their philosophy book and battling to P2 in the Constructors’.
A progressive top five to come leaves Wolff in midtable for this year.
5: Mike Krack, Aston Martin
How to judge Mike Krack after two full seasons at Aston Martin?
Fernando Alonso was lured to the team for 2023, but it’s widely known that Lawrence Stroll played the lead role in those particular negotiations.
It’s true also that he oversaw Aston Martin’s rise as a front-running force in the early months of the season, but that was made almost inevitable given Stroll’s level of investment in the team and its manpower.
With Mr Stroll calling so many shots at Silverstone – a second pope, as Szafnauer memorably called him – it is Krack’s remit is to instil and maintain the right culture.
The pride Alonso expressed after his podium in Brazil – explaining how Aston Martin had stuck tightly together in a fashion that was “not normal” after a challenging few months either side of the summer break – was a reflection of the team Krack is creating.
4: Fred Vasseur, Ferrari
Ending 2023 with the distinction of being the only team other than Red Bull to win a race makes for a promising start to Sgt Fred’s Ferrari revolution.
Carlos Sainz’s victory in Singapore and a healthy number of pole positions along the way (six on merit, plus one inherited from a penalised Verstappen at Spa) is a solid platform to build on as initial fears that Vasseur’s Ferrari would sway heavily towards Charles Leclerc were extinguished.
Sainz enjoyed the greatest F1 days to date after the summer break in setting consecutive poles at Monza and Singapore, while Leclerc was massaged back to life in the closing weeks of the campaign after the most testing season of his career.
Like all great leaders, Vasseur had one eye on the present and another on the future – his frustrations over the extended periods of gardening leave in F1 contracts becoming a theme of Ferrari’s season as he persuaded new recruits to sign up to the revolution.
He will achieve great things here if given time.
3: Christian Horner, Red Bull
Horner kept insisting that Sergio Perez would be a Red Bull Racing driver for 2024 and, as the new year approaches, Sergio Perez remains a Red Bull Racing driver for 2024.
The patience he afforded Checo – even after a run of five consecutive races without a Q3 appearance in the most dominant F1 car in history, even after putting Verstappen on the grass at the start of the team’s home (sprint) race – is a sure sign that the team’s days of chopping and changing drivers is over.
It is also, perhaps, an admission that no driver will ever look good alongside a talent like Verstappen.
After a season in which he won 19 of a possible 22 races, there is a perception that Max had it easy in 2023 – but he is only capable of reaching such heights because he has such a well-organised and battle-hardened team behind him.
The responsibility for creating the conditions for such excellence lies with Horner, but two other team bosses – both newcomers in 2023 – deserve a little more of the spotlight…
2: Andrea Stella, McLaren
Stella marked himself out as someone calm amid the chaos at Ferrari, acting as Fernando Alonso’s trusty race engineer before following him to McLaren in 2015.
Few, though, could have foreseen his emergence as one of the outstanding team principals in F1 having been announced as Sauber-bound Andreas Seidl’s successor exactly a year ago this week.
One of the most high-pressure jobs in the sport carried the risk of swallowing a rookie team boss whole, especially following McLaren’s slow start to the season after missing development targets last winter.
Yet Stella again remained calm, implementing the technical restructure the team badly needed after poor in-season development in 2022 and ensuring McLaren followed the standard-setting Red Bull’s template almost to the letter in the area of car design.
A typically McLaren three-stage upgrade before the summer break not only unlocked the MCL60’s potential but exposed engine suppliers Mercedes’ troubles in getting a consistent tune out of their car.
There is a toughness about him too, as evidenced by his firm reminder to Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri – “there should never, ever be contact between two McLaren cars” – after their tangle at Monza.
Everything McLaren achieved in 2023 had the intelligent, understated touch of Stella at the root of it all.
1: James Vowles, Williams
No snap decisions, no emotional reactions, no short-term fixes.
That has become a way of life at James Vowles’ Williams, a philosophy certain other team principals on this list would be well advised to take note of.
Only the third team boss in Williams’ history, Vowles has a great respect for the position he holds, each decision made in the team’s best interests and only reached after the sort of considered thought most of us would only usually reserve for family matters.
See, for instance, how long Williams went without a technical director in 2023, only announcing the appointment of Pat Fry at the end of July.
The signing of Fry, who triggered the first phase of McLaren’s revival in 2019 and even made Alpine look semi-respectable in 2022, will ensure Williams’ resurgence does not end here after their best result in the Constructors’ Championship since 2017.
The influence of Wolff, his mentor at Mercedes, is obvious, Vowles managing his drivers with the emotional intelligence that characterises many of the greatest leaders in modern sport.
Alex Albon has grown in stature as a team leader under his new boss, with Vowles’ unflinching support of Logan Sargeant – against all those mid-season calls for change – ultimately rewarded with the rookie’s first point in Austin and a Q3 spot in Vegas.
A first year as successful as this for Vowles, against the backdrop of Mercedes’ ongoing struggles in F1’s ground effect era, will only increase the feeling that the former Merc strategist was put in charge of Williams for a reason.
Feel that? That’s ‘future Mercedes team boss’ material.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility if Vowles continues to guide Williams down the right path.