The relationship between Christian Horner and Toto Wolff is the most analysed one in the sport, but how did they become F1’s odd couple?
Horner and Wolff have been in the paddock alongside one another since Wolff entered the sport with Williams in 2012 and although he had been a shareholder since 2009, it was that year that he took up an executive director role.
Just a year later though and Wolff left Williams to join Mercedes where his path would be put on a collision course with Horner.
At the time, the Red Bull boss was on cloud nine with his team having secured four successive Constructors’ titles, their first since the team’s formation in 2005.
But rule changes for the 2014 season were about to change everything as Mercedes emerged as not only the dominant force on the grid but statistically the most dominant team of all time.
In terms of the relationship between Horner and Wolff, this put the Mercedes boss in Horner’s crosshairs but Wolff could comfortably ignore the comments knowing full well his team had the quickest car.
That was until 2021.
With Max Verstappen in the car and another Adrian Newey masterclass by producing the RB16B, Red Bull finally had a car to not only challenge Mercedes but make Wolff’s life a lot harder.
Soon the insults were flying in both directions as the most hotly contested season in recent Formula 1 history played out, Red Bull eventually winning the fight with Verstappen’s first World Championship.
In 2023, the roles have again swapped with Wolff and Mercedes in the hunter rather than the hunted role but Horner is never one to avoid a war of words.
Here are the biggest flashpoints between Formula 1’s odd couple:
Williams’ Wolff complains about Red Bull’s budget
Talk of cost caps and a warring Horner and Wolff may seem like a recent trend but the origin can be dated back a lot further.
Over a decade ago, the two were getting into it about a proposed cost cap known as the Resource Restriction Agreement.
The RRA was a gentlemen’s agreement between the teams designed to curb spending in several areas but it was not enforced by the FIA.
10 of the 12 teams wrote to the FIA encouraging them to get involved but one of the teams not pushing for a budget cap was the leading constructor both in the standings and the spending.
“Red Bull spends about 250 million per season,” Williams’ Toto Wolff noted in 2012.
“If he accepted the RRA, Mr Mateschitz would save a hundred million euros. Though without their unlimited spending model they would not have the same advantage.”
Horner though was not concerned about the opinion of an executive director from the team that would finish P8 that year.
“I feel very comfortable with our position,” he insisted.
“We have been very consistent regarding resource constraints, and if that disturbs others, then that’s their problem, not ours.”
The politicking between Christian Horner and Toto Wolff begins
While one-liners are often the most memorable parts of Wolff and Horner’s quotes, the two use the media for another purpose far more often: politicking.
F1 is the sport that is perhaps most at mercy to the teams involved in it and as such, they all have a big say in what direction the sport goes in, especially if they are nearer the front of the grid.
As such, both team bosses will often take to the media to reinforce points they may have made in private and one of the earliest examples of that from Horner and Wolff came in 2014.
With Mercedes having blitzed Red Bull to their first Constructors’ title and the first in the turbo-hybrid era, Horner was already trying to get the power unit regulations changed.
At the time, F1 was not in as a financially healthy state as it is currently with Marussia, Caterham, Sauber, Force India and Lotus either already out of business or facing an uncertain future.
But Horner wanted change when it came to power unit regulations which would have further jumped up the price. The rules stated the PU suppliers (Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault) could work on 92% of the engine up until 2015 but Horner wanted unlimited changes before a complete freeze in 2016.
Wolff and his Mercedes team understandably did not and described such changes as financial suicide.
“Nobody can really be in favour of an all-out engine war from 2016,” Wolff said.
“No serious company would allow that to happen and none of the current engine suppliers could allow that to happen because costs would escalate totally out of control.
“We will certainly be very vocal if it ever comes down to a situation that somebody opts for gloves off.
“We would make it very clear how irresponsible that would be for the sport in an environment where we have just lost two teams, where we are talking about financial hardship for some of the other teams.
“If somebody wants a gloves off, full-steam-ahead engine war, it would be irresponsible.”
Wolff would win out as engine regulations would stay as they were until 2022, by which time Mercedes had added eight Constructors’ titles to their trophy cabinet.
“There is this wall in Jerusalem that you can stand in front and complain, maybe the guys should go there.”
It was in 2015 when the tension really began to ramp up. As we all know, Horner is a master when it comes to press conferences and is approaching peak Jose Mourinho levels of mind games and in 2015, he was saying the very future of the sport is at stake should the FIA not step in to curb Mercedes’ advantage in what would become a parallel of the 2022 season.
Horner said the FIA should come up with some way of equalising Mercedes’ performance, suggesting interest in the sport would “wane” if nothing was changed and well, Wolff did not take too kindly to that.
“I think ‘just get your f***ing head down, work hard and try to sort it out’,” Wolff said angrily. “I didn’t mean the F-word in relation to him [Horner].
“If you come into Formula 1, try to beat each other and perform at the highest level and then you need equalisation after the first race – you cry out after the first race – that’s not how we’ve done things in the past.
“There is this wall in Jerusalem that you can stand in front and complain, maybe the guys should go there.”
Christian Horner says Toto Wolff has “his blinkers on”
It seems odd now that F1’s decreasing popularity was a talking point but in 2015 that was very much the case. With the legend that is Michael Schumacher out of the sport, fans were turning away from a sport that was in the stranglehold of Mercedes.
Red Bull had a particular interest in the matter as owners of the Austrian Grand Prix track and for that season’s event, they were expecting a 40% drop in attendance.
Horner than was pleading with F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone to make the sport more exciting but Wolff, whose team were thriving, believed there was no issue.
“There is no crisis,” he snapped back. “Children think you should be going backwards through the chequered flag like they do in The Fast and The Furious because that is spectacular.
“It is clear that the existence of phones and iPads means you will lose audience. But in some major markets like the UK and Germany we are one of the very few sports who have maintained or increased the market share.”
Horner responded by saying Wolff had “his blinkers on.”
“Toto has got his blinkers on. He’s got to be careful because he’s got to have someone to race. And an entertaining race at that.
“Forget our issues as a team, the show is not where it needs to be.”
Toto Wolff “totally wrong” to try to curb Max Verstappen aggressiveness
In 2016, Max Verstappen moved up to the Red Bull team and as such, one of the biggest topics of contention between Wolff and Horner would be introduced.
The Mercedes team have long had their issues with Verstappen’s perceived aggressive nature whereas for Red Bull, they could hardly find a driver who more closely fits their brand’s ethos.
But in 2016, Wolff perhaps tried to intimidate the young 17-year-old into changing his ways. After an opening-lap clash with Nico Rosberg, Wolff called Verstappen’s dad Jos to encourage a change of style.
Horner did not take kindly to the phone call.
“It’s totally wrong,” Horner told Autosport. “They’ve got their own business. To be meddling in other teams’… maybe he does that with Ferrari, but he shouldn’t do it.
“He’s got no right to tell Max how he should drive and conduct himself.
“Max is doing a great job in Formula 1 and he’s employed by us to do the best he can in the races.
“That’s not to wave a Mercedes through or not race it.
“I think Toto showed a certain naivety or arrogance to be calling a competitor team’s driver’s father.”
Christian Horner’s rallying call to new F1 owners
The pattern that established itself in earlier years continued into 2017 with existing problems continuing to cause friction.
Horner wanted change, campaigning to new F1 owners Liberty Media to do something, while an engine allocation from four down to three further annoyed the Red Bull boss.
The Brit described it as “barking mad”, a poignant point considering the Renault engine in the Red Bull car had plenty of issues with reliability.
Wolff, though, suggested it was a problem entirely of Horner’s own making.
“If it’s barking mad, they shouldn’t have pushed for a lower supply price,” Wolff said. “And we shouldn’t have agreed to give that in order to achieve lower supply price.
“We’re going to go down from four engines, which was bound in the regulations, to three engines. This is where we are – the regulations stood for four engines for next year – and we were perfectly fine for that.
“All manufacturers were pushed, let’s call it strongly encouraged, to optimise on the supply price – and this is what we did and this was the consequence. And everybody, as far as I remember who was on the table, was part of it.
“It’s a massive struggle for all of us, but it’s out of what we have discussed.”
2021, the year everything changed
The sniping from afar was very much the pattern during the late 2010s with Horner increasingly the more disgruntled party considering the gap between his team and the one much further up the road.
But the 2021 season changed everything. Even from the signs in pre-season testing, it seemed as if Red Bull finally had a car to challenge Mercedes.
It would be a year of not only immense rivalry from the teams but also their bosses for while the protagonists Verstappen and Hamilton rarely did their battles in the media, Horner and Wolff were not shy to do so.
The first contentious issue came at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in June where Mercedes were rumoured to be preparing a protest against Red Bull’s supposed “flexi” rear wing.
Horner had a simple response for his opposite number.
“I think if I was Toto with the front wing he’s got on his car, I’d keep my mouth shut,” he told Sky Sport F1.
“You’ve got some very bright technicians designing components to comply with the rules.
“That’s their job, that’s what we pay them for, that’s what Formula 1 is all about, that engineering ingenuity. If we want standard cars, then we’d be Formula 2.
“I think that’s part of what the competition in this sport is, pushing the boundaries. That’s what Formula 1 is all about.
“You’ve got to be legal, you’ve got to be within the rules, but you’ve got to push those boundaries. That’s what we, like every other team in the pit lane, does.”
Wolff hit back, handing out a rare personal insult by calling Horner a “windbag.”
“Christian is a bit of a windbag who wants to be on camera,” said the Austrian. “It’s about being punchy – it’s easy to be punchy when you’re on top of the timesheet, but he should be a little bit more modest I think.”
Wolff would later row back on the comment but it had proved one thing: Horner was under his skin.
It was not just in the press conference room either where Wolff’s anger was beginning to show. As the season went closer to the wire, Wolff came over the team radio to Hamilton after the Brazilian sprint race to say “f**k them all.”
Any ambiguity over who exactly he was referring to was put to bed when Wolff confirmed it was not to the F1 rule makers.
With F1 and the FIA sensing there was just as much drama to be enjoyed off the track as there was on it, both men soon found themselves being paired in a number of press conferences together.
Ahead of the penultimate round in Qatar and just a few feet away from him, Horner commented that when it came to Wolff he does not need to “kiss his arse” and that he would not be going to dinner with him anytime soon.
Wolff refused to get involved, insisting he was going to be “diplomatic” but Horner had no such intentions.
“There is no relationship,” he said. “There is a competition and I think it was interesting to hear Toto’s views after the sprint race last week on his team radio.
“Look, we are going to push to the maximum,” he continued.
“We worked hard to get into this position. It’s the first time they [Mercedes] have been challenged. It’s interesting to see how people react when they are under pressure, when they are challenged.
“It’s by far the most intense, political title fight we’ve been involved in in our time in the sport.”
Every insult, every one line, every piece of politicking all came to a head at that final race in Abu Dhabi. The story of that race is one that is well known and both Horner and Wolff played key parts especially in their calls to race director Michael Masi.
Red Bull were the winners in a moment that looked like it posed a far bigger threat to F1’s popularity than any of the complaints Horner had made a few years previously.
An appeal was submitted and later withdrawn by Mercedes and eventually the dust from the mushroom cloud settled, even if the radiation can still be felt years later.
Roles reversed with Mercedes now playing catch up
After the eruption in Abu Dhabi, F1 lawmakers will be happy the tensions have naturally subsided somewhat. Mercedes’ troubles with the W13 sent them tumbling down the grid at a time when Red Bull disappeared over the horizon, meaning battles in this decade-long war of words have become less frequent between the two but not entirely extinct.
The most memorable one came in front of the Netflix cameras.
Porpoising replaced flexi wings as the Formula 1 technical hot topic and a raging Wolff threatened to “come for” every team boss who prevented the issue from being eradicated.
“I can tell you that all of you are playing a dangerous game,” Wolff said in a meeting chaired by F1 president Stefano Domenicali.
“If a car ends in the wall because it’s too stiff or it’s bottoming out, you are in the **** and I’m going to come after you.”
As he typically does, Horner has a response for Wolff’s outburst.
“Well change your car. You’ve got a problem. Change your f***ing car!” the Red Bull boss said.
It was a reminder of just a year previous where everything seemed different and to this day, two of the three longest serving team principals on the grid are not afraid to say how they really feel if they think it will give them and their team an advantage.
If Mercedes can throw themselves back into the title fight again soon, expect the next chapters in this epic rivalry to be written very quickly.