Mercedes, Red Bull play nice ahead of F1 championship

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Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands talks to his team members during practice for the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

ABU DHABI – Toto Wolff and Christian Horner barely looked at each other when they sat side-by-side three weeks ago discussing the Formula One championship.

Their frosty relationship thawed briefly 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.

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“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 Masi 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.”


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