Toto Wolff claims "sympathy for Max" motivated phone call to Jos Verstappen
Jos Verstappen took a phone call from Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff this week and the conversation has sparked a fresh controversy in the F1 pad...
Jos Verstappen took a phone call from Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff this week and the conversation has sparked a fresh controversy in the F1 paddock on the eve of the penultimate race.
All of this is excellent news for championship leader Nico Rosberg, as it has diffused all the tension that would normally be focussed on the title contenders at this point. He has been able to keep his head down and get on with his work without the glare of media and other attention this weekend on him and Lewis Hamilton - when otherwise the pressure would be significant.
The running narrative about the Mexican Grand Prix penalties has now morphed into a story about one team boss ringing the father of another team's driver and Rosberg can only laugh at his good fortune once again.
Wolff criticised Max Verstappen in Mexico two weeks ago for his aggressive wheel banging move on Nico Rosberg at the start, which pushed Rosberg off track, missing the apex of Turn 2.
"As refreshing as it is, and how ruthless the great ones are, if you race the championship leader three races to the end, wheel banging is not what should happen," he said at the time.
During the week he called Jos Verstappen for a chat. Wolff might have predicted that Verstappen Sr would recount the tale of the phone call to Red Bull team management Christian Horner and Helmut Marko. And predictably Horner had something to say on the subject,
"I think Jos was a bit surprised when he put the phone down to Toto that not only was he commenting on behalf of Mercedes, but Ferrari as well that the way Max was conducting himself wasn't winning him any favours and he should wind his neck in," said Horner.
"I've not heard of a team principal calling up other driver's fathers before, but obviously Toto felt the need to do so.
"I think it is total rubbish. If Toto wants to have a race for his drivers we can do that at 11am then we can have the grand prix at 2pm where everybody can race.
Meanwhile Marko went off the deep end in the media about it,
"It's getting more and more absurd," he said. "I have never experienced such interference before. To call the father of a driver to manipulate him I think is bad form.
"If Mr Wolff wants something from us, he should contact the people at Red Bull and not the father.
"We are driving our own race. "It's not as though we're being lapped, in which case you could understand if we are asked to make room."
Wolff met with the media after qualifying in Interlagos to explain why he made the call and what was said.
"Max is spontaneous, exciting, he's just what the doctor ordered for F1," said the Austrian. "He contributes a lot and the last thing he should do is change his approach.
"I didn't say that he should move out of the way [so as not to interfere with the title race]
"What I discussed with Jos was two things; he has had a negative spin in some of the media which is unfortunate, I felt Jos being at all the races was important for Max.
"The second thing I said was that with two races to go to the end, if an accident were to happen with Lewis or Nico it would add to the negative spin in the media; so that is best avoided. So it was out of sympathy for Max [that I spoke].
"It was a private discussion that was dragged out in public."
What does it all mean?
There are several things going on here. One is that the Verstappens negotiated with Wolff two years ago over Max joining Mercedes in a development role with a view to coming into F1 in 2016. Red Bull offered him a Toro Rosso race seat for 2015 and clearly some promises that he would move up to Red Bull Racing after a couple of years. In fact he made that move after little more than a year and won his first race for the team.
Verstappen Sr had a good feeling with Wolff going back many years, but Wolff has also criticised Max's attitude and behaviour on a couple of occasions, prior to Mexico. If Verstappen goes on to be the benchmark driver in F1 he will be one who slipped through Wolff's and Mercedes' net. Since then Wolff has moved to promote several young drivers with Estaban Ocon placed at Manor and now on his way to Force India for 2017, Pascal Werhlein at Manor. And recently Wolff moved in on GP2 front runner Antonio Giovinazzi, who may soon be placed in an F1 seat.
There is also the dynamic between Verstappen Sr and the Red Bull Racing team, which has its ups and downs as with many 'determined' racing fathers. Jos was an ever present with Toro Rosso, but has attended few races since Max made the move to Red Bull. Perhaps encouraging Jos to come to more races will anger Horner and Marko as a piece of interference more than Wolff's oblique reference to the negative spin surrounding a theoretical crash with a title contender.
Max Verstappen is a tough nut and it's unlikely that any of this will make any impression on him at all. It has some similarities with football managers like Jose Mourinho making comments about a referee before an important match. It doesn't sway them, but the idea is to place something in their minds.But in this case, it has all the hallmarks of a bit of gamesmanship and wind-up. Horner walked past the Mercedes hospitality area while Wolff was addressing a room full of media and thumbed his nose, then made a telephone signal with his thumb and little finger extended, to much amusement.
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