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Horner fed up as Wolff makes Verstappen 2026 pitch

by Josh Suttill, Edd Straw
6 min read

Mercedes Formula 1 boss Toto Wolff ramping up his public pursuit of Max Verstappen in the aftermath of the Chinese Grand Prix has earned a sharp rebuke from Wolff's Red Bull counterpart Christian Horner.

After diagnosing another miserable weekend in China with a car that Wolff admits is both “difficult to drive and set up”, talk in the Austrian's post-race media session at the Shanghai circuit quickly turned to how Wolff would convince Verstappen to join a team that maximises its grand prix and still finishes sixth.

Wolff made it clear that he understands that any hope Mercedes has of finally landing the driver it painfully missed out on to Red Bull a decade ago doesn’t rely on its current performance.

“There are so many factors that play a role for a driver joining [a team],” Wolff said when asked about what Mercedes has to do to convince Verstappen.

“Clearly when you look at it from the most rational point of view, you can say 'well, that's the quickest car in the hands of the quickest driver'.

“But I don't think that this is the only reason you stay where you are. For, let's say, simple minds, that might be the only reason why you stay in the car and that's it. But maybe there's more depth to some people that consider other factors, too, and I think Max has more depth.

“Are we [able] to convince him? I don't think it's a matter of convincing, Max knows motor racing better than anyone. He will take decisions that he feels are good for him.

“And I think a few factors play a role but he's the one that is going to trigger some more domino stones to fall after but everybody is waiting for what he's going to do.”

Horner: Wolff has bigger problems than drivers

Christian Horner, Red Bull, F1

Horner’s media debrief of another race dominated by Verstappen began with Horner shutting down any suggestion Verstappen would leave.

“If you speak to Max - and it’s not about pieces of paper, we know he has a contract until the end of 2028, it's about how he feels in the team and the relationship he has in the team and the way he’s performing," Horner stressed.

“I don’t think Toto’s problem is with his drivers, he’s got other elements that he needs to be focussing on rather than focussing on drivers that are unavailable.”

Verstappen was asked at the start of the Chinese GP weekend, as he routinely is every event, to confirm he’s still committed to seeing out his contract with Red Bull.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, F1re

“I signed after 2021 a long deal with the team, the only thing I've said from the beginning is that we want to have a quiet, peaceful environment,” he said.

“I do think lately we've been talking about the car, very happy about that already - that we're talking about the performance of the car. Also how it should be.

“As long as I'm happy with the team, never been a reason to leave.”

When asked if Verstappen needed to be firmer still in shutting down talk of an exit, Horner replied: “I don’t know how many more times he needs to say it, he’s said it numerous times.

“I’m not going to get drawn into…I think sometimes it’s just designed to create noise.

"We moved ahead today of the races Mercedes has won in the modern era [117 in total for Red Bull, 116 for Mercedes excluding its nine 1950s wins]. Of the teams in form, why on Earth would you want to leave this team?

“Mercedes are the third team behind their customers [McLaren and Aston Martin] at the moment, so I think his [Wolff's] time would be better spent perhaps focussing on the team, rather than the driver market.”

When it was put to Horner that Verstappen’s position was ambiguous, Horner said: “I can assure you there is no ambiguity about where Max Verstappen will be next year.”

All about 2026?

This isn’t the first time Wolff has openly courted Verstappen this year. In Melbourne he admitted Verstappen was his number one pick to replace Lewis Hamilton, having already said before he’d “love to have” the Dutchman in the team.

But in Shanghai he’s made it clear it would be all about Mercedes proving it will be a strong force during F1’s next rules revolution in 2026.

Wolff even admitted “if I was Max I would stay at Red Bull in 2025 because it’s the quickest car but there are other factors” - namely the prospects for 2026.“I don't think anyone can sell anything to Max, Jos [Verstappen, father] and Raymond [Vermeulen, manager], their combined understanding of motorsport, [whatever you say] isn't going to change anything,” Wolff said.

“I believe it's a question of how they feel where the future is best for them, considering a lot of factors.

“I think we're in a very good position for 2026. We are ambitious with the targets we've set ourselves for the power unit, for the battery, for the fuel and I think if we're able to produce a decent chassis, we're a good-value proposition - but who knows?”

Horner was asked for Red Bull’s 2026 progress but interjected impishly: “Have you heard George Russell is out of contract at the end of 2025? Maybe he might not be so keen into 2026. The market moves around.”

George Russell, Mercedes, F1

Horner then addressed the matter at hand: “For 2026 we don’t even have the chassis rules yet.

“If I was going to back any team to get the chassis right, I think we’ve got a reasonable track record. We've taken on a new project with the engine, we’ve got some exceptional people, an incredible facility. For sure it’s very bold, it’s brave and it’s pretty ballsy.

"Red Bull wouldn’t have won 117 races and done what we’ve done without making bold decisions. We believe it will pay off.”

Wolff declined to use Mercedes stealing a march on the field the last time F1 overhauled both the car and engine in 2014 as a huge selling point: “We got that right but there’s no guarantee we’re going to get it right in 2026.”

He said 2014 had been a “journey into the unknown" while 2026 is far more similar to the current regulations than 2014 was to what came before.

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, Mercedes, F1

“I’m really not good at selling to be honest. It is down to facts, overselling something in order to attract someone or something isn’t the right way,” Wolff said.

“We’re having a development trajectory, we’ve set ourselves ambitious targets that we believe are necessary in order to perform on a strong level.

“These are facts on current understanding but obviously if there is someone from our current competitors that develops a [promising] project, who knows? I’m not good at convincing, I just say what I think it is.”

What about Antonelli?

Andrea Kimi Antonelli, FRECA

Mercedes still looks on track to put its teenage sensation Kimi Antonelli into the car next year, subject to his Formula 2 season and extensive private testing programme progressing well enough.

Wolff’s very public courting of Verstappen doesn’t change that - it’s simply a reflection of what any team would do to get its hands on F1’s dominant driver.

Antonelli is effectively Plan A and Mercedes is very serious about making him a centrepiece of its long-term future but it would tear up any pre-laid plans in a heartbeat to accommodate Verstappen.

Verstappen is one of few drivers who could go to Mercedes and be confident he isn’t a placeholder for Antonelli. A driver like Carlos Sainz doesn’t have the same luxury.

Antonelli is therefore still the most likely candidate to replace Hamilton but that won’t stop Wolff of dreaming of finally signing Verstappen, regardless of how many times Verstappen himself and particularly Horner shut it down.

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