Christian Horner has accused his Mercedes rivals of trying to tarnish Max Verstappen 's reputation in the build-up to this title-deciding Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The Red Bull chief believes the Silver Arrows are purposefully trying to paint his star driver in a bad light to put pressure on the stewards to punish him more harshly should there be any more drama between him and title rival Lewis Hamilton in the final race of the year.
The pressure is already high at the Yas Marina Circuit, ahead of the conclusion to one of the tightest and most entertaining title fights in F1 history.
Hamilton and Verstappen are exactly level on points heading into the Grand Prix – something which has only happened once before in the sport.
But things have turned ugly between the two title race protagonists in recent weeks, with several high-profile incidents on the track and, after last weekend's Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, all pretence that there was no bad blood fell away.
In a post-race interview, Hamilton accused Verstappen of being one of the most "over the line" racers he had ever come across in almost three decades in motorsport.
That came after Hamilton had reacted to incidents within the race by describing his rival as "f***ing crazy" and labelling him a "dangerous driver" over team radio.
And, a few weeks prior, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said he believed we might see a Senna/Prost moment where one title rival takes out the other to win the championship – a scenario which would only benefit Verstappen as he has the slender advantage of having won more races this season.
Horner believes the whole thing is an attempt to paint Verstappen in a bad light in order to force the stewards into a decision, should the scenario arise in the final race.
"Of course it’s been a concerted campaign by Mercedes, totally," he said. "It’s been part of a narrative to put as much pressure on the stewards to act differently from any other race.
"This is a campaign that’s been driven covertly to put the spotlight on Max, give him a tag-line, portray him as this mad, irresponsible driver, put as much pressure as you can on him, on the team, and ultimately on the governing body.
"We saw in Brazil, the comments about the penalties being laughable, or Lewis being persecuted. Mercedes have got one of the smartest media arms in the paddock and they use every tool they can."
Should a scenario arise where a driver is suspected of deliberately trying to run the other off the road, the FIA has confirmed that championship points could be deducted as a punishment.
But Horner says this would be unprecedented and unfair in this season, and refused to rule out the scenario of Red Bull taking legal action if his racer were deducted points for any reason.
"You’ve got to look at the context," he added. "The one thing you’re looking for is consistent application of the rules, and why is this Grand Prix different from any other Grand Prix that we’ve attended this year?
"You've either got rules or you haven’t. What makes this any more or less important than Silverstone, or Spa, or Hungary, or Monza? We’ve had incidents in a lot of places this year.
"The issue with [race director] Michael Masi and the points deduction, that has been percolating since Toto Wolff gave that interview.
"You’ve got to apply the rules consistently. I think this is what Max feels a little frustrated about. At times he feels, when he looks at other incidents, they’re not treated in the same manner."
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