Formula 1 returns to the Circuit of the Americas near Austin next weekend for what amounts to the first of four ‘dead rubbers’, at least in terms of the drivers’ championship.
But any sense of anti-climax will surely be scorched straight out of Texas by the firestorm created by Red Bull’s 2021 cost cap breach.
The ruling, delayed before the Japanese Grand Prix and announced the day after, is no surprise, of course. It was anticipated in a glare of publicity, much to team principal Christian Horner’s chagrin, by rivals Mercedes-AMG and Ferrari in Singapore earlier this month. But that doesn’t make its confirmation any less incendiary.
“Minor” though the breach might be, and as vigorously as the team contests it (can you really be ‘unpregnant’ in such matters?), the judgement still undermines – fairly or otherwise – everything Red Bull has achieved in the past two years, and further discolours Max Verstappen’s first world title already tarnished by the tawdry events on that notorious night in Abu Dhabi last December.
But more seriously, the crisis threatens to undermine the foundations of F1 itself. The whole ethos of modern grand prix racing is built on the cost cap. If a team is found guilty of breaking it and isn’t punished severely, we could be looking at a house of cards scenario. It’s devastating – but sadly all too depressingly predictable that at least one team would find itself in such an uncomfortable spotlight. It’s in the DNA of F1 teams to push the boundaries of any rule. Why should this one be any different?
SYMPATHY FOR THE CHAMP
I’m writing on the Monday after Suzuka, in the wake of the FIA’s statement. Details of Red Bull’s offence remain vague, and the same goes for the potential punishment. Transparency is required, for Red Bull as much as anyone. The team has also committed a ‘procedural’ breach – late with its submitted paperwork – as has Aston Martin.
Williams committed something similar earlier in the year and was fined $25,000 (£22,600). Red Bull’s main offence, suggested to be in the region of a 5% overspend – around $7.25m (£6.53m) – has far greater consequences. Even by F1’s old bacchanalian excesses, it’s a serious amount of money that, as Lewis Hamilton pointed out with a glint of mischief, could make a difference.
Among the thoughts swirling, there has to be more than a grain of sympathy for Verstappen. After all, he’s not the team’s accountant. Just as he was blameless in the Abu Dhabi travesty, it’s a shame his achievement this year might be overshadowed by something out of his control. Verstappen has been supreme in 2022 and fully deserves his second world title.