I ought to be clear that the story linking Aston Martin, Red Bull Racing and Mercedes in Formula 1, which broke on the eve of the British Grand Prix on Saturday, was a collaborative effort with the team at autosport.com, with the balance of credit belonging to them.
In particular, it hinges around one source who cannot be named today lest his identity be uncovered, but who deserves full recognition if the deal comes off in the fulness of time.
But what a story it is: in simple terms we are linking Aston Martin to a deal that would put their logo back on a Formula 1 car for the first time since 1960 and lead to a sensational switch from Renault to Mercedes AMG power units for the Red Bull Racing team.
Inevitably, our story made quite an impact and caught the Formula 1 paddock off-guard, prompting many to denounce it without bothering to dig too hard. For the benefit of them, and hopefully for you, here’s some context.
The story first came together around the Goodwood Festival of Speed a week ago. Strictly speaking, it’s not new news; Formula 1 correspondent Joe Saward – formerly of this parish – had been hinting at a deal involving Aston Martin and a Mercedes-engined team since late last year. But we had good reason to believe the deal had taken a big step towards reality.
Between Goodwood and last Saturday evening we tried to put the jigsaw of facts and fiction together. Then, as now, there were an awful lot of pieces that needed to come together to make the story a reality - but at every turn there was confirmation that the parties involved were set on a path to at least trying to find a way to make it happen.
I’ve no doubt there are agendas at play; there always are in F1. To reach the end goal requires some significant shifting of legally binding contracts, let alone positions and posturing. But, in case you missed it, the story we wrote says only that the parties are talking about such a deal - not that it has been done.
I am still confident in the story’s claims that Aston Martin is willing to discuss having its name on a Mercedes-powered car, that Mercedes is willing to let that happen and that Red Bull Racing is very open to the possibility of Mercedes power. Three clear statements - although not, I must admit, necessarily adding up to to a Mercedes-powered Red Bull with Aston Martin backing.
There is fog around the positions of the Mercedes Grand Prix team and the wider Mercedes-Benz senior management. I sense that the idea of Aston sponsoring Williams, Lotus or Force India may be more palatable to the F1 personnel than the idea of putting an engine in a Red Bull, which Aston then happens to sponsor.
Originally, I’d been assured that senior Mercedes board members (i.e. the ones who pay the bills) were comfortable with the idea of an Aston Martin and Red Bull tie-up. Subsequently, though, I’ve been assured that they would only make a decision on that in consultation with Toto Wolff, a shareholder and CEO of the F1 team, as well as the man who runs all Mercedes-Benz motorsport activities, and Niki Lauda, who has a non-executive position on the board of Mercedes High Performance Powertrains.
That’s an intriguing dynamic in itself and one into which I don’t have any insight, although I would say that, in my experience, racing folk almost without fail significantly over-estimate their power within the parent company by a significant margin.
Now, to set the record straight. Firstly, I’ve been accused of being played by Aston Martin, with the claim going that they planted the story with me to make some headlines around the British Grand Prix.
I’m not into revealing sources, but I see no harm in saying that Aston Martin made no comments to me, other than responding when I put the story to them. Tellingly, I think, they didn’t deny it but instead stated they had no comment to make - as published in our story.
Second, after the story broke Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff told the press that we had claimed the deal would result in the powerplants being branded as Aston Martin units - something he made a point of saying would never happen, and which came across to me as a means of discrediting the story. At no point did we make this claim - we have always been clear that the engines would be Mercedes units, but that the cars would carry Aston Martin branding.
To be fair to Wolff, however, we did not specifically run the story past him or members of his team before publishing it. The team at Silverstone asked only if Mercedes would be prepared to consider a broader deal with Aston Martin branding, which they confirmed they would. It is fair to say the Red Bull angle may have been a twist that Wolff was not expecting.
On Sunday morning, Niki Lauda also went on record to rubbish the story, and other Mercedes officials moved fast to say it had no substance.
But then the tide started to turn, albeit in slightly convoluted fashion.
Wolff held a question and answer session with Mercedes guests at the grand prix. One of the guests sent me a recording. The essence of what Wolff said when asked if there was any truth in the story was this: "We must be open-minded. Our number one objective is to win the world championship. At the moment I would say I cannot see a situation of us supplying an engine to our number one enemy, but maybe we need to recalibrate who our number one enemy is tomorrow and next year."
At the end of the interview, the man asking the questions laughed and added, “so that’s a no, then”. But then I stopped and listened to Wolff’s comments again. Quite plainly, it wasn’t an out-and-out no. To claim so was wrong. The Mercedes folk might have wanted that to be the answer, but it wasn’t.
As you can read in our post-race update on the story here, Wolff, speaking to the Autosport team, has since reiterated his comments, while Red Bull boss Christian Horner has also left the door ajar for discussions. I am told that Wolff’s comments were made in the spirit of ‘never saying never’, as opposed to embracing the idea, but that’s still a shift from where Lauda was on Sunday morning.
To me, that feels like a lot of doors that are ajar - and the original sources have restated that belief over the course of today. To reiterate: Aston Martin have said “no comment” not “no way”. The boss of Mercedes F1 has said he is “open” to such a deal. And the boss of Red Bull Racing has declined to rule it out as a possibility.
How will it end? Let’s acknowledge now that it may not happen. All we have written is that talks are happening - and I remain confident that they are. However, as stated above, the number and complexity of the hoops that need to be jumped through are significant.
The ongoing contract between Red Bull and Renault needs to be sorted out, Mercedes would have to agree to give Red Bull an engine – and the signs are that the racing team side of the operation doesn’t want to – and then Aston Martin would have to want to sponsor this new operation.
If it doesn’t happen with Red Bull, I still think we may see Aston Martin branding on the side of an F1 car. Company boss Andy Palmer knows from brokering the Infiniti deal with Red Bull the benefits - particularly in Asia – of aligning with F1 to raise brand awareness.
But, of course, as I sit here now, there is a very real chance of nothing at all coming of it. But better, I think, to have sourced, checked and rechecked the validity of a story and broken it than to have sat worrying about what might happen three months down the line.
And until then, I’m inclined to invoke the old adage about there being no smoke without fire.