Formula One’s budget cap row escalated on Saturday with Red Bull threatening legal action against Mercedes unless their rivals withdrew “hugely defamatory” remarks made on Friday appearing to suggest Red Bull might have breached last year’s budget cap.
Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, was incensed after his opposite number at Mercedes, Toto Wolff, claimed on Friday that Red Bull’s 2021 accounts had been “investigated for weeks and months”. The Austrian called on motorsport’s world governing body, the FIA, to come down hard on any team found guilty of breaching last year’s $145million [£114m] cap.
Certificates of compliance are due to be issued next Wednesday, with two teams rumoured to be in breach of the cap. If found guilty, the FIA in theory has the power to dock teams’ points from the season in question, making this row particularly explosive as Red Bull’s Max Verstappen won last season’s title by a handful of points over Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton after huge drama at the final race in Abu Dhabi.
Speaking ahead of Sunday's Singapore Grand Prix, Horner said Red Bull would “look seriously” at their legal options, and also questioned how rivals Mercedes and Ferrari seemed to know so much about their 2021 audit. “We don’t even know if we’ve breached the cap yet,” he said. “We believe we are fully compliant. They are bang out of order.
“The process is still ongoing as the FIA said very clearly in a statement last night. They don’t complete the process until next week.
“We take umbrage [at Wolff’s comments]. We believe we are fully compliant. And anyway how on earth do they have this knowledge? Unless there is a clear withdrawal we will take extremely seriously all [legal] options available to us. They are bang out of order."
Wolff dismissed Horner’s threat as “noise”. Horner added that Mercedes may be trying to stir up trouble to mask their own “lack of performance this year”.
“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” he concluded. “Is it any coincidence that Max [Verstappen] has his first shot [at winning this year’s drivers’ championship] this weekend?”
Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, has escaped censure for wearing a nose stud in Singapore this weekend, in contravention of the FIA’s ban on jewellery. Hamilton explained to stewards that he tried to take the stud out over the summer only for his nose to become infected, developing a blister filled with “blood and pus”. Hamilton said he had a doctor’s note, though Mercedes were fined €25,000 for a false declaration to the stewards.
Wolff calls for 'robust punishment' if salary cap has been breached
On Friday, Wolff called on world motorsport’s governing body, the FIA, to come down hard on Red Bull if they are found guilty of breaching last year’s budget cap, saying it would be a “massively heavyweight” violation of the rules and demanding a “robust” response.
News broke in the paddock on Friday that two teams were in danger of being declared non-compliant with the cap of $145 million which was introduced last year. The FIA is due to complete its auditing process and issue certificates of compliance next Wednesday.
Red Bull and Aston Martin were the teams named in media reports in Germany and Italy, with one of the breaches said to be “minor” and the other “material”. The cost-cap regulations define an overspend of less than five per cent as “minor” and more than that as “material”. Both denied the allegations.
There are a range of penalties available to the FIA should it find anyone in breach, including points deductions if there are any aggravating factors such as “bad faith, dishonesty, wilful concealment or fraud”.
Points deductions would be the nuclear option. Last year’s championship denouement was already one of the most controversial in history with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen pipping Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton to the title but only after then FIA race director, Michael Masi, withdrew a late safety car with one lap remaining of the final race in Abu Dhabi, effectively handing the Dutchman the title. Masi was subsequently found to have erred in doing so and relieved of his duties.
While there is no serious expectation that the result of that championship will be overturned, any breach of the financial regulations would further sour Verstappen’s title win.
Horner admits there are grey areas
Red Bull clearly believe their rivals are stirring up trouble for them at a sensitive moment in the season, with the Dutch driver on the verge of a second successive drivers’ title. Red Bull’s team principal, Horner, speaking after first practice on Friday, insisted the submission put in back in March was “below the cap”, although he did concede that there were clearly grey areas. “It is a brand new set of very complicated regulations, so how rules are interpreted and applied inevitably are going to be subjective between the teams and as the years go by things will get tidied up,” he said. “But we are confident in our submission. There are always going to be rumours – I’ve heard of major breaches but I’m certainly not aware of that.”
Wolff expressed his surprise at that claim, and denied that this was just “the usual playground politics”.
“It’s heavyweight, it’s massively heavyweight,” Wolff told Sky Sports F1. “We are using ‘used’ parts. We are not running what we would want to run. And we are not developing what we could be developing. We have made more than 40 people redundant that are dearly missed in our organisations.
“It was a huge, mammoth project to make the cap. I don’t know how many tens of millions we had to restructure processes in order to be below the cap, and if someone has been not doing that or pushing the boundaries, every million [over the cap spent] is a massive disadvantage [for us].
“I find it funny that Christian says [Red Bull are below the cap] because it’s been weeks and months they are being investigated, so maybe he doesn’t speak to his CFO.”
Wolff added that it would be “massively” difficult to catch up to a team who broke the cost cap, given the extra benefit they would have gained, and called on the FIA to be “robust” in its application of the rules. “The crucial part is that if you’ve been over in 2021, then you’ve been over in ‘22. That means you have an advantage into ‘23,” the Austrian said. “The FIA, particularly Mohammed [Ben Sulayem, FIA president], have shown a pretty robust stance on enforcing all kinds of regulations.
“So, I think if we’re talking now about something big, he will show the same integrity and leadership that he’s done before.”