There was little chance that the 2015 F1 season was going to be any lower on rancour than the one that preceded it. After all, almost none of the causes of the said rancour had gone away in the meantime, nor even had much done to alleviate them.
But still, even we hardened cynical sorts may have been surprised at the amount of rancour F1 managed to squeeze into the opening weekend in Melbourne just passed. First of all, and in advance of a wheel being turned, we had a lamp swung over Sauber’s dark dealings by Giedo van der Garde, something again traceable to the familiar matter of a lack of cash. A team principal being led out of the circuit in handcuffs was a genuine possibility for a time.
And we could later add to it Manor’s no-show and its fallout, Red Bull’s very public denunciations of its engine supplier Renault, and then the pitiless on-track demonstration by Mercedes that this year if anything it is further ahead of the band of pretenders the are politely referred to as the chasing pack.
The last two factors listed also were likely not unrelated to the final insult provided after the chequered flag fell. That, according to team boss Christian Horner, Red Bull ain’t happy. The regs are all wrong. It wants a leg up to where the Mercs are.
“When we were winning, and we were never winning with the advantage they [Mercedes] have, I remember double diffusers were banned, exhausts were moved, flexible bodywork was prohibited, engine mapping mid-season was changed,” said the Red Bull boss. “Anything was done [to slow Red Bull down], and that wasn’t unique to Red Bull. Whether it was Williams in previous years or McLaren, I think it is healthy to have a situation [of closing the field up].
“The FIA, within the rules, have an equalisation mechanism; I think it’s something that perhaps they need to look at.”
And in another matter likely not unrelated, Red Bull power broker Helmut Marko added that “We will evaluate the situation again [in the summer] as every year and look into costs and revenues. If we are totally dissatisfied we could contemplate an F1 exit.
Not quite fighting with the frontrunners this year
“Yes, the danger is there that [Red Bull owner] Mr Mateschitz loses his passion for F1.”
But they didn’t get a lot of sympathy. The firm consensus among observers was that Red Bull was a bunch of sore losers, whining, ‘throwing the dummy’.
And even though it was all rather redolent of Ferrari in its bad old days, not even the current Scuderia boss empathised: “Our job is to attack Mercedes on the track,” stated Maurizio Arrivabene in response, “not to change the rules.”
While Mercedes’s Toto Wolff advised Red Bull instead to “get your head down, work hard and sort it out” (and a few quoted him in prose that was a little more, erm, colourful than that).
Some suspected we’d heard it all before too. Early last year there was a similar quit threat from Mateschitz in disgust at the regs. While if we rewind to 12 months before that we had the Milton Keynes squad willing apparently to seek to prevail with fighting off track as well as on, with its repeated public scorn of the Pirelli tyres. Just like then too Horner et al demonstrate a weakness for couching argument in ‘for the good of F1’ terms, when it doesn’t seem implausible that it had occurred that the team would benefit competitively also. Someone even managed to dig out some Horner quotes from mid-2010 wherein he argued for, yes, engine equalisation.
Plenty accused Red Bull’s top brass of hypocrisy too. The team of course had dominated for years, and oddly this sort if chat was largely unforthcoming then. And that it didn’t take the longest of spells of not winning for this reaction to emanate didn’t reflect well either.
So an open and shut case? Well, I’ll whisper it, but in my view not entirely. I’ve actually got some sympathy with much of their argument.
Of course, the first point to make is that in the sense of sporting merit Mercedes absolutely deserves its time in the sun right now. It simply has taken a set of regulations that everyone knew was coming and done a far better job with them. Even in this close season, when presumably it was further along its learning curve than any other, it somehow moved further away. There’s not even anything so far as we can tell particularly underhand in how it’s done it (unless you believe the murmurings that the customers aren’t quite getting the Merc grunt that the big team is), perhaps in contrast to Red Bull in its pomp which was well known for its sometimes creative exploitation of the loophole.
The firm consensus among observers was that Red Bull was a bunch of sore losers
– Graham Keilloh
And the team’s power unit supplier Renault of course also cannot deny that Ferrari from a not too dissimilar starting point in 2014 has jumped clean over it in the off-season. Plus Red Bull wasn’t even the fastest Renault-powered car out there in Melbourne…
Equally though Horner isn’t denying the point of Mercedes being deserving. On the contrary in among his comments after the race last weekend he went out of his way to pay tribute: “Take nothing away from Mercedes, they have done a super job,” he said. “They have a good car, a fantastic engine and two very good drivers”.
And as for the claim that no one at Red Bull asked for this when it was winning while that’s true neither is Mercedes arguing for it now. Where you stand depends on where you sit, as the adage goes.
As for equalisation, it seems as Horner suggests there is indeed a mechanism for this in kicking around in the regulations somewhere. Bernie for one thinks so, as indicated when commenting in the support of Red Bull thus: “There is a rule that I think [the former president] Max [Mosley] put in when he was there that in the event…that a particular team or engine supplier did something magic – which Mercedes have done – the FIA can level up things. They [Mercedes] have done a first class job which everybody acknowledges. We need to change things a little bit now and try and level things up a little bit.
“What we should have done was frozen the Mercedes engine and leave everybody else to do what they want so they could have caught up. We should support the FIA to make changes.”
The Renault powered Red Bull is no match for the Mercedes
There has been some debate as to which particular regulation Bernie (and Horner) is referring to however. Article 2.5 of the technical regs on “New systems or technologies” states that at the end of a season in which a new technology or system has been run the “Formula One Commission will be asked to review the technology concerned and, if they feel it adds no value to Formula One in general, it will be specifically prohibited.” But applying it here seems a stretch, given it’s not clear that the Merc has anything ‘new’ as such setting it apart.
While appendix four of the sporting regulations, on engine homologation, contains what is known as the “fair and equitable rule” though it had been thought this was applicable to new manufacturers entering F1 rather than to existing engines.
But whatever is the case equalisation has been done before, such as in late 2008 when Renault was allowed to catch up with the other engines. For a time now the unspoken assumption and aim at least of the engine regs, including with the new-fangled ones introduced for last year, is that eventually they will become pretty samey.
And even if you concede that equalisation more generally isn’t done formally it has definitely been done informally, and repeatedly over the last couple of decades or so. Horner is absolutely right that various reg changes brought in during the 2010 and 2013 era of Red Bull potency were almost certainly thinly-veiled attempts to haul the Bulls in.
Not that Red Bull should feel especially picked on; over the past 20 years or so mentioned pretty much whoever’s been out front could expect similar treatment. One thinks of the curious about turn to ban the mass damper system in mid-2006 which rather clipped the Renault’s wings, McLaren’s brake-steer falling by the wayside in early 1998, all the way back to the Williams dominance in 1992 and 1993. Then various rules changes – outlawing electronic ‘gizmos’, narrowing the tyres, even the introduction of the safety car – all had bringing the Grove cars back into the pack in mind. Even Ferrari in the 2000s, a squad known – or notorious – for its close relationship with the powers that be, can point at various changes apparently designed to scupper them: single lap quali, effective outlawing of qualifying cars, even one year banning in-race tyre changes. Horner’s right too that so far there has been very little attempt to do the same to the Merc. You can perhaps therefore understand why he feels a little sore about it.
As for whether it’s desirable to do such an equalisation, well that exposes the perennial tension that exists in F1 between sport and entertainment. Unfortunately you often can’t have your cake and eat it on that, sometimes the promotion of one militates against the other. Ultimately F1 is a sport, but if no one wants to watch it F1 will be set for a fall. You can make a coherent case that last year had it not been for Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg being so evenly-matched our season wouldn’t have been too far away from one of the miserable Schumi demonstration campaigns of the early 2000s, those which often plunged F1 into sheer crisis. And while I’m determined not to panic too much after a single tepid race this season, again it feels a lot like the sport is relying on a competitive intra-Merc fight if we are to not get into a debilitating cycle of recrimination that was so narrowly avoided early last season.
Mateschitz wants to find a way out and sell up
– Adam Cooper (Journalist)
There also is a crucial difference between the Red Bull domination of recent past and that now of Mercedes. The Bulls’ glory days were based in large part on aero, and there were no explicit regulation limits on any team’s aero development; no reason as such why they couldn’t do exactly what the Bulls were (ignoring the Bulls’ vast budget and ability to call upon the genius that is Adrian Newey). Its aero advantage all just reflected that Red Bull was very good at it.
Yet now Merc’s domination is based at least somewhat on its very fine power unit. And now in an attempt to keep a lid on engine development spending we have by regulation part of the engine design frozen – currently eight per cent of each unit can’t be changed – and what development there is severely restricted by rationing of ‘tokens’; this year 32 of them, allowing 48% of the engine to be altered, are permitted for each unit. These numbers decline gradually year-on-year to an absolute zero in 2020. They also are the same for everyone regardless of the starting point. And from this highly uneven base arguably it is serving to keep engines apart. Granted, as noted Renault even within this framework is doing very badly in its own terms. Granted too, engineers insist that things aren’t as restricted as the numbers imply. But you could argue equally that it’s an equivalent of when Red Bull had a much superior chassis all teams being told that they weren’t allowed to alter their front wing designs.
Whatever is the case however quit threats are harder to justify. If nothing else one can imagine what they sound like if you are one who works for the team. I’ve heard it said that last year when Mateschitz aired his public threat to walk away for his employees it was the first they’d heard of it…
But again this time the matter might not be that simple. For one thing the grapevine has it that Red Bull is more minded to sell its two teams on rather than simply leave them hanging (Audi’s been linked with purchasing Red Bull and Renault with Toro Rosso recently).
While it’s also been suggested that this isn’t as simple as Red Bull ‘sulking’, more that as a company its funding of a very expensive F1 effort is reaching its natural conclusion. One it was likely bound to reach at some point whatever the on-track results.
Adam Cooper outlined this on Twitter: “Some people [are] missing [the] point on [the] Red Bull story. This is not about empty threats, or Marko and Horner lobbying the FIA. Dietrich Mateschitz has had enough and spent enough, and he wants to find a way out and sell up. End of.
“It won’t happen overnight, but that’s where Mateschitz is heading, and of course Bernie is well and truly in the loop on it. Again to make it clear, it’s not about ‘pulling out’, it’s about Red Bull selling both RBR [Red Bull] and STR [Toro Rosso] as going concerns to the right buyers.”
In a way it doesn’t surprise either. Without wishing to sound pejorative Red Bull – unlike Williams, McLaren, even Ferrari – is not in racing as its raison d’etre; it is in racing as part of its marketing. Therefore it’ll only continue in F1 if it feels its spend is justified in those terms.
And there always was going to be law of diminishing returns for it over time as all grew accustomed to Red Bull’s presence, as ‘newness’ faded, to reach a point where the company felt it wasn’t anymore getting bang for the considerable buck. One thinks of the case of Benetton in the 1990s which has plenty of parallels with Red Bull, which too achieved championship success only to then experience a similar downward curve before pulling out, wherein it seems the company thought simply that the F1 team had outlived its – very expensive – usefulness.
Possibly not even continued winning and championships would avert this (indeed, in its own way it would encourage it too). The only thing a lack of competiveness likely does is accelerate the idea.
And with this, we might have the beginnings of understanding why Horner is keen right now to slow the idea down. Whatever it takes.